Farm footprint calculators: Do they make a difference?
Better data enables better decisions. This is especially true in agriculture, where farmers care about preserving soil health and access to water for future years. Tools exist to collect data to inform decision-making. But do they help farmers protect the environment? As we pointed out in our recent report, there’s a lack of quality evidence showing if certification standards prompt positive change. Can the same be said for farm footprint calculators?
Cool Farm Tool and Fieldprint Platform are two well-known examples of such tools. Launched in 2016, Cool Farm Tool offers farmers a calculator for greenhouse gases, water and biodiversity. It’s owned by the Cool Farm Alliance, who aim to enable growers globally to make more informed farm decisions to reduce their environmental impact. Fieldprint Platform offers farmers a calculator that measures the environmental impacts of production. The tool – first released in 2009 – is managed by Field to Market, an alliance that seeks to define, measure and advance the sustainability of food, fiber and fuel production in the United States.
Both calculators provide a way to measure and communicate farm environmental data. And it’s clear they’ve been successful. Big businesses (Cargill, General Mills, PepsiCo…) report using the tools to better communicate within supply chains. But is there evidence that measurement has prompted changes that benefit the planet? We reviewed online, publicly available material from between 2013 and 2017 to find out.
Cool Farm Tool has helped reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In India, for example, use of the calculator prompted management changes that lowered GHG emissions by 30 percent and increased tea yields by 20 percent. The tool has been used by companies such as PepsiCo and Costco Wholesalers to design sourcing programs that have reduced their emissions.
Fieldprint Platform has challenged growers to think outside the box (1, 2, 3). That’s what corn grower Paul Harless found when Cargill asked him to start using the calculator. He identified fuel savings, which reduce GHG emissions from transporting corn to market, and a better process for applying fertilizer, minimizing the amount that might leach into the soil or watercourse. It’s also helped Coca-Cola and The Nature Conservancy design a program to improve water quality by rewarding farmers financially.
Nice examples. But what’s apparent is the absence of comprehensive studies. Evidence that these tools enable positive environmental outcomes is piecemeal and limited. Of course, it’s a challenge to study impacts systematically. It’s not as if tools operate in isolation to other initiatives, and it takes years – not months – to track change of any significance. Remember Cool Farm Tool was only launched in 2016.
These tools are based on the premise that good data will illuminate the way forward. Let’s hope data expands on what use of these tools achieves; it’s well-crafted stories that will engage others to participate.