FarmPrint: a monitoring and benchmarking tool to help farmers reduce their emissions

By July 29th, 2020

Work is underway to help Australian farmers better understand their emissions via a new monitoring and benchmarking tool to help them make their farms more sustainable.
Agriculture creates emissions throughout the production process.

Industry partners have supported the development of a new tool – FarmPrint – that helps to track Australian agricultural emissions.

As Australia transitions to a low carbon economy, agribusiness will play a key role. Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture currently account for around 13% of the national total, and with every state and territory aiming for a goal of net zero emissions by 2050 or earlier, actions to reduce emissions will be required across the sector.

FarmPrint is a tool that has recently been developed to help Australian farmers gather insight into their emissions and make their farms more sustainable. It allows for monitoring, benchmarking, and evaluating a farm’s environmental footprint.

With an initial focus on dryland broadacre cropping, FarmPrint embraces a cradle-to-farm-gate approach, measuring not just the greenhouse gas output of on-farm activities, but also the embedded emissions that are found elsewhere in the supply chain – for example in fertilisers, chemicals and diesel. Crucially, FarmPrint allows farmers to assess their environmental performance against regional benchmark data and to monitor environmental aspects beyond greenhouse gas emissions.

The FarmPrint pilot tool is the product of a collaboration involving CSIRO, Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets (MIRA), and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) – known collectively as The Energy, Emissions and Efficiency Advisory Committee (3EAC).

FarmPrint has been developed in close collaboration with Lifecycles – a consultancy specialising in life cycle assessment and inventory data. The pilot version has been used on properties run by Viridis Ag, an agribusiness which delivers on-farm operations for a MIRA-managed agricultural investment fund.

The FarmPrint pilot development has been co-ordinated by Dr Maartje Sevenster, a Senior Research Scientist with CSIRO’s Climate Smart Agriculture Group. Dr Sevenster says there is clearly an appetite for a tool like FarmPrint within the sector. “We know that many landholders are interested in the idea of measuring their emissions, but there has been confusion about what process and tool is most credible. There is definitely a need for consistent methodology that is applicable in a specifically Australian context, and that’s what FarmPrint can offer.”

Modern agriculture is big business, with increasing regulatory and social licence requirements to meet. Calculating farm-level emissions has previously been extremely difficult for producers.

The importance of quantitative data

The pressure on Australian farmers to demonstrate environmental credentials is coming from several directions. With many multinationals setting reduction targets for Scope 3 emissions, Australian producers will increasingly need to provide solid data on their emissions per unit of output in order to continue accessing those international supply chains. There is additional pressure from investors, who increasingly will only lend to farmers who can substantiate their claims to sustainability with quantitative metrics.

APG is a Dutch Pension Fund Manager, whose pension fund clients have stated ambitious targets in the areas of sustainability and responsible investments. They invest in agricultural funds managed by MIRA. “Our pension fund clients want to provide their beneficiaries with a good pension in a liveable world,” says Jos Lemmens, Senior Portfolio Manager Natural resources at APG. “When we invest in agriculture it is our intention to uphold and improve soil fertility and other ecosystem services like water availability and quality or biodiversity, such that the continued profitability of the land will both benefit the operational farmer as well as our pension fund beneficiaries.”

“Quantitative data on ecosystem services are very important in managing investments in agriculture,” says Mr Lemmens. “As an absentee landowner it is important to know your investment is managed properly and its qualities remain intact. Without quantitative science-based data it is difficult to assess the effects of the management practices employed. We are excited the FarmPrint tool is pioneering in gathering such data and are looking forward to the next steps.”

According to Sean O’Reilly, Division Director and Head of Crop Australia, MIRA, much of the desire to improve environmental performance within the agricultural sector is self-driven.

“Farmers know that sustainability and profitability go hand-in-hand,” says Mr O’Reilly. “They’re also increasingly aware of the need for a social licence to operate. The challenge has always been that it’s difficult to measure sustainability. It’s very hard to look at your systems and measure the impact of a specific intervention. FarmPrint provides a great opportunity to look at the metrics and ask what does this particular input do, or what does this cultivation method do? It’s not just theoretical, it’s farm-tested and paddock-ready.”

The CEFC, which is also an investor in one of MIRA’s agricultural funds., is a strong supporter of FarmPrint, and its work with CSIRO and MIRA reflects the green bank’s role in investing to cut emissions right across the economy. “An important thing for us is driving sectoral change when it comes to sustainability,” says Rory Lonergan, Executive Director at the CEFC.

“Our experience with other sectors has shown the importance of working with larger operators first, and then sharing their practical, real-world experience with smaller organisations. MIRA and Viridis Ag are hugely valuable project partners because they have allowed us to work with CSIRO to demonstrate that FarmPrint works on a large scale, across a wide geographical spread. Now we’re excited to see these sustainability gains shared with other agriculture producers to help them cut their own emissions.”

FarmPrint has been designed with Australian farms front of mind.

An Australia-specific tool

One of the most attractive features of FarmPrint is the ability to customise its application to different Australian farming contexts. Some commercial tools and data developed elsewhere make assumptions about the Australian farming environment that may not be relevant – one model calculates a footprint for Australian wheat production that is more than three times higher than the footprint based on Australian regional data. The valuable data gathered through FarmPrint will allow Australian farmers to correct those figures even further.

“Attempts by international groups to model Australian agricultural systems and data don’t tend to be very accurate,” says Tim Grant, Director and Founder of Lifecycles. “With FarmPrint, we use spatial data to make the farm profiles as accurate as possible. We input details like rainfall and temperature data that allows results to be location-specific, rather than applying blanket emissions scenarios. We can also input specific data about the client’s cropping regime that enables genuinely useful comparisons with regional benchmarks.”

Production of broadacre crops are FarmPrint’s initial focus. However, it can be expanded to cover additional agricultural commodities.

What next for FarmPrint?

The benefits of using FarmPrint are evident for farms of all sizes. It can enable farmers to measure and report environmental performance related to crop production not as a one-off action, but as a long-term process, with the opportunity to demonstrate improved performance over time.

There is also potential for farmers using the tool to form benchmarking groups at regional or state level, sharing best practice across the sector.

“We can all improve our farms,” says Sean O’Reilly. “Sharing data doesn’t compromise your competitive advantage. Rather, it’s an opportunity to learn from those around us that are  doing it well. The power of a benchmarking tool is that it accelerates our learning and we can share that learning to gain collectively as a sector.”

The goal now is to develop FarmPrint into a tool that can be widely adopted by users – not just in broadacre cropping, but in other agricultural sectors where there is good baseline data available, such as horticulture. The ambition is that FarmPrint will not be another stand-alone tool, but instead a resource that other tools or interfaces can utilise. By integrating FarmPrint with existing farming technologies, we can keep the administrative burden on farmers to a minimum, and maximise the chances of FarmPrint’s success.

The stakeholders are working towards the commercialisation of FarmPrint to allow for the next phase of its development and enable broader industry adoption.

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