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Choice of mineral fertilizer substitution principle strongly influences LCA environmental benefits of nutrient cycling in the agri-food system

Published: 1 February 2018

Abstract: Increased nutrient cycling in the agri-food system is a way to achieve a healthier nutrient stewardship and more sustainable food production. In life cycle assessment (LCA) studies, use of recycled fertilizer products is often credited by the substitution method, which subtracts the environmental burdens associated with avoided production of mineral fertilizer from the system under study. The environmental benefits from avoided fertilizer production can make an important contribution to the results, but different calculation principles and often implicit assumptions are used to estimate the amount of avoided mineral fertilizer. This may hinder comparisons between studies. The present study therefore examines how the choice of substitution principles influences LCA results. Three different substitution principles, called one-to-one, maintenance, and adjusted maintenance, are identified, and we test the importance of these in a case study on cattle slurry management. We show that the inventory of avoided mineral fertilizer varies greatly when the different principles are applied, with strong influences on two-thirds of LCA impact categories. With the one-to-one principle, there is a risk of systematically over-estimating the environmental benefits from nutrient cycling. In a sensitivity analysis we show that the difference between the principles is closely related to the application rate and levels of residual nutrients in the soil. We recommend that LCA practitioners first and foremost state and justify the substitution method they use, in order to increase transparency and comparability with other studies.
Keywords: Life cycle assessment / Multi-functional systems / Nutrient management / Nutrient recycling / Organic fertilizer / Secondary nutrients

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