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Assessing the Sustainability of the US Food System: A Life Cycle Perspective

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The US food system, from field to table, is at a crossroads for change. Improving the sustainability of this complex system requires a thorough understanding of the relationships between food consumption behaviors, processing and distribution activities, and agricultural production practices. A product life cycle approach provides a useful framework for studying the links between societal needs, the natural and economic processes involved in meeting these needs, and the associated environmental consequences. The ultimate goal is to guide the development of system-based solutions. This paper presents a broad set of indicators covering the life cycle stages of the food system. Indicators address economic, social, and environmental aspects of each life cycle stage: origin of (genetic) resource; agricultural growing and production; food processing, packaging and distribution; preparation and consumption; and end of life. The paper then offers an initial critical review of the condition of the US food system by considering trends in the various indicators. Current trends in a number of indicators threaten the long-term economic, social, and environmental sustainability of the US food system. Key trends include: rates of agricultural land conversion, income and profitability from farming, degree of food industry consolidation, fraction of edible food wasted, diet related health costs, legal status of farmworkers, age distribution of farmers, genetic diversity, rate of soil loss and groundwater withdrawal, and fossil fuel use intensity. We suggest that effective opportunities to enhance the sustainability of the food system exist in changing consumption behavior, which will have compounding benefits across agricultural production, distribution and food disposition stages. 2002 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.

Research Areas
Food & Agriculture
Food Systems and Consumer Products
Publication Type
Journal Article
Digital Object Identifier
Full Citation
Heller, Martin C. and Gregory A. Keoleian. 2003. Assessing the sustainability of the US food system: a life cycle perspective. Agricultural Systems 76: 1007–1041.