Using integrative design and LCA to improve food value chains: the case of farmer's bread in France

Michal Kulak, Agroscope
Thomas Nemecek, Agroscope
Emmanuel Frossard, ETH Zurich
Gerard Gaillard, Agroscope

LCA studies reveal emission hotspots and a practitioner may suggest opportunities for improvements. However, the range of possible options is limited by his knowledge as well as creativity. The true potential for environmental optimisation can be revealed by the use of transdisciplinary methods. Whole System Design (integrative design) is an approach that has its roots in the field of industrial design. The concept emphasises the importance of collaboration and finding synergies between elements of system architecture to develop more sustainable solutions (Charnley et. al., 2011). This study used LCA to asses, to what extent can resource use and emissions from food supply chains be reduced by employing integrative design approaches.

The study was based on a detailed analysis of a case study – bread from alternative food network in France. Primary data were collected from two farmers who cultivate mixtures of cereals under the condition of low-input farming, process grains on farm and sell products to the consumer. Farmers were given results of their product LCA for feedback and an interdisciplinary workshop was organised to map out opportunities for improvements. Participants included breeders, agronomists, representatives of seed companies and farmer’s associations. Results of the workshop were consulted with producers. To increase the probability of adoption, only solutions that were approved by farmers were considered in further LCA simulations. Improved systems were compared to normative references (initial situation) as well as a generic reference, assumed as the bread made of conventional wheat from the region, processed in an industrial bakery and sold in the supermarket.

The workshop gave rise to a range of improvement possibilities. Management suggestions included i.e. switching varieties, optimising rotations or installing anaerobic digestion units. Farmers rejected some but were able to propose other scenarios, such as increasing the proportion of rye in the bread recipe. Conservative modelling of improved systems demonstrated potential reduction of at least 47% in the global warming potential at one farm and 40% for aquatic eutrophication at the other one. Overall, improved bread from one farm was characterised by lower energy use, global warming potential, ozone depletion, acidification, eco-toxicity and phosphorus use than the generic reference and higher aquatic eutrophication and land competition. The bread from the improved second farm had lower energy use, terrestrial eutrophication, eco-toxicity and phosphorus use, but higher results of the remaining impact categories.

Based on the present case study of bread, it can be concluded that resource efficiency in alternative food supply chains is limited by the lack of innovation, suboptimal management and the lack of access to reliable environmental information. Integrative approaches coupled with LCA can be very effective in overcoming these barriers.


This study was supported by the EU grant KBBE-245058-SOLIBAM.


Charnley, F., Lemon, M., Evans, S., 2011. Exploring the process of whole system design. Design Studies 32, 156-179.