Life Cycle-Based Sustainability Indicators for Assessment of the U.S. Food System
The United States 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. The product life cycle system is 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 report 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 report then offers an initial critical review of the condition of the U.S. food system by considering trends in the various indicators.
Multiple threats to the long-term vitality of the U.S. food system demonstrate that the current system is not economically, socially, or environmentally sustainable. Key indicators supporting this conclusion 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 intensity. We suggest that the most 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.