Tracking carbon footprints

Planet

Tracking carbon footprints

People are increasingly interested in climate and environmental issues, but the debate can be tiring and sometimes confusing even to experts in the field. About three years ago, in the midst of this whirlwind, it became clear to us that our customers and consumers are really looking for information on the carbon footprint of Atria meat products, for example. Our producers also needed information on the climate impact of their operations. It was an extremely interesting question, but the scientist in me was putting up stiff resistance and I felt quite terrified. I thought there were too many moving parts and missing data in the process to do this calculation now. If we want a product-specific carbon footprint, we need to know the carbon footprint of every single raw material in every single product used in the end product, including meat, spices, marinades, skewer sticks and packaging materials. Or we have to be able to calculate it ourselves, in which case every step of the process from the very start to the end must be investigated in sufficient detail.

If we want a product-specific carbon footprint, we need to know the carbon footprint of every single raw material in every single product used in the end product, including meat, spices, marinades, skewer sticks and packaging materials.

Primary production accounts for a significant part of the carbon footprint of food, so we naturally need to know the carbon footprint of our specific farms. We cannot use averages from studies, because we know that each farm is different and production methods and productivity have improved significantly in recent years. Data that is just three years old may already be hopelessly outdated. Furthermore, our production chain is not isolated from the rest of society, but part of the circular economy. For example, livestock consume a wide range of by-products from the food industry. On the other hand, at the end of our meat production chain, our production plants generate a wide range of side streams that are used in many other industries. All these must be taken into account in the carbon footprint calculation.

But you learn by doing. We warmed up by practising a carbon footprint calculation on selected production chains for various primary production methods and by testing the effects of changes in productivity and feed on the carbon footprint of those production chains. At the same time, we looked into what happens inside the gates of Atria plants and the inputs that are consumed there during the manufacturing of the products we investigated. We chose Envitecpolis Oy as our partner for this task as it had the support and the tools of the international Cool Farm Alliance at its disposal. The calculation exercises helped us to identify all the moving parts in the process and reflect on our approaches and solutions to the ambiguities. For example, we decided that for us “from start to end” means from primary production to packaging. The final journey from Atria’s plant gate to the consumer’s plate and waste disposal was excluded from the analysis. At the same time, we were involved in a project of the Natural Resources Institute of Finland to investigate the carbon footprint of pigs and chickens grown in Finland, and were thus able to refer to the institute’s guidelines when we met with ambiguities.

And once we had the momentum, we thought we should put the carbon footprint labels on product packaging for all to see. This meant that the calculations for primary production and the plant analysis had to be greatly expanded to ensure sufficient coverage. Together, we concluded that this work was worthwhile, as it would provide a huge amount of data for farm-specific comparison to support the development of our farms and our production chain. We do not have time to wait for international calculation standards to be finalised, so we now adopt the necessary definitions and approaches based on the best available data and understanding and publish them. If the calculation methods change, we will adapt our own approaches and calculations as necessary.

And once we had the momentum, we thought we should put the carbon footprint labels on product packaging for all to see. This meant that the calculations for primary production and the plant analysis had to be greatly expanded to ensure sufficient coverage.

Now we are able to tell anyone interested what the carbon footprint of an Atria chicken or pork product is. This shows our long-term commitment to a sustainable supply chain – our figures are significantly lower than international averages. And most importantly, quantification means that we know exactly what it takes to change our carbon footprint figures. It also enables us to monitor the impact of development measures. Similar work is also starting with cattle farms.

Quantification means that we know exactly what it takes to change our carbon footprint figures. It also enables us to monitor the impact of development measures.

And it did eventually please my inner scientist to know that although the carbon footprint label on the package itself is small, it is the first carbon footprint label on meat packaging in the world, which is no small feat. Good for us and our producers!

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The text is a translation from Teija Paavola's blog.