Growing Greener

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New online tool tackles the tracking of agriculture’s carbon footprint.

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Many growers will agree that we live in an era where the need for gathering and managing farming-related data is becoming a substantial and inevitable reality of potato farming. Gone are the days when potato production was “limited” to the basic activities of soil preparation, variety choice, planting, irrigation, pest and disease control, harvesting, storage, and the eventual marketing of the crop—to name but a few of the most essential components of crop production as most potato farmers know it.

Growers and their farm operations have come under increased scrutiny from the wider public, who are the end consumers of products produced on farms. Faced with recent public health scares and consumers’ concerns about food safety, growers are increasingly held accountable for when, where, and—most importantly—how they produced the raw products that eventually end up on the plate.

Data collection on the most basic and mundane farm activities has gradually evolved to become a daily reality of running a modern farming operation. Huge strides in the development of information technology tools and increased computerization of farming activities have made it possible for most growers to comply with the collection of required data and its interpretation. Growers are not only aware of, but actively take part in, programs aimed at increased integrated pest management, sustainability, traceability, food safety and best management practices. And now we can add the tracking of greenhouse gas emissions and the accompanying carbon footprint to that ever-growing list.

Worldwide concern about man-made GHG emissions and their contribution to global warming has been mounting in recent years. Agriculture is a contributing source of three man-made GHG emissions, namely carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide. Carbon dioxide comes from fossil fuel usage and losses in soil organic matter, methane comes from livestock manure and ruminant animals, and nitrous oxide comes from fertilizer usage, crops and manure. Scientists argue that if present trends continue the Earth’s average temperature will increase by 1.5 to 6 degrees Celsius by 2100, due in large part to a global increase of GHG emissions. Some experts figure that agriculture contributes 20 per cent of these emissions globally. In Canada, this figure is believed to be 10 per cent and in the United States, eight per cent.

“We had two goals… one was to provide a transparent and free means to estimate GHG emissions in response to management, and the other was to enable knowledge exchange…” Jon Hillier

There is momentum now within the agricultural industry to mitigate GHG emissions. And in some European countries, the potato industry, in particular the processing sector, is at the forefront of this effort. At the U.K. Potato Council Storage Forum last March, Mark Pettigrew, PepsiCo’s agricultural sustainability manager in the United Kingdom, said up to 17 per cent of potato chips’ carbon footprint comes from growing potatoes. Pettigrew said measuring emissions is of the utmost importance to targeting areas where they can be reduced. “The first step in reducing emissions at the farm level is to develop the right tools to measure them,” he said. “Armed with this information, we can work with our growers to make big reductions in emissions.”

Such a tool has been under development since 2008. The University of Aberdeen was commissioned by food giant Unilever to construct a farm-scale GHG emissions calculator. Led by Jon Hillier, research fellow at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, a team of experts has now completed its first version of a farmer-friendly GHG emissions calculator, called the Cool Farm Tool.

The calculator is built in a spreadsheet application, and determines the total emissions for a farm from data input by the producer. The tool indicates where emissions are coming from; for example, how much of the total comes from transportation, or land management. This information provides a grower with areas of the farming operation that could benefit from changes to reduce total emissions.

According to Unilever’s website: “The tool is ideal for farmers, supply chain managers and companies interested in quantifying their agricultural carbon footprint, and finding practical ways of reducing it. It calculates the greenhouse gas balance of farming, including emissions from fields, inputs, livestock, land use and land-use change, and primary processing. It offers users simple menu choices for parameters that farmers can influence to reduce their carbon footprint.”

“We had two goals, initially, in developing the tool,” says Hillier. “One was to provide a transparent and free means to estimate GHG emissions in response to management, and the other was to enable knowledge exchange between suppliers and sourcers about the most viable and cost-effective GHG mitigation options.”

Hillier says that much of the information required to estimate GHG emissions is also required for other best practice programs such as traceability and food safety standards compliance. “Now that we have a stable interface for the Cool Farm Tool we are looking at integrating it with other assessment procedures. We can interface with others who collect farm management data and use the relevant parts of that data to automatically calculate GHG emissions,” he says.

Potato processors PepsiCo U.K. and McCain Foods Ltd. in Europe were quick to take part in the action. PepsiCo U.K. committed to reduce the agricultural carbon emissions of key crops, including potatoes, by 50 per cent in five years in its publication Passionate About Growing: PepsiCo U.K. Sustainable Farming Report 2010. The company also promised to test low-carbon fertilizers, and encourage the development and utilization of low-carbon emission and energy-efficient machinery. In collaboration with Hillier, McCain agronomists and Anton Haverkort, research scientist at Wageningen University in Holland, PepsiCo started a pilot project in the United Kingdom last year to test a potato-specific version of the Cool Farm Tool.

Haverkort and his colleagues have examined the tool for tailoring it to fit potato production. He says the original tool did not request information specific to the industry, such as details on vine killing, irrigation, grading, seed potatoes, storage, or sprout control. The researchers collected data from various potato operations and created easy and obvious industry-specific questions for the tool. According to Haverkort, the tool calculates the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the production of one ton of potatoes, which typically varies between one hundred and a few hundred kilograms.

The tool is also helpful for benchmarking different growing systems, such as tropical highland or temperate climates, dryland or irrigated farming, organic production, low/high input, and stored or transported raw product. Haverkort says the tool could be tested and fine-tuned for growers in particular regions and countries, and the potato-specific version of the tool will be available online in the near future.

Lukie Pieterse