Subnational mobility and consumption-based environmental accounting of US corn in animal protein and ethanol supply chains

Timothy M. Smith, Andrew L. Goodkind, Taegon Kim, Rylie E. O. Pelton, Kyo Suh, Jennifer Schmitt
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), Vo. 114, No. 38, 2017, pp. 7891 - 7899

Corn production, and its associated inputs, is a relatively large source of greenhouse gas emissions and uses significant amounts of water and land, thus contributing to climate change, fossil fuel depletion, local air pollutants, and local water scarcity. As large consumers of this corn, corporations in the ethanol and animal protein industries are increasingly assessing and reporting sustainability impacts across their supply chains to identify, prioritize, and communicate sustainability risks and opportunities material to their operations. In doing so, many have discovered that the direct impacts of their owned operations are dwarfed by those upstream in the supply chain, requiring transparency and knowledge about environmental impacts along the supply chains. Life cycle assessments (LCAs) have been used to identify hotspots of environmental impacts at national levels, yet these provide little subnational information necessary for guiding firms’ specific supply networks. In this paper, our Food System Supply-Chain Sustainability (FoodS3) model connects spatial, firm-specific demand of corn purchasers with upstream corn production in the United States through a cost minimization transport model. This provides a means to link county-level corn production in the United States to firm-specific demand locations associated with downstream processing facilities. Our model substantially improves current LCA assessment efforts that are confined to broad national or state level impacts. In drilling down to subnational levels of environmental impacts that occur over heterogeneous areas and aggregating these landscape impacts by specific supply networks, targeted opportunities for improvements to the sustainability performance of supply chains are identified.

KEYWORDS: commodity flow modeling; environmental accounting; food systems sustainability; life cycle assessment; supply chains