‘Farmer-friendly’ data collection sets the stage for sustainable solutions

This article is part of our special report Exploring farming sustainability options.

With a growing demand for sustainable products, reliable data is key for farmers to improve their production practices and prove their green credentials. But how can this be done in practice? EURACTIV takes a closer look at one protocol putting this into action.

Sustainable sourcing is high on the European Commission’s agenda, from its flagship food policy, the Farm to Fork strategy, which aims to improve the sustainability of every stage of crop production systems, to its new Circular Economy action plan.

But while both strategies place a strong emphasis on the need for measurable, verifiable data, navigating this can be a minefield for producers.

“We’ve got a lot of data that we’ve collected, but then it becomes overwhelming when you’re trying to sort through all this data and you go, what does it mean? That’s the real challenge,” US cotton farmer Aaron Barcellos told EURACTIV in an interview.

To help streamline this, Barcellos, alongside hundreds of other US cotton producers, has signed up to a sustainability protocol called the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol.

The Trust Protocol, which sets a new standard for more sustainably grown cotton, instrumentalises data as a way to help farmers improve on their sustainability, while also offering assurances to retailers of the quality of their product.

“U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol measurement is unique in a way where the sustainability progress is verified using the data collected from pre-planting to post-harvest operations,” Deepika Mishra, special adviser to the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol, explained to EURACTIV.

In this way, the Trust Protocol brings quantifiable and verifiable goals and measurements to cotton production to help drive improvement in key sustainability metrics.

“Accurate data collection sets the stage for appropriate environmental decisions,” Mishra said, highlighting that data analysis is “only as good as the quality of data obtained during the collection process”.

“Inaccuracy in data will lead to wrong conclusions because of faulty interpretation of results,” she warned.

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To collect this data, the Trust Protocol works in a series of steps via partners and intermediaries.

Firstly, growers complete a self-assessment of best practices on nine key principles, including soil health, water management and biodiversity, among other criteria.

Farmers then collect and input data using a platform ‘Field to Market’ where producers can track their data to make sense of it.

A vital component of the Field to Market platform is the Field Print Calculator (FPC), whereby producers input information related to the management of their farming operation on topics such as crop rotations, nutrient and fertiliser application practices, and pest management.

The calculator then uses this information to provide a score on environmental metrics such as water quality, land use, and soil conservation and carbon.

“With the help of the metrics score, producers can compare their results to both the state and national averages, which helps the producer understand where they stand with other producers in their region and implement practical and region-specific practices,” the U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol’s Mishra explained to EURACTIV.

‘Farmer-friendly’ focus

Using such platforms makes it easier for farmers to input their data, according to Allison Thomson, vice-president of science and research at Field to Market.

“We often hear that the hardest part for our projects is getting farmers to enter the data, we know a key barrier to entry is just being able to sit down and enter all the information. So we work on a lot of ways to make that easier,” she explained.

For Thomson, whose role is to ensure that measures for sustainability metrics needed for sustainability assessment are based on the latest science, the use of such platforms helps farmers see that the measures they are implementing on their farms are working.

“A lot of our farmers are pretty progressive, they want to be adopting the most recent sustainability practices, but they want to also be able to see that that’s working. And so they find value in our platform that way,” she said.

Digital tools needed to help apply fertiliser targets to national level, say stakeholders

EU-wide targets for the reduction of fertilisers, as outlined in the Farm to Fork strategy, must now be translated to country-specific targets, and for this farmers need access to the latest tools and technologies to allow them to reach these targets and get an accurate picture of the situation, stakeholders have said.

Outcomes over practices

Thomson highlighted that a strength of the Trust Protocol is its focus on outcomes, rather than practices.

“Over in Europe, a lot of the programmes are much more focused on practices rather than outcomes. But our whole programme is designed in a way where we’re not going to tell you how much fertiliser to apply, but rather, what is the environmental outcome of that choice”.

“We don’t want to dictate to farmers what to do. But we do want to track your outcomes and help you to improve on those,” she explained, stressing that this ensures farmers are a critical stakeholder around the table “from the beginning”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Benjamin Fox]

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