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Incentives for Change

Eutrophication Product Footprinting

Eutrophication indicators will help New Zealand agribusiness reduce environmental impacts and meet expected new European environmental standards

EU mock product footprint label

What Did We Do?

In future, the European Commission may require all products supplied to Europe to have data on their environmental footprint. This would include a product’s contribution to ‘eutrophication’ – the environmental problems that can be caused by an excess of nutrients, such as nitrate and phosphate, entering bodies of water.

Current methods are insufficient to accurately calculate how a product, such as milk, contributes to eutrophication at all stages of its lifecycle, from pasture to consumer. As a result, it’s difficult to calculate the full environmental footprint of agricultural products.

Product Eutrophication Footprinting scientists worked with international researchers to develop eutrophication impact assessment models that can be applied in every country. These will allow the full environmental footprint of agricultural products to be calculated and compared, using methods set by the European Product Environmental Footprinting initiative.

This research will help producers lower the environmental footprint of products, and therefore raise their value, increase demand from customers, and provide opportunities to reach new markets.

How Can The Research Be Used?

  • This project identified how New Zealand agribusinesses might be rewarded for high environmental quality, potentially qualifying them for market incentives such as tax credits or payments for ecosystem services.
  • Research in this project was linked with results from a meta-analysis of research that defined the likely premium for beef with low environmental emissions to Europe. This indicated that a price premium has potential to offset costs from constraints on farm systems to meet water quality limits.
  • New Zealand case studies of meat products exported to Europe, produced in major catchment areas such as Lake Taupō and the Waikato River, have helped Product Eutrophication Footprinting scientists understand the benefits and the opportunities of marketing New Zealand products internationally.
  • Farm system and environmental modelling of Taupō Beef through the life cycle to a European consumer has been carried out. Our model helps identify environmental hotspots and has been used to evaluate options for reducing environmental emissions.
  • Our researchers have been involved in testing the European Product Environmental Footprint of New Zealand dairy and red meat products.
  • Dr Sandra Payen, from the Product Eutrophication Footprinting team, was appointed co-chair of the United Nations Environmental Programme/Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (UNEP/SETAC) Life Cycle Initiative Task Force on Eutrophication in January 2018. Through this, the Product Eutrophication Footprinting project has contributed to the final recommendations for standards published by the UNEP in October 2019. This report is expected to influence market assurance schemes.

In the Media

Our Land and Water takes on agricultural challenges

Irrigation NZ News, Autumn 2019 (page 37)

"The meta-analysis showed that European customers were willing to pay an additional 30% or so for beef with the lowest environmental footprint.”

Tread lightly: Understanding water footprints

Stuff, 26 November 2018

“​Ledgard says as competition for water increases, water footprints could help guide debates about the best way to use the limited resource“


Community Involvement

  • Liaison with members of the Secretariat of the Livestock Environmental Assessment and Performance (LEAP) partnership about implications of global application of eutrophication impact indicators in life cycle assessment of livestock supply chains from New Zealand to Europe, particularly the need to account for both nitrogen and phosphorus.
  • Liaison with members of the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative Task Force about developing internationally-agreed indicator methods and increasing awareness of issues relevant for New Zealand.
  • Seminar with NIWA scientists to discuss methodological aspects and analysis using NZ catchment model CLUES.
  • Sandra Payen co-chaired the eutrophication/acidification task force at the Pellston workshop in Spain, organised by the UNEP/SETAC Life Cycle Initiative.

Team Snapshot

Research Outputs


Eutrophication and climate change impacts of a case study of New Zealand beef to the European market

Sandra Payen, Shelley Falconer, Bill Carlson, Wei Yang, Stewart Ledgard
Science of The Total Environment, March 2020

Beef production in the Lake Taupō region of New Zealand is regulated for nitrogen (N) leaching. The objectives of this study were to 1) evaluate the implications of nitrogen emission limitations on eutrophication and climate change impacts of NZ beef through its life cycle to a European market and uniquely link it to 2) estimation of the reduction in these impacts that can be funded by the consumer's willingness to pay (WTP) a premium for a low environmental-impact product. Comparison with published environmental footprint of beef from Europe showed lower climate change and eutrophication impacts for NZ beef, thus showing potential positive environmental attributes for NZ beef. The European consumer's WTP (32% price premium) for such a beef product with low environmental impacts could offset the cost to farmers for implementing the reduction of N emissions.


Global Guidance on Environmental Life Cycle Impact Assessment Indicators – Volume 2

Sandra Payen (co-author, Chapter 3: Acidification and Eutrophication)
Produced by the Life Cycle Initiative, UN Environment

Life cycle impact assessment (LCIA) approaches for the characterisation of acidification and eutrophication aim to trace the fate of an acidifying or eutrophying emission, the degree to which a sensitive environmental receptor is exposed, the effect of that exposure, and the severity of the effect. Chapter 3 of this international UNEP guide provides guidance towards consensus in modelling approaches and indicators that capture impacts from acidification of terrestrial systems and eutrophication of freshwater and marine systems.


Application of Eutrophication Potential Indicators in a Case Study Catchment in New Zealand

Sandra Payen, Stewart Ledgard
The 10th International Conference on Life Cycle Assessment in the Agri-Food sector, October 2016

The objective of this work was to determine the effects and implications of Eutrophication Potential indicators in the lifecycle assessment of livestock farm systems using a Lake Taupō catchment case study. A range of indicators were assessed and compared, then related to the actual nutrient limitations of the lake to understand the effects of choice of indicator.

Nitrogen and phosphorus modelled in freshwater eutrophication: The director’s cut

Sandra Payen, Nuno Cosme
LCA Food Conference, July 2018 | AgriFood Asia 2018

Most Life Cycle Impact Assessment (LCIA) methods to date estimate freshwater eutrophication impacts from phosphorus (P) only. There is a need to account for the contribution of N to freshwater eutrophication as well. We developed Fate Factors (FFs) for both dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) and dissolved inorganic phosphorus (DIP), distinguishing emissions from soil and emissions to freshwater. Preliminary emission-weighted global average FFs are (in days) FF_soil_DIN = 117; FF_river_DIN =251; FF_soil_DIP = 21; FF_river_DIP = 241. The fate model is consistent with recent advances in marine eutrophication impacts assessment and complements such an approach.


Adaptation of water eutrophication indicators for European Product Environmental Footprinting of NZ products

Sandra Payen, Shelley Falconer, Bill Carlson, Wei Yang, Stewart Ledgard
New Zealand Soil Science Society, December 2018

Book Chapter

Modelling impacts of agriculture on freshwater

S. Pfister, S. Payen
Assessing the Environmental Impact of Agriculture, Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing, August 2019

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