SustainabilityEnvironmentCalculating a Greener Path to Potatoes

Calculating a Greener Path to Potatoes


[deck]Curious about what’s left behind in the pursuit to produce potatoes? A new online tool designed specifically for potato producers can tell us just that, and provide guidance in the quest to reduce a farm’s carbon footprint.[/deck]

With rising temperature trends around the world and the growing awareness of the role of man-made greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in global warming, many individuals and organizations are taking steps to reduce their environmental impact or carbon footprint.

The carbon footprint produced in the process of putting food on the dinner table is not insubstantial — for example, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research estimates that the agriculture industry is responsible for 20 per cent of total global GHG emissions each year. Unlike some other greenhouse gas sources, however, agriculture has mitigation potential.

To this end, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland was commissioned by food giant Unilever to construct a farm-scale GHG emissions calculator. The result was the creation of the Cool Farm Tool and, subsequently, the Cool Farm Institute. A version of the Cool Farm Tool called CFT – Potato, has been built specifically for potato production and is now available for growers in Canada.

Engineered in Microsoft Excel, the downloadable online tool is in a spreadsheet format. Producers enter specific data, which is instantly broken down to calculate the amount of CO2 equivalents created in the process of producing one tonne of crop.

The net GHG emissions are further dissected in terms of an emissions source category. Different areas of the farm can now be reviewed to see what is being emitted and where. Along with pinpointing GHG sources, the tool offers practical suggestions for growers as well as useful information for weighing the repercussions of altering farming practices to reduce emissions.

“This project will analyze the costs, trade-offs and possible barriers to implementing GHG reduction practices at farm and field level, and what options there are to overcome them. We’ll end up with practical advice in each circumstance,” said Christof Walter, research manager at Unilever’s Sustainable Agriculture Program, in a press release.

Creating a Potato-Specific Tool

Potato processors McCain Foods Ltd. and PepsiCo UK spearheaded the development of CFT – Potato worldwide. In collaboration with Anton Haverkort, potato research co-ordinator at Plant Research International – Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands, and John Hillier, a biological scientist and research fellow at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, agronomists with McCain and PepsiCo UK started a pilot project to test a potato-specific version of the CFT in the United Kingdom and many other countries.

The result is a tool that not only identifies problem areas within a farm, but also shows the areas of the operation that are having a positive impact on a farm’s overall net emissions. CFT – Potato is designed to provide information that every farmer should have readily available.

“We strive to continue to make the tool more user-friendly, [with] a single table with scrollable subjects and the summary table on the bottom. Grower’s should not have to [already] know how to work with Microsoft Excel,” says Haverkort.

To make the tool more potato specific, components not relevant to the potato industry were removed. Then the generic data was altered to accommodate potato-specific data including details for grading and washing, the application of sprout suppressants and storage.

“The main challenge had to do with adding user-friendly energy calculations from storage and irrigation. The issue here is how best to match up the information needed for the calculation with the way that growers think about and hold information in their heads. We needed to create a structure that was as simple and straightforward as possible for the grower and as helpful as possible for building the calculations,” says Daniella Malin, project manager at the Cool Farm Institute.

Breaking Down the Data

Cool Farm Tool – Potato: Model Description and Performance of Four Production Systems is a research report by Haverkort and Hillier, published in the scientific journal Potato Research. It outlines the changes made to the generic version of the CFT.

Seed production and seed treatment was the first section of data addressed. Entries were created for seed transportation and chemical seed treatment, as seed tubers are often treated with crop protection products. A calculation was also added for mineral oil used in seed potato production.

“Collecting certain potato-specific data was a challenge, such as the use of mineral oil in seed production, the use of CIPC and figures on ethylene, which is used to subdue sprouting,” says Haverkort, who delivered a CFT – Potato presentation at the Ontario Potato Conference held earlier this year in Guelph, Ont.

Soil treatments used to prevent nematodes with nematicides were also added for CFT – Potato. In some countries, slurries (liquid manures) have to be injected into the soil by heavy equipment. This operation utilizes 2½ times the amount of diesel required by more traditional spreading method. There was also an entry added for the transportation of slurries, manure and compost.

“It is remarkable that the original generic tool did not contain irrigation, so we had to insert it. Depth of water table, distance of the field, flooding, drip, gun or pivot, all of these things have an influence on power use,” says Haverkort.

Entries were created for vine killing in four categories — chemical, flailing, pulling and burning. Organic potato producers do not use any chemicals, but in cases where late blight is present, they may have to burn the foliage with propane or diesel burners.

On-farm transportation was also taken into account, with addition of calculations for distances travelled by producers in order to supervise their crops and transport supplies to their fields.

In addition, inputs were added for the washing, grading, loading and unloading of potatoes, as well as for sprout suppression treatments with CIPC [chloropropham] or ethylene.

The issue of storage was also addressed. Depending on farm location, storage can present many different variables. Potatoes enter the storage stage of the production pipeline in different states, depending on climate. For example, wet potatoes entering storage need to be dried, while warm potatoes need to be cooled, often by forced air mechanical means. And in areas with cold winters, potatoes often need to be heated before handling to avoid low temperature bruising.

Farmers can download the potato version of the tool at no cost from the Cool Farm Tool website. “Commercial uses of the tool are restricted but all non-commercial uses are encouraged. Companies or consultancies wishing to use the tool in a commercial setting need to contact the CFI to work out a licensing arrangement,” says Malin.


The Cool Farm Institute

The Cool Farm Institute was born out of meetings in 2011 and 2012, when more than 40 delegates from different areas within the agriculture industry engaged in roundtable discussions on creating a tool to improve farm efficiency and sustainability. Hosted by the Sustainable Food Laboratory, a consortium of business, non-profit and public organizations, the institute boasts a broad range of members, from sector experts to software developers.

“This membership network of formal academic partners and scientific advisors will guide our efforts towards continuous improvement,” says Daniella Malin, project manager at the Cool Farm Institute.

These development efforts include many partner-sponsored pilot projects. They involved testing the Cool Farm Tool on 16 crops in 15 different countries, as well as an additional eight non-sponsoring partners performing pilot projects on six crops in seven other countries.

“Unlike a software developer that develops the software and puts it out in the market, ours is structured as a membership organization in which the members have lots of opportunity for interaction and is built around continuous learning, communication and improvement,” says Malin, adding that “Canada has shown quite a bit of interest” in the tool.


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