In the “Cerrado” (Brazilian savanna), sunflower comes mostly from a cropping system where its seeding follows soybean harvest. Soybean has a much higher economic value, but this association with sunflower reduces the environmental impacts from both crops by sharing resources. This study performed a life-cycle assessment (LCA) of the soybean-sunflower cropping system, identified its hotspots, and compared its environmental performance with two hypothetical monocultures, in order to corroborate its benefits.
Soybean-sunflower cropping system inventory used data from farms of the Parecis region, consolidated by experts. Inventories for soybean and sunflower monocultures were estimated from the cropping system inventory. LUC (land-use changes) were calculated from CONAB (2015), FAOSTAT (2012), and Macedo et al. (P Natl Acad Sci USA 109:1341–1346, 2012). Emissions estimation followed Nemecek and Schnetzer (2011), Milà i Canals (2003), and EC (2010). Land occupation, land-use changes, and liming were allocated by occupation time, but a sensitivity analysis was performed for yield and gross margin as allocation criteria. ReCiPe Midpoint (H) v1.12/World ReCiPe H was the impact assessment method, and some categories were disregarded as not relevant. We used pedigree matrix to estimate uncertainties for inventory and Monte Carlo method for impact uncertainty analysis as in Goedkoop et al. (2008). We used SimaPro 22.214.171.124.
Results and discussion
The soybean-sunflower cropping system generate relevant human toxicity, freshwater toxicity, freshwater eutrophication, climate change, and terrestrial acidification impacts, related to emissions derived from nitrogen and phosphate fertilizers and emissions generated by LUC. Sunflower-soybean cropping system has better environmental performance when compared to the combination of monocultures because of a number of synergies made possible by sharing land use and other resources. Changing the allocation criteria altered the relative performance of some categories, but in all categories the environmental impacts of the cropping system were lower than those of the corresponding monoculture impacts, regardless of the allocation criteria implemented.
We concluded that the environmental performance of the soybean-sunflower cropping system can be improved by optimizing the use of chemical fertilizers. Climate change impacts, which are mostly driven by LUC, could be reduced by production intensification, preventing the clearing of native vegetation for agricultural purposes. This study confirmed the environmental benefits of cropping systems when compared to monocultures and the advantages of association of nitrogen-fixing legumes with other plant species in a production system.
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As stated in ISO 14044, “wherever possible, allocation should be avoided by […] dividing the unit process to be allocated into two or more sub-processes and collecting the input and output data related to these sub-processes […]. Where allocation cannot be avoided, the inputs and outputs of the system should be partitioned between its different products or functions in a way that reflects the underlying physical relationships between them; i.e. they should reflect the way in which the inputs and outputs are changed by quantitative changes in the products or functions delivered by the system” (ISO 2006).
Actually, gross margin for sunflower production can be as low as zero (or less) if you consider production costs and prices for sunflower seeds. Sunflower producers get positive gross margin from sunflower oil production and commercialization.
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Matsuura, M.I.S.F., Dias, F.R.T., Picoli, J.F. et al. Life-cycle assessment of the soybean-sunflower production system in the Brazilian Cerrado. Int J Life Cycle Assess 22, 492–501 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11367-016-1089-6