Harvesting of soybeans in Mato Grosso, Brazil

Harvesting of soybeans in Mato Grosso, Brazil. Photo: Herbert Pictures / E+ / Getty Images .

There is a story behind every product or service that we consume. Products are manufactured from raw materials before being shipped, packaged, stored, purchased, used and disposed of or recycled.

Life cycle assessment (LCA) is the established scientific method used in industry to quantify the potential impacts of products and services across all of these lifecycle stages. It calculates the resources used and emissions to soil, air, water at each stage following steps outlined in the ISO 14044 international standard  with the objective to inform product and supply chain decisions.

A growing number of LCAs for food products now attempt to highlight the spatial variability of environmental impacts from both changes in agricultural practices across regions and the effects of such practices on regional environmental conditions (e.g. soil, water). Impact assessment guidelines from the UN Environment Life Cycle Initiative’s Global Guidance on Life Cycle Impact Assessment Indicators  propose to include biodiversity loss and water scarcity as additional impact categories (alongside e.g. climate change, acidification, eutrophication, etc.). These additional impacts vary geographically and therefore require regionalised information to differentiate effects across ecoregions and river basins. For example, the impact of 1 cubic metre of water can differ across river basins with varying levels of water scarcity.

However, detailed regional information is not always available to the LCA practitioner for the entire life cycle of a product, especially in cases where agricultural commodities are used as inputs into more complex food products. For instance, meat produced and consumed in the EU uses animal feed that contains soy sourced from a variety of countries , such as Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and a wide range of ecoregions and river basins. In the absence of detailed information on the soy supply chain, a practitioner will typically use high-level national data which will not be able to highlight the geographic variability of impact assessment results.

Enabling regionalised LCAs

As a potential solution, we propose a ‘commodity supply mix’ to provide a level of regionalisation that balances scale and resolution to differentiate impacts across ecoregions and river basins as proposed in the guidelines.

The commodity supply mix is constructed using information on supply chains such as data. Trase is an ideal candidate for deriving commodity supply mixes for LCAs for three reasons: (1) Trase’s supply chain maps link locations of production (e.g. municipalities in Brazil) to international markets such that information on land and water use can be allocated to specific product life cycles in places of consumption; (2) Trase’s supply chain data focuses exclusively on forest-risk commodities thereby allowing for a focus on priority regions in LCAs; (3) the resolution of Trase’s supply chain maps can highlight specific geographic areas of concern.

Our peer-reviewed article, published recently in Environmental Science and Technology in collaboration with the International Reference Center for Life Cycle of Products, Processes and Services  (CIRAIG), shows how this approach could work using the example of Brazilian soybean which is both consumed domestically and exported to China and the EU among others.

Despite a similar land area used to produce the average tonne of soybean exported (see figure, left), the potential impacts on biodiversity vary based on the ecoregion from which soybean is sourced (see figure right).

Life cycle inventory and potential damage to biodiversity.

For one tonne of soybean domestically consumed in Brazil and exported to China, the EU, France, and the rest of the world (RoW) in 2017. Credit: Trase Earth .

Increasing the use of Trase data in LCAs

As previously shown with carbon footprints of soy , Trase data can already provide a detailed breakdown of carbon emissions considering stages of production and export, including emissions from maritime transport. A commodity supply mix using Trase data complements this approach, as it offers a means to provide more spatially explicit information for LCAs in cases where the LCA practitioner does not know exactly the source of a commodity serving as an input into its product lifecycle.

“The potential benefit for the LCA community is that, even with limited information, LCA practitioners can still include a level of spatial variability in their impact assessments without necessarily defaulting to national data.”

— Michael Lathuillière, SEI Senior Research Fellow, Data Scientist for Trase

Our next step is to apply the commodity supply mix of Brazilian soybean to the LCA of a ‘real world’ product that would use the commodity as an ingredient, such as soy-based feed in a meat product, to explore how to further operationalise the methodology with practitioners and accelerate the uptake of Trase data in LCAs. Following this, we will be working towards making commodity supply mix information from Trase data more accessible to the LCA community.

To reference this research paper, use the following citation: Lathuillière, M., & West, C. (2021). Trase enhances life cycle assessment with ‘commodity supply mix.’ Trase. https://doi.org/10.48650/N1VD-FS80