Potato sustainability includes renewables

McCain Foods’ research into growing potatoes more sustainably includes a solar farm in Australia and other initiatives

McCain Foods is building a 17,000-panel solar farm in Australia.

The solar energy, along with energy from a bio-digester, will provide power for McCain’s processing plant in Ballarat and is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the site by 27,000 tonnes of CO2 per year.

This renewable energy project won’t affect Canadian farmers, but McCain has other goals that will.

The Canadian company has set ambitious targets to become more sustainable. It works with 3,500 farmers on five continents, who produce ingredients for McCain’s 51 processing plants around the globe. McCain wants its growers to produce potatoes and other crops differently, by using cover crops, precision technology and adding diversity to the crop rotation.

“Over the last several years, globally, we’ve been seeing (potato) yields on the farms that we contract with, going down. In some cases going flat but in a lot of cases going down,” said Peter Dawe, McCain’s chief strategy officer, from his home near Toronto.

“That’s despite the fact that we’re putting in more fertilizer. We’re putting in more inputs. That’s an equation that doesn’t work for growers.”

As part of its Sustainability Strategy, McCain wants to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from potato farming by 25 percent by 2030 and wants more producers to adopt regenerative ag practices, which improve soil health.

“We’re, in many cases, going to be asking farmers to make changes,” Dawe said.

Growers might wonder why they have to make changes, but McCain has decided the status quo isn’t good enough.

“As we continue to navigate the pandemic, the need to transform the fragile global food system has become even more obvious and critical,” said McCain’s chief executive officer Max Koeune. “We must ensure that we build a sustainable future. One where we can produce more food with less waste… adapt to changing consumer behaviours and disruptions in the food supply chain.”

However, this isn’t a case of telling growers what to do and how do it.

McCain wants to learn from innovative farmers who are trying new things, like biological soil products and different crop rotations.

To that end, McCain is building a Farm of the Future in New Brunswick. It will be a training centre, where growers, scientists and employees can learn about practices that conserve water, reduce GHG emissions and improve soil health.

McCain also plans to process food differently. It plans to power its 51 plants with 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. The company operates eight processing plants in Canada, including its french fry plant in Carberry, Man.

“We’re looking at projects across Canada right now, in terms of where can we use solar…. Where can I use wind?” Dawe said. “We’re not going to move the needle unless we challenge ourselves.”

Some of McCain’s customers, such as restaurant chains and major grocery stores, have also made sustainability commitments in recent years. That puts pressure on suppliers like McCain to do the same.

McCain’s ambitions, of reducing GHG emissions and growing potatoes more sustainably, is much bigger than keeping its customers happy,” Dawe said.

“If we were solely doing it because of them… it becomes more of a check the box exercise,” he said, adding companies and people in the food business must be part of the solution.

“We’ve got a responsibility to try and make our corner of the world a little better.”

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