Measuring the Carbon Emissions of the World’s Farms

Hannah Kett

Up to 15% of all greenhouse gasses come from farmers churning up soil, and the International Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change aims to change that by promoting concrete solutions that deliver results today.  One of those solutions involves scaling up a simple and flexible tool for measuring the amount of  soil carbon that different practices captures.

Up to 15% of all greenhouse gasses come from farmers churning up soil, and the   International Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change aims to change that by promoting concrete solutions that deliver results today.   One of those solutions involves scaling up a simple and flexible tool for measuring the amount of   soil carbon that different practices captures.

Third in a Series

2 November 2010 | When Daniella Malin presents her plan s for developing the Sustainable Food Lab’s (SFL) Global Agriculture Climate Assessment (GACA) on Thursday at the International Conference on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change in the Hague, she’ll be looking to do more than just share interesting ideas with like-minded people.  
Malin is the SFL’s   Agricultural Climate Stewardship Project director, and she’ll be pitching her group’s plan for measuring the greenhouse gas emissions of farms around the world to a roomful of potential investors.   It’s part of the conference’s unique “Investment Fair”, which brings together social entrepreneurs and social investors under the umbrella of the United Nations.

The GACA is a partnership of 17 companies sharing their knowledge on the ways to practically reduce farm emissions.   It focuses on stewardship, transforming data into concrete action based on a partnership between companies and the farmers from which they source in an effort to calculate the carbon footprint of different farming systems and crops.   It then works directly with farmers “to reduce that footprint as rapidly and efficiently as possible.”

It is a global partnership that began with the prompting of a global company.

Developing an Idea

The development of the Cool Farm Tool — the calculator that started it all — began with a prompting from Dutch agribehemoth   Unilever.   The Cool Farm Tool measures the GHG emissions of agriculture practices and helps farmers decrease their carbon footprint with “what-if” scenarios.

The genesis of the Cool Farm Tool was the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 Mitigation of Climate Change Report.   The report includes global agricultural emissions data and highlights the mitigation potential of different agricultural practices.

“A variety of options exists for mitigation of GHG emissions in agriculture,” Chapter Eight’s Executive summary says. “Many mitigation opportunities use current technologies and can be implemented immediately, but technological development will be a key driver ensuring the efficacy of additional mitigation measures in the future.”

For Unilever, this chapter highlighted the potential for Agriculture mitigation within their own supply-chain; but the global statistics and strategies included in the chapter were essentially useless for local application.   They needed to know the potential of different practices at field level, rather than simply the global statistics.   Unilever decided to talk with the University of Aberdeen’s Pete Smith, an author of the chapter.

“They approached the authors and asked them if they would be interested in reverse-engineering the data so that they would have something useful to take to growers all over the world,” says Malin.   “It would be sort of a tool to start the conversation with growers about what would be feasible in terms of reduction and a way to immediately show growers what different changes in practice could gain them in terms of reduction.”

The Cool Farm Tool

Earlier this year, the Cool Farm Tool was born.   As Unilever describes it, “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.”

Pete Smith’s team at the University of Aberdeen created a scientifically-based, free and online open-source Excel document that allows farmers to plug in all the information from their crops to understand the total carbon emissions—and realize where they could effectively reduce emissions.

The open-source aspect was important for the developers.   “In this way, we would not proscribe how anyone used it,” says Dr. Jon Hillier of the University of Aberdeen, “We could use and develop it for our own research purposes and they could use it for theirs.”

It is a farmer-friendly way of measuring carbon emissions according to Mark Pettigrew, the Pepsi Co. Agricultural Development Manager.   “The first step on the road to reducing your carbon footprint is to measure what you are doing,” says Pettigrew. “That is quite a challenge in farming—there is more complexity in agricultural GHG emissions than in most other activities—so finding a cheap and easy to use tool is a great step forward.”

Beyond simply calculating the GHG emissions, the tool gives farmers the opportunity to input “what-if” scenarios to determine the areas that provide the greatest potential for carbon mitigation.

“We run these ‘what-if’ scenarios of, given that these are the current practices, what practice changes are actually interesting, what might you consider doing differently,” says Malin. “Then we would plug that in and see what that gains them.”   The possibilities include things like changing farming techniques or applying a different fertilizer.

Since the tool is used by the farmer with their own data, the results are particular to each farm.   SFL says, “The Cool Farm Tool…will help us understand what factors and practices make the biggest difference in any particular farm situation, including the considerations that farmers are balancing in choosing between management decisions.”

Turning a Tool into a Partnership

When the tool started to take shape, Unilever and the team at the University of Aberdeen realized its broader potential.   The tool could be utilized to find the most feasible and effective mitigation options for a variety of crops—and the results from multiple companies would allow for more widespread and effective findings.

“They realized they would gain so much more by doing this as a consortium of like-minded companies because they could learn from each other’s crops,” says Malin.

For example, Heinz has worked with tomato growers to lower carbon emissions and Unilever can use this information when working with their own tomato growers.   “That would be a way to economize and create a learning network among like-minded companies so all of them could learn together,” says Malin.

Within a confidentiality agreement, the companies share the all of the information they have gathered from the farmers.   It will include a number of specific factors, like the crop type, the size, the yield, the fertilizer and the total carbon footprint.

While the tool originally used information primarily from a number of global studies, such as the 2007 Climate Change Report, companies studies have provided helpful feedback in terms of design.     “The interaction with the SFL, Unilever, and other companies has been really useful in the last 12 months in focusing, testing, and improving the tool to make it as consistent and user-friendly as possible,” says Hillier.

This interaction also helps improve the tool.   “It’s a work in progress,” says Pettigrew, “Jon Hillier keeps improving it and we keep sending him feedback and then he sends us another model.   It’s fantastic, real-time improvements.”

With these collaborations, companies increase their understanding of the best mitigation options for different farming systems.

Currently, the Global Agricultural Climate Assessment includes the work of 15 companies, including Pepsi Co., Heinz and Unilever.   Here are some of the projects that are applying the tool and sharing their results with members of the GACA.
•       Costco working with 8 to 10 large scale organic egg suppliers in the U.S.
•       Oxfam GB and Superior Foods works with smallholder vegetable production
•       Yara working with wheat crops in Germany
•       Ambootia Tea Group working with tea plantations in India

A Profile of a Company

For the Pepsi Co., the Cool Farm Tool is an effective and efficient part of their larger sustainability goals.

“We’ve got some fairly aggressive goals,” says Pettigrew. “We are trying to reduce our carbon footprint by 50% in the next five years.” To begin the process, Pettigrew needed a cross-section of farmers that represented different soil types.

When the Sustainable Agriculture Council of Pepsi Co. suggested the tool earlier this year to Pettigrew, he decided to try it out.   Hillier sent an early version of the tool to Pettigrew and he ran some tests.   He discovered the tool to be accurate and since it was also inexpensive and grower-oriented, he decided to expand his use of it.

“We think it’s great because it is user friendly, easy and you can do some modeling with it,” says Pettigrew.   “To me it’s a great leap forwards; it’s a great sort of way to get growers involved.”

Indeed, when Pettigrew first handed out early models of the tool to farmers in preparation for gathering data for the “50 in 5” project, they were receptive and enjoyed the ability to enter different scenarios.   “Growers can sit at home with it and see what can happen,” says Pettigrew.

While Pettigrew has collected carbon data from 22 farmers this year, he wants to expand the type of crop and continue gathering data.   Besides potato and oats, Pepsi Co. hopes to work with apple and corn growers next year. “We may have to do it over a number of seasons,” says Pettigrew, “just to build up a base of data.”

Working with farmers is sometimes a challenging process because many of them have not previously collected this type of data.   “If a grower is not used to getting all of the energy inputs and fertilizer inputs for one potato crop, he has to get his head around that,” says Pettigrew.

But he says that this is just part of the initial implementation.   Pettigrew thinks that the work Pepsi Co. is doing in conjunction with the other companies will lead to real change.   By working together, Pettigrew thinks they can accelerate their understanding of what is a new way of looking at agriculture.

“Hopefully, if more companies get together and start using the same calculator, then you are going to get more traction, more things done,” says Pettigrew.   “Farmers and suppliers are going to get used to the fact that we are interested in carbon footprinting.” He believes that this will prompt them to do something about measuring and reducing.

Furthering the Partnership

When Unilever decided they wanted to create a partnership with other companies, they thought of the SFL as the right entity to manage it.

The SFL is a consortium of businesses, non-profit and public organizations that are working towards more sustainable practices.   With this basis, the SFL was able to reach out to companies within their existing partnership.   “In discussing next steps with companies, we describe this as an option for engagement, with their supply chain and with us,” says Malin.

SFL also facilitates the application of the tool. “We talk to the companies about what it is they want to understand and that leads them to identify the right growers to talk to,” says Malin.   Then they work with farmers to gather the data and choose the best mitigation options.

During the conference, Malin and SFL will propose to expand the partnership, increasing the number of companies involved in the partnership and expanding the number of crops that are analyzed.   While there are confidentiality agreement s between the sponsoring partners, Malin says, “We would love the sponsoring partners to be a very large group of companies and other NGOs.”

So far, the project has gathered data from 20 farming systems which was the original target for the project; but they don’t want to stop.   “We’d love to figure out how to scale the project large enough to actually generate statistically significant data on feasibility of practices,” says Malin.

“There is a lot that can come from this work, and we would like people to take advantage of that,” she says.   For example, the Heinz Center is developing a policy implication piece about mitigation potential in different supply chains internationally.

“What has been apparent to me during the course of the work with Unilever and SFL is that there was a role for a tool which would engage those who directly manage agricultural lands,” says Hillier.   “Though it had been quite possible to do before, prior to now it has never been a major focus area to transmit the best scientific knowledge on agricultural emissions in a format that would be useable by land managers.”

Hillier’s point is a major reason that Malin and the SFL would like to expand the project.   “My proposal to the Hague is to take this very concrete supply-chain work that is building capacity in the operations and build on it for both scientific…and policy implications.  

Looking to the Future

In the minds of those who developed the project, the potential has not been reached.   Really, they are just at the beginning and now they have the opportunity to gain greater awareness of their project.

“My belief is that we have a clear example where research (much conducted initially using public funds) is being given back to the public free of charge and for their benefit and ours (we get back as much knowledge as we give),” says Hillier.   “I’ve been a bit taken by surprise by the momentum this has gathered, and am more and more persuaded that we can really play a significant role in emissions reduction from the agriculture sector.”

“We thought we’d be almost done by now, but we’re really just starting,” says Malin.   While some of the delays have to do with improving the tool based on pilot studies, there is also a want to expand its reach. “What we really want to get to is ‘ok, now that we have a better sense of what’s possible, what incentives are necessary to make these things happen?’” she says.   Farmers are more aware of the source and amount of emissions; the partnership wants to now create incentives through the supply chain for good practice.

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Corrections and Clarifications: November 2, 2010 Errant timeline in opener; clarification on use of feedback from company studies. EM regrets the errors.

Additional resources
Hannah Kett is an editorial assistant with Ecosystem Marketplace and a free-lance journalist focused on the non-profit sector.  She can be reached at [email protected].

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