Assessing environmental impacts associated with freshwater consumption along the life cycle of animal products: the case of Dutch milk production in Noord-Brabant

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Abstract

Purpose - The assessment of water footprints of a wide range of products has increased awareness on preserving freshwater as a resource. The water footprint of a product was originally defined by Hoekstra and Hung (2002) as the sum of the volumetric water use in terms of green, blue and grey water along the entire life cycle of a product and, as such, does not determine the environmental impact associated with freshwater use. Recently, several papers were published that describe building blocks that enable assessment of the site-specific environmental impact associated with freshwater use along the life cycle of a global food chain, such as the impact on human health (HH), ecosystem quality (EQ) or resource depletion (RD). We integrated this knowledge to enable an assessment of the environmental impact associated with freshwater use along the life cycle of milk production, as a case for a global food chain. Material and methods - Our approach innovatively combined knowledge about the main impact pathways of freshwater use in life cycle assessment (LCA), knowledge about site-specific freshwater impacts and knowledge about modelling of irrigation requirements of global feed crops to assess freshwater impacts along the life cycle of milk production. We evaluated a Dutch model farm situated on loamy sand in the province of Noord-Brabant, where grass and maize land is commonly irrigated. Results and discussion - Production of 1 kg of fat-and-protein corrected milk (FPCM) on the model farm in Noord-Brabant required 66 L of consumptive water. About 76 % of this water was used for irrigation during roughage cultivation, 15 % for production of concentrates and 8 % for drinking and cleaning services. Consumptive water use related to production of purchased diesel, gas, electricity and fertiliser was negligible (i.e. total 1 %). Production of 1 kg of FPCM resulted in an impact on HH of 0.8¿×¿10-9 disability adjusted life years, on EQ of 12.9¿×¿10-3 m2¿×¿year and on RD of 6.7 kJ. The impact of producing this kilogram of FPCM on RD, for example, was caused mainly by cultivation of concentrate ingredients, and appeared lower than the average impact on RD of production of 1 kg of broccoli in Spain. Conclusions - Integration of existing knowledge from diverse science fields enabled an assessment of freshwater impacts along the life cycle of a global food chain, such as Dutch milk production, and appeared useful to determine its environmental hotspots. Results from this case study support earlier findings that LCA needs to go beyond simple water volume accounting when the focus is on freshwater scarcity. The approach used, however, required high-resolution inventory global data (i.e. especially regarding crop yield, soil type and root depth), and demonstrated a trade-off between scientific quality of results and applicability of the assessment method.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)193-203
Number of pages11
JournalThe International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
Volume18
Issue number1
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2013

Keywords

  • lca
  • resources
  • footprint
  • land

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