U-M CSS researchers awarded USDA grant for maple syrup production life cycle analysis
A University of Michigan-led team of researchers, together with maple syrup industry professionals, has received a $500,000 research grant through the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Acer Access and Development Program to conduct a life cycle analysis (LCA) for U.S. maple syrup production. Acer grants are specifically designed to support research that promotes the domestic maple syrup industry.
The research will include improvement strategies for producers, from reducing energy-intensive processing approaches to carbon sequestration accounting of maple trees. Among other outcomes, the researchers intend to compile their findings into an online calculator that producers can use to estimate their total GHG emissions per gallon of syrup.
Geoffrey Lewis, a research specialist in U-M’s Center for Sustainable Systems, together with Gregory Keoleian, director of the Center for Sustainable Systems, Michael Farrell, CEO of The Forest Farmers and former director of Cornell University’s Uihlein Forest, and Winton Pitcoff, executive director of the North American Maple Syrup Council (NAMSC), will carry out the project over the next three years.
NAMSC will help conduct outreach to syrup producers in thirteen member states across the Midwest and Northeast. Researchers will analyze production processes, materials, distribution practices and more across two syrup-producing years, then evaluate the effects of altered practices in the third year.
This research will illuminate areas of efficiency improvement across the syrup-making process, thus helping producers reduce their energy consumption, costs, and greenhouse gas emissions.
“[Syrup producers] see that it’s a competitive advantage for them to have a transparent carbon accounting of their production. They’re also land stewards,” said Lewis. Maple forests—or sugarbushes, to producers—sequester carbon above and below ground. Quantifying how much can help producers appropriately offset their carbon emissions and guide forest management practices.
LCAs—systematic, standardized accounting methods to quantify the environmental effects of products and services—have been conducted for several other industries, like dairy, pork and almonds. However, no such LCA has been conducted for maple syrup production, which can vary extensively in its environmental impact depending on materials used (e.g., plastic sap collection bags that must be replaced annually), natural sugar concentration in sap, and boiling method. Generally speaking, the most energy-intensive aspect of syrup production is in processing pure sap into syrup.
Anywhere from 30 to 70 gallons of sap are required to make a single gallon of maple syrup. Methods, such as reverse osmosis, used in the initial stages of syrup production can help remove water from the sap, thus resulting in a more sugar-concentrated liquid that then takes less time and energy to concentrate further into syrup. But due to deeply ingrained traditions in syrup production—like tending a wood fire to keep pans of sap boiling—there may be some reluctance to adopt more efficient methods.
The research team will begin their work in Fall 2022. For more information, visit the USDA’s Acer site, or read the full abstract below.
Maple syrup producers can lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with production through their processes and practices. Our project will conduct a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of maple syrup production, focusing on energy and GHG impacts. We will partner with the North American Maple Syrup Council to recruit small-, medium-, and large-scale producers as research collaborators and inventory their operations over two production seasons. We will estimate energy use and GHG emissions associated with various maple syrup production systems. Production variables considered include method of sap collection, processing technology and fuels used, packaging type, and distribution. We will use these estimates to develop an online calculator for producers to determine the GHG emissions per gallon of syrup they produce based on their practices. The calculator will help producers understand
the impact that changes in sap collection, processing, packaging, and distribution will have on their GHG emissions per gallon of syrup produced and will highlight opportunities for reducing this impact. Producers who utilize this tool will be able to lower their fuel costs, increase their profitability, and move the maple industry to be more climate-conscious. We will inventory a third production season to evaluate effects of altered producer practices. We will also explore the carbon storage and sequestration potential in northern hardwood forests used for sugaring, including opportunities to increase this potential. We will present this work at the NAMSC Annual Meeting and to state maple associations, as well as in academic and maple syrup trade journals.