Physical sciences, Earth sciences

Better environmental assessments

An EU study developed new methods for assessing the ecological effects of Europe's food and drink production. The team showed that most methods cannot cope with regional variation, then recommended database changes and developed a software tool.

The food and drink sector is important economically to Europe. Yet, the sector also strongly impacts the environment, being responsible for up to 30 % of Europe's greenhouse emissions and perhaps 75 % of eutrophication.

The EU-funded SENSE (Harmonised environmental sustainability in the European food and drink chain) project aimed to deliver a sector-specific system for environmental impact assessment. Goals included evaluating existing methodologies and delivering an integrated system linking regional monitoring and traceability data. The system was intended to incorporate a certification scheme.

Study of harmonised impact assessment methodology yielded several conclusions. Firstly, farm production has the greatest effect; hence, total life-cycle impact depends on farm stage variations. Additionally, impact varies regionally. A review determined that most existing methods are unsuited to regional complexity, potentially leading to errors and uncertainties. Also, it is difficult to obtain inventory data having the required spatial resolution.

Investigation of energy flows established that databases need updating to address regionalisation. Hence, the team concluded that certain land-based models and assessment methods were not yet appropriate for regionalisation, while several water-related others were suitable.

Researchers established that while environmental issues can be linked to particular products, social issues link to certain companies. As such, social and environmental data collection and assessment are not comparable.

An investigation of public communication showed that while consumers might wish to act sustainably, they do not know whether their actions are sustainable. Also, many different perceptions of sustainability exist. The situation creates dilemmas for consumers, with implications for the project approach.

A new software tool simplifies data collection. Project-developed guidelines also assist small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) through the process. To establish comparability, the tool was tested on three real cases where life-cycle assessment had been previously completed. The validation phase was successful and the tool was consequently recommended for assessment use in several food sectors. The final outcome was a policy and governance roadmap for implementation.

The SENSE tool helps SMEs participate in improving the environmental and social sustainability of the food and drink sector. It reduces costs and improves efficiency while also helping businesses comply with laws and guidelines.

Source: © European Union, CORDIS, www.cordis.europa.eu
last modification: 2016-02-04 12:04:04



Study in English