Sustainability is integral to smart farming. It is at the center of a farmer’s daily work and drives improvement efforts on the farm.
BASF has developed a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) model called AgBalance® to support farmers and value chain players in measuring, demonstrating, and improving their sustainability performance in farm operations across all three sustainability pillars: environmental, social, and economic. The model can assess production of at least 30 different crops on a global scale, and this number is steadily increasing as new studies are conducted.
What are Sustainability Assesments?
Sustainability assessments are tools used to evaluate the sustainability of a particular product, project, program, policy, or system. They typically aim to identify and analyze the social, economic, and environmental impacts and benefits of a given activity over its lifecycle, from production to consumption and disposal.
Measuring sustainability with Life Cycle Assessments
Life cycle thinking yields a robust assessment mechanism to monitor sustainability performance. It is about including environmental, social, and economic impacts of a product over its entire life cycle to go beyond the traditional focus on production site and manufacturing processes. This may facilitate the analysis of trade-offs between the three dimensions of sustainability within entire value chains.
BASF developed AgBalance® in 2009-2010 to assess sustainability in the farming sector, applying principles of the LCA framework defined by the ISO 14040/14044 standards. The state-of-the-art model is based on the Eco-Efficiency Analysis Its environmental impact assessment is based on the European Commission’s Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) recommendation; it incorporates the newest methodology by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and quantifies scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions as defined by the GHG Protocol. AgBalance® received the latest assurance statement from the DNV GL certifier in 2020 and is scientifically validated with external stakeholders.
A variety of farming practices and inputs shape sustainability in agriculture
AgBalance® offers a comprehensive comparative analysis of farming practices showing the results in relation to a baseline scenario. How does it work in practice? The first step is to record all available data to characterize for the analyzed cultivation systems. Using diverse scientific methodologies, the inserted data are then recalculated into environmental, economic, and social impacts – click on the icons in the infographic below to view the different impact categories.
Input categories on a farm
Improving sustainability performance through a holistic view of farm operations
AgBalance® offers both single and aggregated environmental impact assessments. Single environmental impact in AgBalance® covers 15 recommended Product Environmental Footprint (PEF)12 impact categories plus a biodiversity assessment. Aggregated environmental impact summarizes these impact categories in a single result, in accordance with the recommended PEF normalization and weighting scheme. Aggregating the impact across all categories allows for a holistic view of farm sustainability. Crucially, it can capture the trade-offs across different kinds of environmental impact as well as that between economy and environment implied by certain practices.
Click below to read about AgBalance’s impact categories (including the main drivers in the context of farm operations):
Single environmental impacts
Climate change: net emission of trace Greenhouse Gases (GHGs), such as CO2, CH4 and N2O, driven by the likes of livestock enteric fermentation, nitrogen fertilization, rice cultivation and fuel combustion. Measured in kg CO2 equivalent
Acidification: potential of various substances (e.g., NH3 and NO2) to oxidize in the air and then react with water to lead to acid deposition in unbuffered water bodies, forests, and soils. Measured in mol H+ ions equivalent
Marine eutrophication: development of an anoxic layer in marine ecosystems due to dead plant biomass, resulting mainly from nitrate leaching and runoff driven by nitrogen fertilization. Measured in kg N equivalent
Freshwater eutrophication: development of an anoxic layer in freshwater ecosystems due to dead plant biomass, resulting mainly from runoff driven by phosphate fertilization. Measured in kg P equivalent
Terrestrial eutrophication: altering of plant community composition and decrease in biodiversity, caused by an excess of available N in soil ecosystems, which is in turn driven by over-fertilization. Measured in mol N equivalent
Human toxicity (cancer and non-cancer effects): potential impact on both cancer and non-cancer disease prevalence of, e.g., agrochemicals, fertilizers, diesel, plastics etc. used in farm operations, based on environmental fate, exposure, and effects. Measured in CTUh (comparative toxic units, the estimated increase in human morbidity per kg of a chemical compound)
Freshwater ecotoxicity: impact of chemicals on the health of water organisms and ecosystems. Measured in CTUe (comparative toxic units, the potentially affected fraction of species, integrated over time and volume, per kg of substance emitted)
Land use: assessment of land occupation and transformation over time using indicators such as biotic production, erosion resistance, mechanical filtration, and groundwater replenishment. Measured as a dimensionless soil quality index aggregating the above indicators of ecosystem functions
Ozone depletion: decrease in amount of atmospheric ozone due to reaction with free radical catalysts, e.g., NO and Cl-., coming from the likes of halocarbon refrigerants and foam-blowing agents (CFCs mainly) which can be released through burning crop residues or field biomass. Measured in kg CFC-11 equivalent
Particulate matter: increase in human mortality rate due to increased exposure to PM2,5, a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in air, which forms out of various chemicals (e.g., NOx, SOx) emitted through soil cultivation, fuel combustion and biomass burning. Measured in deaths per kg PM2,5
Photochemical ozone formation: formation of ozone at the tropospheric level due to radiation-induced photolysis of NOx and non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs); this is driven mainly by fertilization, diesel combustion and paddy rice methane production. Measured in kg NMVOC equivalent
Resource use (minerals and metals): depletion of non-renewable reserves in the Earth’s crust, driven by extraction of raw materials for the production of, e.g., mineral fertilizer and crop protection products. Measured in kg Sb equivalent
Resource use (energy carriers): depletion of energy carrier (fossil fuels and uranium) reserves in the Earth’s crust, driven by the production of agricultural inputs, provision of fossil fuel and electricity needed for farming operations. Measured in MJ
Water scarcity: potential of water deprivation to humans and ecosystems; agriculture is the main source of global water withdrawals through, e.g., irrigation. Measured in m3 of available water remaining in a given watershed per unit area after human and aquatic ecosystem demands have been met
Biodiversity: improvements in biodiversity achieved through certain relevant interventions (e.g., reduced tillage, establishing set-aside areas for cropland, pasture or forest landscape) depending on country or ecoregion. A biodiversity score is obtained by combining ecoregion-specific characterization factors and applied on-farm interventions. Measured in potential global species loss per ha
Aggregated environmental impact
A unique comparison of the above environmental impacts between each other offered in AgBalance® analysis, based on the PEF13 recommended weighting and aggregation scheme. The method allows for holistic recommendation in terms of impact on the environment, revealing the dominating impact categories for the analyzed agricultural practices. Measured in person-year equivalent
Although this dimension can be quantified in different ways, only one is chosen to avoid double-counting.
Profit: total income less total variable and fixed costs (the most comprehensive indicator of farm economic performance)
Other impact categories: gross margin or net value added or total cost of production
Usually, profit is selected, as it gives a comprehensive indication of a farm’s economic performance for the analyzed crop. Other impact categories may also be suitable depending on the study’s goal, scope and available data.
The social assessment in AgBalance® is performed with a methodology called SEEbalance® This methodology assesses social aspects in accordance with the stakeholder groups defined by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) Initiative.
For the assessment, two SEEbalance® methods are available: a Social Life Cycle Assessment and a Social Hot Spot Assessment. Depending on the sustainability analysis’ goal and scope, either only one of these or both methods can be used in parallel.
Social Life Cycle Assessment: farming practices carried out within the farm’s boundaries are rated within 11 social impact categories (including e.g., health and safety, fair wages, no discrimination) addressing three stakeholder groups: workers, local communities and consumers. The results of these analyses are converted into a 1-10 scale-based rating, ranging from low to very high risk and visualized accordingly.
Social Hotspot Assessment: qualitative assessment, which aims to understand how central social hotspots (i.e., issues) tied to the farm’s practices and related actors within the cultivation system boundary affect the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Key findings are formulated for relevant SDG and its targets and are subsequently converted into a risk scale to highlight critical focus topics and serve for recommendation.
An Eco-Efficiency Portfolio of crop production practices is compared by plotting economic and environmental AgBalance® study results against each other. The relative comparison of the practices’ environmental and economic performance helps to detect potential improvements and supports decision making for sustainable farming.
Take a look at one concrete example of our Sustainability Assessments
UK fungicide trials on winter wheat demonstrate improvement to nitrogen utilization
Nitrogen emissions from fertilizers are the main contributor to the carbon footprint of wheat production. Improving Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) thus plays a key role in enhancing the economic and environmental performance of farming operations.
Our trials demonstrated that inclusion of Revystar® XE (Xemium® + Revysol®) in a fungicide program can lead to such improvements, thus offering farmers higher flexibility in nitrogen management as its use raises yields for a given amount of applied nitrogen.
In a disease-susceptible variety treated with Revystar® XE, 80 kg less N were required to achieve the same reference yield in high Septoria pressure situations, compared to a widely used competitor fungicide. This corresponded to a reduction of 35% CO2e per ton of grain, or 1 t CO2e/ha less released into the atmosphere. 50 kg less N were required to achieve the same reference yield for a more robust variety, corresponding to a reduction of 32% CO2e per ton of grain, or 0.7 t CO2e/ha.
Trials were evaluated using the climate change impact category (PEF 3.0) of AgBalance®. Further trials in the next years will validate interactions across different agronomic situations and disease pressures.
Product Carbon Footprints of BASF’s portfolio
Another topic related to sustainability assessments but distinct from our efforts on measuring the impact of farm operations is that of Product Carbon Footprints (PCFs). At Agricultural Solutions, we address this topic as part of the broader BASF initiative to calculate PCFs for its entire portfolio. PCFs create transparency about greenhouse gas emissions associated with our products. At the same time, they are only one piece of a bigger sustainability picture.
BASF avails of own ISO-certified methodology to perform these calculations.