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EarthShift Global Team Contributes to Updated ecoinvent LCI Database for Key Crops

The non-profit ecoinvent Association is one of the world’s most important sources of life-cycle inventory data, and version 3.10 of its database will include new state-specific US agricultural data for four important food crops assembled by a team from EarthShift Global.

For the first time, life cycle assessment (LCA) practitioners will be able to access impact data on grain corn (maize), soybeans, sweet corn, and potatoes based on the state in which the crop was grown — an important distinction, because types and quantities of machinery, fertilizers, water use, and other production factors can vary substantially. System boundaries are shown in Fig. 1.

Figure 1 — System boundaries for the state-specific crop impact research effort; product treatment (grain drying and potato grading) was not included in the data collection process.

“Currently the ecoinvent data for US corn and soybeans is a nationwide average. Breaking it out by state can be much more accurate,” explains senior sustainability analyst Juanita Barerra, who led the two-year effort for EarthShift Global. “In some cases the difference is quite significant, with order-of-magnitude variations from the national average on several state-level impacts.”

Fifteen different states were included in the data-gathering process (Fig. 2), which drew on sources from the US Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency, and Geological Survey, as well as a variety of state-level agricultural and environmental agencies. Public data from local extension offices was also incorporated, especially for the potato and sweet corn research, as was information from the non-profit Agriculture and Food Systems Institute.

Figure 2 — Four crops and 15 states were included in the research project, to provide new levels of detail and accuracy for LCA practitioners.

One key advancement, notes Juanita, is the inclusion of background information on assumptions and calculations in comments on the input and output data. This allows practitioners using the data to trace how the calculations were developed and make adjustments as appropriate.

“For example, tracking use of manure was very challenging,” says Juanita. “It’s one of most controversial inputs, but the most recent available data was from 2013, so it could be inaccurate. Adding information about that in the comments allows people to see where the quantities involved can affect the results of the study they’re doing.”

The effort also required collection of substantial new data on production equipment, adds sustainability analyst Miguel Hernandez. “As we did the research, we found issues with the equipment information and as a result had to obtain publicly available and reviewed data for each type of machine.” That complete and up-to-date inventory will shed substantial new light on crop impacts.

The ecoinvent Association calls out the new regionalized agricultural data in its announcement of the release of its updated database planned for November 2023.