Knowledge for better food systems

The role of science in agricultural climate mitigation

In this paper, FCRN members Pip Brock and Daniel Tan examine how Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is used as a tool for informing resource-use decisions. They contend that two different schools of thought - natural resource management and planning theory - would benefit by learning from each other.

Natural resource management generally takes a so-called rational-comprehensive approach to decision-making, whereby people attempt to think of every possible course of action, tally up the costs and benefits of each approach, and select the optimum approach. Planning theory, in contrast, often focuses on making step-by-step changes that meet the interests of people affected by each action, rather than aiming for a predetermined optimum state.

Two problems faced by LCA practitioners include: 

  1. Deciding how to allocate impacts between two or more co-products of a single process, and 
  2. accounting for knock-on effects that might occur in markets when production levels of one item change. 

Brock and Tan argue that planning theory can be applied to LCA. Regarding allocation of impacts between co-products, a planner (practitioner of planning theory) would rather include affected stakeholders in discussions about how scenarios might play out when different allocation methods are used, rather than trying to find the best or most precise allocation methods. 

Regarding accounting for market changes, planners might be concerned that LCAs could be seen as more authoritative than they really are, because predicting market substitutions and shifts is highly uncertain. Planners would rather use a series of different LCA scenarios as an input for decision-making, rather than seeking one complete LCA and basing decisions on that one LCA.




Natural resource management theory has been informed by disciplines such as ecology, agricultural science, economics and engineering; but much less so by the literature of planning and public administration. This paper demonstrates that applying an incremental view to what is traditionally seen as a rational-comprehensive discipline provides insights into resource management theory and practice, including adaptive management.


We show how current theory and practice in natural resource management are not aligned to the degree that is routinely presumed. In particular, the prevailing focus on optimality creates conflicts, especially during democratic decision-making, whereas adopting a participatory-incremental hybrid approach should provide a superior solution, which is discussed here in the context of Life Cycle Assessment by resource managers.


Resource management tends to be both incremental and participatory; and whilst decisions are strongly informed by science, on reflection, the process of formulating decisions is rarely rational-comprehensive. We suggest greater retrospective analysis of resource management decisions at a theoretical level. This may result in adoption of a theoretical framework which better supports practice, a reduction in tensions between those trained in the arts and sciences; and more ‘freedom’ in practice, through a softening of the focus on optimality.



Brock, P.M. and Tan, D.K., 2020. A second-take on the role of science: the case for applying public administration theory to natural resource management. Sustainable Earth, 3(1), pp.1-12.

Read the full paper here. See also the Foodsource chapter Environmental impacts of food: an introduction to LCA.

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This region of Oceania comprises Australia, New Zealand, the island of New Guinea, and neighbouring islands in the Pacific Ocean. Its ecozone forms a distinct region with a common geologic and evolutionary history which has resulted in a set of unique types of animals and plants. Due to the reverse seasonality with the US and Europe, much food produce is exported to these countries in the winter from Australia and New Zealand. Except for the lush rainforest of Queensland and the east, much of the Australia is arid and unsuitable for arable agriculture. The country is considered highly vulnerable to climate change and associated impacts including droughts and wildfires.

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