The Cool Farm Tool: Driving sustainability in supply chains

The Cool Farm Tool is an online calculator that enables farmers to measure their greenhouse gas emissions, and understand mitigation options for agricultural production. Originally initiated by Unilever, the Cool Farm Alliance is dedicated to driving down emissions from global agriculture. Here Daniella Malin of the Cool Farm Alliance introduces the vital role agriculture must play in the fight against climate change and how the Cool Farm Tool can help.

Agriculture contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and often the largest release of emissions is not in the factory, on the road or from the packaging, but from the farm where the raw agricultural ingredients are produced.

How can supply chains address this?

As more and more companies analyze and report on their GHG emissions, supply chain emissions have grown in both focus and importance. GHG abatement measures are available and many provide multiple benefits beyond climate change mitigation and adaptation.

For example, measures that reduce fuel and energy use will also reduce costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

In addition, measures such as cover crops, reduced tillage, tailored crop rotations, increased agro-forestry and many other practices could represent win-wins. These measures reduce emissions and/or increase carbon stocks (thereby removing CO2 from the atmosphere). This is good for the planet but also helps improve soil fertility, increases water retention, reduces erosion from wind and water and improves productivity with reduced inputs - all of which can benefit the farmer.

But what are the challenges?

The challenge for companies wishing to reduce GHG emissions in their supply chains is in engaging the farm, finding the right options for that particular farm and providing sufficient incentives for change. The conversation alone takes time and resources that are often in short supply and must be done cost effectively. But given the right tools and incentives, the opportunity for positive impact is significant.

Based on IPCC and other estimates, a focus on agriculture could remove between 3-6 Gt CO2-equivalents per year, the equivalent to about 10 percent of global anthropogenic GHG emissions.

And the climate change mitigation potential from soil carbon sequestration is huge, anything between 44 – 89 percent. So there is a major opportunity.  

But global estimates don’t help individual farmers evaluate their options. The difficulty is for each farmer to know which ones are cost effective for his/her product in his/her location. The high-level methods developed for and used in national GHG inventories are not sensitive to changes farmers can make on a farm, and hence do not help to create incentives for change.

Similarly, while life cycle analyses (LCAs) tell companies that the majority of emissions come from the farm, the LCA tools don’t break down agricultural emissions such that options for reducing them can be explored.

A tool to fill this gap

The Cool Farm Tool fills this gap. It was the brainchild of Christof Walter - then Research Manager for Sustainable Agriculture at Unilever - who in 2008 started working with the University of Aberdeen and the Sustainable Food Lab, on the Cool Farm Tool as a means to explore how to practically reduce GHG emission from agriculture at a global scale.

Originally an on-farm GHG calculator, this tool is now being extended to include modules for measuring water and biodiversity. The online Cool Farm Tool provides scientifically robust quantification methods that are sensitive to farm and field scale management choices. The Tool works by providing growers with the ability to plug in their farm practices and get immediate results and instant feedback on the impact of different farming management options using “what-if” scenarios.

The Cool Farm Tool enables farmers to easily assess the impacts of different farming management options specific to their farm. 

The Cool Farm Tool derives emissions estimates from empirical data. As new studies are done and more data becomes available, the models are being constantly improved and refined. It's managed by the Cool Farm Alliance, a UK-based not-for-profit Community Interest Company governed by its members.

Driving sustainability into supply chains

Cool Farm Alliance member companies use the Cool Farm Tool in different ways to drive sustainability in their supply chains. Some form direct relationships with farmers, using the Cool Farm Tool to conduct a gap analysis and designing a GHG reduction program that can be implemented over time. Others use the Cool Farm Tool to model “typical” farms, using input from crop experts and/or lead farmers. This provides insight into hotspots and enables members to identify the crops and geographical areas with the best reduction potentials. Still others offer higher supplier ratings to those that adopt the Cool Farm Tool. A common theme is in coupling a demand signal from the buyer with the power to measure and manage from the Cool Farm Tool. For many, the tool is useful for engagement within the farming community.

"One of the key principles is that if we want to empower farmers, the tool needs to be farmer focused, free to use and builds on their existing knowledge." states Carmel McQuaid, now Head of Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencer.

Building incentives

But demand signal, supplier engagement and the power to measure and manage are not yet enough. Being able to monetize GHG reductions would go a long way towards encouraging farmers to investigate and implement their options.

To this end, we have recently partnered with Gold Standard to design methodologies and projects that use the Cool Farm Tool,  enabling farmers to earn carbon credits as an added incentive to implementing agricultural practices that reduce GHG emissions and sequester carbon in soils and biomass.

In a pilot project, developed under Gold Standard Agriculture, Hivos and Soil & More Intl have closed the loop between energy generation through biogas on one hand and sustainable agriculture through the increased application of bioslurry on the other. The household biogas reactors already generate carbon credits. As the bioslurry generated from the reactors is applied to the fields, the project will use the Cool Farm Tool to add GHG reductions through soil carbon sequestration & fertilizer reduction. For more information about this project>>

The Cool Farm Tool in action

  • Using the Cool Farm Tool in the UK, PepsiCo set an ambitious 50-in-5 GHG reduction target: 50 percent reduction from agriculture in 5 years. With still another year to go, PepsiCo has already achieved a 38 percent reduction in on-farm emissions.
  • Costco Wholesalers used the Cool Farm Tool in a sustainable sourcing program with their entire U.S. supply base of organic eggs. These farmers achieved a 14 percent reduction in GHG emissions in three years, and are on track to achieve more.
  • Marks and Spencer worked with WWF-India to determine the GHG impacts of growing cotton grown under “better management practices.” The results showed that better management practices reduce emissions by about 65 percent, without sacrificing yield.
  • On a tea cooperative in India, yields were declining by 30-40 percent over the past 5-10 year period. The consultancy Soil & More International used the Cool Farm Tool for just one hour during an onsite visit. Based on this analysis, the cooperative started using crop residues to make compost and apply it to the soil. One year later: production was up by 20%, emissions down by 30%, farmers gained a better understanding of carbon dynamics, utilized local resources that were previously part of a waste stream and increased water holding capacity in the soil by about 40 percent.

For more information about the Cool Farm Tool>>

Please contact Daniella Malin of the Cool Farm Alliance for more information on +1 (802) 436-4062 ext 107