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Comparison of production-phase environmental impact metrics derived at the farm- and national-scale for United States agricultural commodities

Last modified December 14, 2015 09:34

Comparison of production-phase environmental impact metrics derived at the farm- and national-scale for United States agricultural commodities

Agricultural production is critical for human survival and simultaneously contributes to ecosystem degradation.There is a need for transparent, rapidmethods for evaluating the environmental impacts of agricultural production at the system-level in order to develop sustainable food supplies.We have developed amethod for estimating the greenhouse gas (GHG), land use and reactive nitrogen inputs associated with the agricultural production phase ofmajor crop and livestock commodities produced in theUnited States (US).Materials flowanalysis (MFA) and life cycle assessment (LCA) techniques were applied to national inventory datasets.The net anthropogenic nitrogen inputs (NANI) toolbox served as the primary accounting tool for LCAandMFA.NANIwas updated to create links between nitrogen fertilizer and nitrogen fixation associated with feed crops and animal food commodities. Results for the functional units kilogram(kg) of product and kg of protein for 2002 data fall within ranges of published LCAresults fromfarm-scale studies acrossmostmetrics. Exceptions include eutrophication potential formilk andGHGs for chicken and eggs, these exceptions arise due to differingmethods and boundary assumptions; suggestions for increasing agreement are identified. Land use for livestock commodities are generally higher than reported by other LCAstudies due to the inclusion of all land identified as pasture or grazing land in theUS in this study and given thatmost of the estimates fromother LCAs were completed in Europewhere land is less abundant.Themethod provides a viewof the entireUS agricultural systemand could be applied to any year using publically available data.Additionally, utilizing a top-down approach reduces data collection and processing timemaking it possible to develop environmental inventorymetrics rapidly for system-level decision-making.

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