New web app supports smart agriculture

30 January 2014

Global agri-food businesses and NERC-funded scientists have collaborated to create a free new web app aimed at helping farmers reduce their carbon footprints.

Known as the Cool Farm Tool (CFT), it is the creation of NERC Knowledge Exchange Fellow Dr Jonathan Hillier of the University of Aberdeen, working alongside companies including PepsiCo, Unilever, Heineken, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, Yara and Fertilizers Europe.

Launched at last week's 2014 Farming Futures conference, it gives farmers a simple way to access the latest science so they can understand the greenhouse gases their farms release, and how to reduce them most effectively.

An earlier version of the CFT is already used by farmers of all sizes around the world, from smallholder cotton growers in India to egg and potato producers in the US and UK. But until now it has only existed as a spreadsheet. Now it is available as an easy-to-use web app, making the valuable information it contains far more accessible. The Cool Farm Institute, the not-for-profit organisation set up by the companies to manage the CFT, is inviting farmers everywhere to use it for free, although commercial use by supply-chain businesses incurs a fee.

Richard Heathcote, a member of the Institute's Executive Committee, said:

"The Cool Farm Institute has brought together leading academics and major food and drink industry players to develop a user-friendly online version of the Cool Farm Tool. The CFI is now looking forward to seeing many more farm assessments being done all over the world on a range of crop and livestock systems."

Dr Murray Gardner, knowledge & innovation manager at NERC responsible for the agri-food sector, said:

"We're delighted to have contributed to developing this tool and helping it reach farmers worldwide, and we look forward to continuing to support it as it develops further. This demonstrates NERC's commitment to working in partnership with business to ensure UK environmental knowledge and expertise has the widest possible impact."

Carmel McQuaid, head of sustainable business at Marks & Spencer, added:

"It's exciting to see the results of what happens when you combine a willingness to collaborate and an enabling technology. I'm hopeful this will transform the business of reducing farm emissions from being a burden on farmers to being a valuable decision support tool."

The tool is already popular with agri-food companies that aim to cut the carbon given off during the farming process. PepsiCo, for example, is committed to halving the carbon emissions of its agricultural raw materials over five years. This means working with the farmers who grow the raw materials for its products to develop carbon-reduction targets. Research suggest that up to 80% of the average fresh foodstuff's total carbon emissions happen before it ever leaves the farm, and agriculture accounts for up to 25% of global human greenhouse gas emissions.

Farmers have many different options to cut their carbon emissions, from using different fertilisers to switching to a new mix of crops. But it is often hard for them to tell which options would be the most cost-effective for them. The CFT is designed to help individual farmers understand what would work best in their farm's unique conditions; it is based on cutting-edge science but provides information in a format that's easy to digest and act upon.

Hillier continues to develop the CFT; the aim is to extend the tool's functionality beyond greenhouse gases to include other environmental impacts of farming, such as effects on local water quality and biodiversity.