Assessing life cycle environmental impacts of inoculating soybeans in Argentina with Bradyrhizobium japonicum

Beltran A M, Scheel C N, Fitton N, Jannick Schmidt J, Kløverpris J H (2021)

Publication info

The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment 26:1570–1585

Abstract

Purpose
To estimate life cycle impacts from introducing the yield-enhancing inoculant containing the nitrogen-fixing bacterium Bradyrhizobium japonicum and the signal molecule lipochitooligosaccharide (LCO) in Argentinian soybean production. The study focuses on soybeans grown in rotation with corn in the Buenos Aires province. We also provide the life cycle impact assessment for the inoculant production. The study represents a novel scope in terms of the studied crop, inoculant type, and location.

Methods
Consequential LCA is used to assess the cradle-to-gate soybean production systems with and without inoculant use. Stepwise is used for quantification of 16 impacts at mid-point level. Also, the LCA-based guidance of Kløverpris et al. (2020) is followed, and we divide the change in impacts caused by the inoculant’s use into four effects. The field effect accounts for changes in field emissions. The yield effect accounts for additional soybean production in the inoculant system that displaces soybean production elsewhere (system expansion). The upstream effect covers the inoculant production and the downstream effect covers post-harvest changes such as soybean transport and drying. Small plot field-trials data is applied in the biogeochemical model DayCent to estimate field emissions, among others.

Results and discussion
The use of this inoculant reduces environmental impacts from soybean production in all studied impact categories. The main contributing factor is the yield effect, i.e., reduced impacts via avoided soybean production elsewhere including reduced pressure on land and thereby avoided impacts in the form of indirect land-use-change (iLUC). The field effect is the second-largest contributor to the overall impact reduction. Upstream and downstream effects only had minor influence on results. The yield and field effects are closely tied to the yield change from the inoculant use, which was not fully captured in the DayCent modeling. Thereby, a potential underestimation of the environmental benefits of roughly 10% can be expected, corresponding to the difference of empiric yield data and the modeled yield data in DayCent.

Conclusion and recommendations
The use of this inoculant shows environmental benefits and no trade-offs for the 16 impacts assessed. Results depend primarily on avoided soybean production (the yield effect) which entails iLUC impacts in Brazil and USA, and to a lesser degree on field emissions modelled with DayCent. Better data and parametrization of DayCent, to better capture the change in yields and estimate field emissions, economic modelling for the system expansion assumptions, and accounting for uncertainty in iLUC modelling could improve the assessment.

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