University of Aberdeen: pioneering an e-farming tool

University of Aberdeen: pioneering an e-farming tool

With support from Unilever and the Sustainable Food Lab, the University of Aberdeen has developed a new open source website that aims to help farmers work more efficiently.

This case study orginally appeared on page 43 of the State of the Relationship 2014. The report outlines the state of university-business collaboration in the UK, featuring expert views and over forty case studies. Read the full report.

Innovations from the tech and biological sectors in the agriculture industry have often been fraught with tension, caught between farmers who fear price cuts and dying traditions and consumers weary of where their food comes from. However, one tool that has so far received little resistance is the Cool Farm Tool (CFT). Created by the University of Aberdeen in partnership with Unilever and the Sustainable Food Lab, it provides information about farmers’ greenhouse gas emissions and tips on how they might lessen their environmental impacts.

The computer-based tool - also aimed at processors and retailers with sustainability schemes - has already been successfully used by a number of market leaders including PepsiCo, Marks & Spencer, and Costco. PepsiCo has embedded the Cool Farm Tool in their 50- in-5 target - reducing carbon emissions and water use by 50 per cent in five years. It has also used the software throughout the group, including on more than 80 UK potato farms which supply Walkers crisps, something that has led to benchmarking and the development of carbon action plans, both for the organisation and for individual farmers. PepsiCo plan to expand to other crops within their Quaker Oats and Copella brands.

The CFT has spawned an institute of the same name, which has the mission of helping farmers and the businesses they supply make informed on-farm decisions to reduce their environmental impact. Although in the first phase it will primarily serve as a vehicle to distribute and support the use of the CFT, it will also collate data and case studies to provide advice on the best environmental practice for farmers.

CFT was developed by Dr Jon Hillier and Professor Pete Smith of the Environmental Modelling Group at the University of Aberdeen. The group has a global reputation and influence, with Professor Smith being the convening lead author for the mitigation chapter of several Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Reports and Science Director of Scotland’s ClimateXChange.

Emissions from agricultural production are difficult to quantify due to geographic variability and differences in practice between land users. Many retailers and processors have no means to calculate on-farm emissions which limits their ability to implement sustainability programmes.

The tool provides a tailored emissions profile and suggests likely beneficial mitigation options, such as the use of more efficient fertilisers, using different technologies, better soil carbon management, or looking again at the energy they are using for storage.

“Cool Farm Tool is a farmer-friendly greenhouse gas calculator which will allow estimation of a greenhouse gas footprint within minutes, and then provides the opportunity to test and compare other more sustainable options,” said Dr Hillier.

“Cool Farm Tool will be available via the Cool Farm Institute which has been founded with the initial support of PepsiCo, Unilever, Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Yara. The institute fundamentally believes that more can be achieved by collaboration with and across industry, working together to share methods, knowledge and findings,” he added.

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