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A Change Is Gonna Come

Recent analysis proposes new spatially explicit land-use change approach to lifecycle analysis
Sugarcane production in Mato Grosso, Brazil, Photo by CIFOR (Flickr/Creative Commons)

There is no doubt about it: if you’ve dabbled in corporate sustainability work, you’ve inevitably stumbled across a lifecycle analysis at least once or twice.

Lifecycle analysis or “LCA” is a common tool used by corporations and researchers alike to quantify the total or “net” environmental impact of products and their supply chains from cradle to grave. They have become ubiquitous in an increasingly global marketplace, where demand for sustainable sourcing is greater than ever.

However, when applied to agricultural commodities, existing LCA methods are not without drawbacks. Previous approaches have rarely been spatially explicit or accounted for the indirect effects of cropland expansion and intensification under increased production scenarios.

New research published in the April edition of Nature Communications–led by The Natural Capital Project’s Becky Chaplin-Kramer and Unilever’s Sarah Sim–improves the LCA approach in precisely these ways. The new work provides and tests a protocol that incorporates the net effect of increased production in an agricultural supply chain LCA.

The new methodology, dubbed “Land-Use Change Improved-Life Cycle Analysis (LUCI-LCA),” considers local landscape configurations, drivers of change, and ecosystem services impacts from both agricultural expansion and intensification, allowing a more precise understanding of how agriculture affects the endpoints of climate, water, biodiversity, and human well-being. LUCI-LCA’s spatially explicit modeling framework draws on NatCap’s InVEST software to predict finer scale life cycle impacts from the agricultural supply chain than a standard LCA approach.

In a real-world example, the researchers describe a rising international demand among industry for bio-based high-density polyethylene, or HDPE, a widely-used plastic historically made from petroleum. With rising crude oil costs, it has become more attractive to produce HDPE from plant-based materials. But this can lead to intensification and expansion of cropland needed to produce enough biomass to meet demand for that HDPE production. The LUCI-LCA models compare the environmental impacts of intensified production of two key crops for bio-based HDPE: maize in Iowa, USA, and sugarcane in the west-central state of Mato Grosso, Brazil. The team assessed impacts of increased production of these two crops on water consumption, biodiversity, erosion, eutrophication, and global warming.

Maize production in Iowa, Photo by Carl Wycoff (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Maize production in Iowa, Photo by Carl Wycoff (Flickr/Creative Commons)

A key take-home from this research is that location matters—the levels of impact of intensified production on ecosystems and the services they provide to people depend not only on agricultural practices, but also on where they occur.

“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.

Their research shows intensified production of Brazilian sugarcane is projected to have a larger impact on Brazilian water consumption than Iowan maize would on Iowan water consumption. In contrast, intensified production of Iowan maize could more heavily impact local biodiversity, erosion, eutrophication, and global warming. Accordingly, LUCI-LCA highlights an indirect relationship between production scale and environmental impact—a crop can be more sustainable than others in a low-production scenario such as sugarcane in Mato Grosso, but less sustainable than others under a higher production scenario of maize grown in highly-cultivated Iowan landscapes.

Ultimately, understanding how the net impacts of agricultural commodities stack up depends on not only on how, but also on where they are grown. This demonstrates just how important approaches like LUCI-LCA will be to other forward-looking companies that seek to better assess the range and magnitude of impacts that their supply chains have on environmental outcomes.

The research collaboration between Unilever and NatCap was made possible by grants from Unilever Research and the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation. The partnership and journal article entitled “Life cycle assessment needs predictive spatial modelling for biodiversity and ecosystem services,” was also featured in a recent piece by Taylor Kubota, Stanford News Service.

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