Getting Started

Land cover change due to agricultural conversion may be an important driver of change in your study region. If you choose to examine an agricultural LCA, consider which of the crops (described below) are grown – or may be potentially grown – in your region. From the themes and crops described below, you may wish to conduct a comparative LCA among several different food crops, compare different biofuel options, or even contrast the impact of food and biofuel production in your region. If you can design a project that incorporates the specific crops listed below, you’ll increase your chances of successfully finding the information you need.

Some agricultural LCAs will be somewhat straightforward; thus, you will likely be asked to compare 3 crops (or situations) for an agricultural LCA project and/or include the likely impact of prior land cover conversion.

The previous lab from our Geomatics module using the EarthStat program may be helpful to revisit as you ponder the ideas below; however, EarthStat results are not a substitute for finding more specific information for your case study location.



Conventional & Subsistence Crops

Intensively cultivated crops: maize, wheat, rice, oil palm, sugar cane, cotton, coffee.

Subsistence staples: maize, cassava, wheat, sweet potato, and rice.

The following are useful examples of agricultural LCAs:

– Biswas, W.K., Barton, L., & Carter, D. (2007). Life cycle global warming potential of wheat production in Western Australia. Paper presented at the International Conference on Climate Change, Hong Kong.

– Renouf, M. (2006). LCA of Queensland cane sugar – lessons for the application o fLCA to cropping systems in Australia

– Kelly, J., Macdonald, A., & Wilkes, T. (2010). Life Cycle Analysis of Tomato Production. CHBE term paper. The software used in this paper is actually available for those who wish to try it.

Advanced Ideas: Based on the primary agricultural crops at our case study locations, some further ways to consider an agricultural LCA can be based around the system used and the crops cultivated. Are they grown in monoculture or intercropped? Are there seasonal crops or crop rotations? Are high yielding intensive systems more or less impactful than low yielding extensive systems? How can land use change and agroforestry systems be incorporated in LCA? These should only be attempted by those up for a challenge, as these are not traditionally considered in an LCA.

Rice Problems    Lack of Phosphorus    Running Out Phosphorus    Improving Palm Oil Sourcing    Corrosive Mix of Palm Oil     Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil    Rice Food Security    Case for Land Sparing    Legacy Soil Phosphorus and Sustainable Nutrient Management

Irrigated Vs. Rainfed

The environmental impact as well as the yield of any crop can vary enormously with the type of irrigation. In some case studies, this may be an important factor to consider and include in your research question.

Some example work on water use in LCAs and water footprints:

– Pfister, S., Koehler, A. & Hellweg, S. (2009). Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Freshwater Consumption in LCA.

– A.K. Chapagain & A.Y. Hoekstra. (2003). The Water Needed to Have the Dutch Drink Coffee.

NOTE: water use can be included in LCAs in many forms (e.g. water footprint or irrigated water use).

Will Our Demand For Food Threaten Our Supply of Water?


Many regions around the world are considering options for future biofuel production, even where it does not yet occur. Thus, it is worthwhile to examine whether your case study produces biofuel or may have plans to, as the answer may be surpising.

In terms of data availability, some of the best choices for a biofuels project include: corn, sugar-cane, oil palm, and cassava.

Some good starter readings include:

– Garcia, C.A., Fuentes, A., Hennecke, A., Riegelhaupt, E., Manzini, F., & Masera, O. (2011). Life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions and energy balances of sugarcane ethanol production in Mexico. Applied Energy, 88, 2088-297.

– Silalertruska, T., & Gheewala, S. (2009). Environmental sustainability assessment of bio-ethanol production in Thailand. Energy, 34, 1933-1946

Cost-Competitive Raw Material    Turning Point for Biofuels    Indigenous People    Brewing Biofuels

Local Food Choices

The local food movement has been promoting the benefits of eating locally (for example: to reduce food miles, as a result, urban agriculture and rooftop gardens are becoming increasingly popular. But comparing the environmental impacts of growing a crop locally vs importing it from far away can yield surprising results!  The most interesting comparisons will likely be for the same crop grown in different climates/methods, for example, a local greenhouse-grown tomato vs an imported field-grown tomato.

Some good starter readings include:

 – Thibert, J., &  Badami, M.G. (2011). Estimating and communicating food system impacts: A case study in Montreal, Quebec. Ecological Economics, 70(10), 1814-1821.

– Weber, C.L., & Matthews, H.S. (2008). Food-miles and the relative climate impacts of food choices in the United States. Environmental Science and Technology, 42(10), 3508-3513.

– Perrin, A., Basset-Mens, C. & Gabrielle, B. (2014). Life cycle assessment of vegetable products: a review focusing on cropping systems diversity and the estimation of field emissions. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 19, 1247-1263.

– Chen, D & Tucker, B. (2014). Measuring the Sustainability of Food Choices for a Smartphone Application.