Geographic variability of agriculture requires sector-specific uncertainty characterization

Yi Yang, Mengya Tao, Sangwon Suh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Scopus citations


Purpose: Regionalization in life cycle assessment (LCA) has focused on spatially differentiated environmental variables for regional impact assessment models. Relatively less attention has been paid to spatial disparities in intermediate flows for life cycle inventory (LCI). Methods: First, we compiled state-specific LCIs for four major crops in the USA and evaluated their geographic variability in the characterized results due to the differences in intermediate inputs. Second, we evaluated the consequence of choosing average or region-specific LCIs in understanding the life cycle environmental implications of land use change from cotton to corn or soybean. Finally, we analyzed the implications of our findings in characterizing the uncertainties associated with geographic variability under the conventional pedigree approach. Results and discussion: Our results show that spatial disparities in LCI alone lead to two to fourfold differences in characterized results for most impact categories. The differences, however, increase to over an order of magnitude for freshwater ecotoxicity and human health non-cancer. Among the crops analyzed, winter wheat shows higher variability partly due to a larger difference in yield. As a result, the use of national average data derived from top corn and soybean producing states significantly underestimates the characterized impacts of corn and soybean in the states where land conversion from cotton to corn or soybean actually took place. The results also show that the conventional pedigree approach to uncertainty characterization in LCA substantially underestimates uncertainties arising from geographic variability of agriculture. Compared to the highest geometric standard deviation (GSD) value of 1.11 under the pedigree approach, the GSDs that we derived are as high as 7.1, with the median around 1.9. Conclusions: The results highlight the importance of building regional life cycle inventory for understanding the environmental impacts of crops at the regional level. The high geographic variability of crops also indicates the need for sector-specific approaches to uncertainty characterization. Our results also suggest that the uncertainty values in the existing LCI databases might have been signficantly underestimated especially for those products with high geographic variability, demanding a cautious interpretation of the results derived from them.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1581-1589
Number of pages9
JournalInternational Journal of Life Cycle Assessment
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknowledgements All data are available upon request. The authors thank the two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions, which greatly improved the quality of the paper. This work was partly funded by US Environmental Protection Agency through Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Program Grant No.83557907 (MT and SS). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of US EPA. This work has not been subjected to US EPA review, and no official endorsement should be inferred.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017, Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany.


  • Life cycle inventory
  • Pedigree approach
  • Spatial variability
  • Staple crops
  • Uncertainty


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