ANALYSIS: USDA BioPreferred Biobased Product Public Forum on Life Cycle Assessments: Part 3

Dispatch from SSC Consultant, Lorre Walker

This series of blog posts looks at the USDA’s proposed voluntary biobased product labeling and the BioPreferred program. In four parts, it summarizes the presentations given at the USDA’s Life Cycle Assessment Public Meeting on January 5, 2010 in Washington, DC.

As SSC gets more involved in product and packaging environmental assessments, life cycle assessments (LCA), etc., I decided to attend the USDA’s public forum on its BioPreferred Program and the proposed voluntary biobased product labeling program. Biopreferred is a Federal program that increases the purchase and use of biobased products made from biological or renewable agricultural materials. The program includes a preferred procurement program for Federal agencies and a voluntary labeling program for the broad scale consumer marketing of biobased products. Biobased products are commercial or industrial products (other than food or feed) that are composed, in whole or in significant part, of biological products.

The agenda for the public forum, which was attended by approximately 30 people onsite and 70 participating online, included four presentations, each one related to the environmental impacts of biobased products, how best to measure them, what implications they will or should have for the labeling program, and the eco-labeling environment. The following is a very brief summary of each presentation and the issues surrounding them.

Issue: To use a consequential LCA, which would provide the most relevant information, you will need information that is very hard to come by. A consequential LCA is nearly always highly uncertain because it relies on models that seek to represent complex socio-economic systems that include feedback loops and random elements.

Searching for sustainability: sending the right signals in the BioPreferred program, Dr. Robert Anex, Iowa State University

  • How should the sustainability of biobased products be assessed, LCA vs. carbon footprinting?
  • Most LCAs are attributional –provide information about the impacts of the processes used to produce (and consume and dispose of) a product, but does not consider indirect effects arising from changes in the output of a product.
  • Consequential LCAs – provide information about the consequences of changes in the level of output (and consumption and disposal) of a product, including effects both inside and outside the life cycle of the product. Includes the indirect effects from supply and demand and changes in prices:
    • Intensification (increasing inputs)
    • Substitution (changing crops)
    • Extensification (bringing new land into production)

Conclusion: There was much debate among the presenters and the forum attendees as to which method was not only best for the BioPreferred program, but in general. There did not seem to be a general consensus on this topic. The current LCA methodology being used by the USDA for biobased products, BEES, does not include consequential data.


All-in-all, this was a fascinating look at the world of eco-labeling, the environmental impacts of biobased products, and a debate between LCAs and carbon footprinting…and how it all affects the decisions surrounding one organization’s proposed labeling program. I was particularly interested in the LCA debate and the different types of LCAs.

To continue the discussion on the SSC Consultant Discussion Board, click here.

SSC is currently helping several of our clients to deal with third-party certifications and product and packaging LCAs as a result of Walmart’s sustainability requirements and other stakeholder pressures. For information about our products and services in this area, click here or contact us at