ANALYSIS: USDA BioPreferred Biobased Product Public Forum on Life Cycle Assessments: Part 4

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: Should the USDA use LCAs (currently using BEES, which does not include consequential data) to gather information for the BioPreferred label and to influence policy decisions? The more comprehensive an LCA is, the less accurate it tends to be and vice versa. Should the USDA simply look at the carbon/environmental footprint of the product, ignoring social and economic impacts of materials and production.

Carbon footprint assessment, a workable model for environmental improvement, Dr. Ramani Narayan, Michigan State University

  • Problems with LCAs:
    • There are too many impact categories without providing an understanding of how to make decisions about the data.
    • They are useful for informing consumer choices, but are too broad to define policy
    • Some LCA databases/software do not take into account the use of wind or solar energy in the production or some end-of-life activities
  • Carbon/environmental footprinting is the most useful model in terms of defining public policy

Conclusion: Again, there did not seem to be a consensus among the panelists or the forum attendees for this topic. Several audience members made the point that a carbon footprint alone will not address social, economic, and end-of-life impacts. While Dr. Narayan pointed out that even biodegradable, compostable products still end up in landfills because end-of-life impacts depend on the user. There was some lively exchange on this topic!


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