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A land-based approach for the environmental assessment of Mediterranean annual and perennial energy crops

Solinas, Stefania, Deligios, Paola A., Sulas, Leonardo, Carboni, Gianluca, Virdis, Adriana, Ledda, Luigi
European journal of agronomy 2019 v.103 pp. 63-72
Arundo donax, Silybum marianum, annuals, biomass production, cardoons, crop yield, cropping systems, energy, energy crops, environmental assessment, environmental impact, farmers, fertilizers, food production, irrigated farming, irrigation, life cycle assessment, perennials, Mediterranean region
Biomass production helps address the worldwide energy demand. However, some controversial issues have been identified such as the possible conflict between the goal of increasing vegetable biomass and food production and the need to limit environmental impacts. In Mediterranean region, where the supply of some natural resources appears significantly limited (e.g., water) and the competition for land is higher than it was in the past, the objective of evaluating environmental burdens at a regional scale represents an important issue, especially if the assessment considers the farmer scope of increasing productivity. Using a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) “from cradle to field gate” approach, this paper aims to evaluate land-based environmental sustainability related to four energy crop options. We carried out a LCA differentiating between annual and perennial species and between irrigated (giant reed and sorghum) and rainfed crops (cardoon and milk thistle) to determine their performances and impacts within the same context. The findings suggest that irrigated crops generate larger impacts on the environment than rainfed species and that annual crops (both irrigated and rainfed) are more damaging than the respective perennial crops. The damages were expressed in Ecopoints, where one Ecopoint corresponds to one thousandth of the annual overall environmental burden of an average European inhabitant. Ecopoints for sorghum, giant reed, milk thistle and cardoon are equal to 361, 288, 146, and 138, respectively. Except for irrigation, fertilizers were found to be the input with the largest effect, accounting for 37% (giant reed) to 75% (cardoon) of the environmental burden on the system. The results do not suggest the presence of a winning crop option – i.e., a crop that shows the best environmental performances everywhere and in all categories – since regional environmental burdens are simultaneously related to different factors (e.g., land allocation, crop productivity, and degree of practice intensification) that drive farmer choice. Finally, following a dynamic and innovative perspective, we evaluated the trade-off between productivity and environmental burden for each crop simulating an increasing product variation. We found that environmental burdens would increase more proportionally than crop yields done. Especially the latter finding provides interesting suggestions on energy cropping system integration within agricultural planning under stressed natural resource conditions.