New way to predict environmental impact of agNew way to predict environmental impact of ag
LCAs offer systematic way of determining potential environmental impacts of product, from source materials to disposal.
April 21, 2017
Consumer goods companies often rely on life-cycle assessments (LCA) to figure out the potential consequences of how they design products and source ingredients. This kind of assessment, while sophisticated, often lacks detail about how the products affect natural resources such as land, water and biodiversity, according to an announcement from Stanford University.
A team of researchers from Stanford and the University of Minnesota, in a partnership called the Natural Capital Project, along with researchers from Unilever's Safety & Environmental Assurance Centre, have developed a new kind of assessment to integrate these impacts in a more detailed way. The new assessment is called Land Use Change Improved Life Cycle Assessment (LUCI-LCA). It's designed to help researchers or companies more accurately predict impacts of new designs and sourcing.
The researchers tested this new assessment by evaluating the potential environmental impacts of two bio-plastic products that could be produced from sugarcane grown in Mato Grosso, Brazil, or from corn grown in Iowa. The LUCI-LCA approach — which includes more specific data about the regional land composition than the traditional LCA — came to different conclusions about which option would be more environmentally responsible. The group published the results in the April 21 issue of Nature Communications.
"The size and reach of multinational companies is stunning, on par with that of many nations," said Gretchen Daily, professor of biology at Stanford and senior author of the paper. "When we think about how to bring human activities into balance with what Earth can sustain, corporations have a major role to play in decoupling economic growth from environmental impact."
LCAs offer a systematic way of determining potential environmental impacts of a product, from source materials to disposal. Results from these assessments often inform decisions companies make about product design, material and technology choices and sourcing strategies. An incomplete or inaccurate assessment could lead to well-intentioned but environmentally damaging decisions, the researchers said.
One problem with a standard LCA is that it represents the average land composition of the country from which materials will be sourced. So, in this case, it assumes that Mato Grosso contains the same proportion of rainforest as all of Brazil and that sourcing sugarcane from that state would lead to deforestation of the Amazon. Daily and her colleagues made improvements that allow for more refined assessments using data relevant to the exact regions from which materials would likely be sourced, taking into account predictions about future impacts to the environment.
"In reality, from the modeling that we did, it looked like most of the expansion of agriculture in Mato Grosso would happen in the savannah, whereas in Iowa, if any expansion happens, it will likely mean expanding into forest," said Rebecca Chaplin-Kramer, research associate at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and lead author of the study.
While the standard LCA showed that the Mato Grosso sugarcane would lead to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the more spatially sensitive LUCI-LCA found that the carbon footprint of the Iowa corn was larger. In addition, while the traditional LCA found that the corn would result in more water use than the sugarcane, LUCI-LCA found that the sugarcane would use more water — 900% more.
"This work has major implications for anybody involved in product innovation, commodity sourcing or policy setting for new land development," said Ryan Noe, a researcher with the National Capital Project at the University of Minnesota and co-author of the paper. "Where that sourcing comes from matters, and it's not really being captured with the approaches being used."
The researchers hope that the stark and significant differences between the results of the two LCAs will encourage companies and policy-makers to adopt the new approach for decision-making.
"Our ultimate mission is to get this kind of information — this spatially explicit value of nature — to people and to have the impact on natural capital included in as many different kinds of decisions as possible," Chaplin-Kramer said.
It took the team substantial time and effort to pull together the data necessary for this case study. However, with increased interest, they believe they could develop a more streamlined tool that would require little manual work.
You May Also Like
Iowa turkey flocks confirmed with HPAIOct 23, 2023
Current Conditions for
New York, NY
Enter a zip code to see the weather conditions for a different location.
Colostrum in New York Holsteins: Metabolic Indicators and affected by prepartum nutritionNov 16, 2023
Michigan Milk Producers Association announces strategic investment in GoodSport NutritionNov 28, 2023
Emerging domestic disease threatsNov 29, 2023
Soybeans climb on South American weather woesAug 01, 2023