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Saturday, November 12, 2022

Star Trek for potatoes: can a hi-tech farm save french fries from the local weather disaster? | Atmosphere

Against a backdrop of blue skies and autumn leaves that will make an Instagram filter blush, a bunch of agricultural postgraduate college students at a New Brunswick farm are tinkering with know-how they hope will someday assist remedy an existential disaster: save the world’s potatoes.

The Canadian farm in Florenceville is owned by the McCain household, heirs to a 65-year-old frozen meals enterprise that’s now the biggest producer of frozen potato merchandise on the earth and provides restaurant giants together with McDonald’s. The corporate claims one in each three fries on the earth is a McCain fry.

However like an growing variety of folks within the meals and agricultural sector, McCain Meals executives fear what the weirding of the world’s climate means for his or her enterprise and the way forward for the planet.

Max Koeune, a multilingual Luxembourger who’s McCain’s CEO and president, has a world view of simply how shortly the local weather disaster is affecting the world. McCain sources its potatoes from about 3,500 farmers worldwide, from smallholders to massive company farms, and is up to date day by day on how the local weather is altering.

A machine separates potatoes from rocks in McCain Farm.
A machine separates potatoes from rocks.

“Once I joined we had a foul crop each 10 years that was ‘historic’ – you wouldn’t know when it was coming. For the final 10 years, there’s been a foul crop someplace yearly,” Koeune says.

The New Brunswick “farm of the long run” is considered one of a sequence of laboratories the corporate plans to roll out the world over because it assessments what practices are finest suited to saving potatoes, whereas slicing the corporate’s carbon emissions. McCain has dedicated to scale back its emissions by half by the top of the last decade.

The completely different geographies will permit McCain to evaluate completely different environments. New Brunswick has a brief rising season and frigid winters. In South Africa, the place one other farm is being arrange, potatoes develop all yr spherical however water shortage is extra of a difficulty than in (traditionally) wet Canada.

Not that water isn’t an issue in Canada too. Crops there have been hit by floods in 2018 and 2019. A warmth dome introduced “head-shaking” temperatures to Canada and huge components of the US in 2021. Droughts in Europe and the UK have additionally damage potato yields, driving them down by double digits. “We are able to not use the previous to work out what’s going to occur with our enterprise,” says Koeune.

Max Koeune, the president and CEO of McCain Foods, stands in front of a huge pile of potatoes
Max Koeune, the president and CEO of McCain Meals.

With populations rising and temperatures rising, shifting to a extra sustainable future in agriculture is crucial. In response to a 2018 evaluation of the meals system’s affect on the surroundings published in Nature, if the programs we use now don’t change, the environmental results of the meals system may enhance by 50%-90% by 2050, “reaching ranges which might be past the planetary boundaries that outline a secure working area for humanity”.

It’s best to consider the potato like a human being, says Koeune. “They like a temperate local weather. They shiver when they’re too chilly and so they sweat when they’re too sizzling. That’s all power that’s wanted for them to develop.” After 10,000 years of domestication, our more and more intemperate world now threatens the way forward for the third most important food crop after rice and wheat.

“What’s occurring impacts us as growers, us as folks, us as an organization. We now have to consider this in a different way,” says Koeune.

Aerial view of potatoes being harvested with harvesting machine at a Florenceville farm in New Brunswick, Canada.
Potato harvesting on the Florenceville farm. More and more unpredictable climate threatens the important crop.

The mannequin farm feels a bit of like Star Trek for potatoes: a global, multicultural crew armed with laptops, sensors and drones boldly going the place no potato farmer has gone earlier than.

A group of postgrads from Dalhousie College is engaged on a crop-spraying rig that makes use of synthetic intelligence to establish bugs and weeds that may hurt the crop. As an alternative of spraying the entire discipline, pattern-recognition programs spot undesirable invaders and direct nozzles to focus on them. It takes simply 200 milliseconds to establish a beetle and spray it.

Humphrey Maambo, a PhD scholar, excitedly waves a small blue flag representing a bug beneath a nozzle to point out the way it works. Spritz! The flag is lifeless. He calculates the spray rig may lower insecticide use by 50%-80% and says it may simply be retrofitted to present machines.

On a potato-sorter, or the “autonomous imaginative and prescient tuber grading machine”, sensors scan potatoes as they enter a storage shed. Pink, inexperienced and blue lumps seem on a display, like disassembled variations of Ugo Rondinone’s brightly colored rock sculptures. The machine scans for gravity and density, vital for fry high quality and issues like “hole coronary heart” – when cavities type in a tuber.

A woman kneels on the ground to collect a soil sample from a field on the farm.
Analysis scholar Rachel Lewis collects soil samples.
A screen shows an image of potatoes in bright colors.
The ‘autonomous imaginative and prescient tuber grading machine’ display.

Historically, farmers have manually sampled a small variety of potatoes from a discipline to determine high quality. This new system, although, assesses seven out of each 200 potatoes, giving rather more knowledge to establish issues and even hint them again to the place they arose.

One other unit reads gamma rays to attract up a bodily and chemical map of the sphere. McCain scientists are additionally utilizing DNA sampling to quantify the biodiversity of their plots, drones to see how the crop is rising shut up and satellite tv for pc imagery to seize the larger image.

Not all the initiatives are hi-tech, and Yves Leclerc, director of agronomy, North America, at McCain Meals, thinks we’re too obsessive about the toys. “It’s all concerning the soil. It’s the soil that issues,” he says earnestly, scampering off into the sphere to drag out crops and handfuls of soil.

Workers separate potatoes from rock.
Staff separate potatoes from rocks and different particles.

The farm is trialing initiatives to scale back tilling, which permits the soil to retain extra natural matter. Cowl crops have been planted to guard the sphere as soon as the potatoes have been harvested – final yr the group planted 28 completely different varieties. It’s an previous apply through which crops present vitamins for the soil and shield towards pests – millet, for instance, helps to guard towards nematode worms. This yr, Leclerc worries they’ve planted an excessive amount of pigweed and lamb’s-quarters. “We’re coping with a posh system. It’s not a easy recipe, all issues evolve.”

The quilt crops additionally assist the soil retain water. “Holding water within the soil is one of the simplest ways to beat growing temperatures,” says Dr Manphool Fageria, senior scientist and supervisor of the farm of the long run. “In 2020 growers misplaced 35% of their yields right here as a result of it was so dry.”

Cowl crops price extra, by way of labor in addition to seeds. However they’re cheaper than the long-term different, soil erosion, says Fageria. And in a neat synthesis of previous and new, all the info farmers are actually capable of acquire can pinpoint which cowl crops finest assist them enhance their yields.

McCain’s fields stand in verdant distinction to the naked brown empty earth of its potato-farming neighbors. The corporate is hoping its experiments will encourage others to comply with swimsuit. Virtually all the world’s meals is grown within the uppermost layer of soil, however half of the planet’s best soil has disappeared in the last 150 years due partly to fashionable farming practices.

A man stands in a field looking at the plants on the ground.
Dr Manphool Fageria, senior scientist on the farm, says a various number of crops, grasses, brassicas and legumes are used to enhance soil well being.
A herd of cows in a field.
Cows are getting used is used to check whether or not they can restore and preserve soil well being.

In one other discipline, an older technique of farming is being examined. A herd of cows, borrowed from a neighboring farm, graze and lazily moo, crop the vegetation and unload manure. Fageria hops in to point out how the herd is moved across the discipline with remote-controlled cell fencing. Fences are costly and Fageria is contemplating switching to digital collars that will hold the cows inside outlined GPS coordinates. The cows appear very snug with Fageria, maybe as a result of he’s a vegan or maybe as a result of he grew up on a farm in Rajasthan, India, herding camels, goats and sheep. “We now have decoupled animal from plant manufacturing. In that system manure turns into an issue. On this one it’s an answer,” he says.

The passion is palpable however how would possibly this come throughout to farmers combating hovering inflation and the local weather emergency?

This mission won’t matter if farmers don’t purchase into the change, Koeune admits. “Farmers usually are not curious about ideas. It needs to be tangible. We now have to do it, present that it really works and show that it’s economically viable,” he says. “Farmers imagine what they see.”

It’s solely yr two however yields on the New Brunswick farm look like rising. And the rising energy and falling prices of computer systems imply the know-how the McCain group is experimenting with might be inside attain of many farmers.

Workers operating a conveyor to offload potatoes from a truck.
McCain hopes to encourage different farmers to undertake extra sustainable agricultural practices.

Koeune says McCain alone can’t change the world. On Thursday, McCain and different large firms together with Mars and PepsiCo launched a report arguing that the quantity of sustainable agriculture must triple in measurement by 2030.

In France, McCain has partnered with Crédit Agricole to increase loans to farmers who put money into sustainable agriculture. McCain picks up the curiosity prices whereas the farmers repay the capital. It’s a deal which may make publicly owned ag firms wince however “as a family-owned firm, McCain thinks in generations”, says Koeune. “There’s no good enterprise for us if there isn’t a wholesome agricultural group.”

McCain’s measures look promising, says Andrew Challinor, professor of local weather impacts and a crop modeler on the College of Leeds within the UK. “Trialing new approaches and measuring success is a wise first step earlier than going to scale.”

However different consultants steered McCain wanted to suppose larger if it actually desires to vary the meals system. “McCain is the provider for McDonald’s, which serves extra beef than any restaurant chain on the planet,” says Jennifer Molidor, senior meals campaigner on the Heart for Organic Range, primarily based in Tucson, Arizona. “Cowl crops and no-till [farming practices] have turn out to be window dressing for enterprise as normal,” she provides. “These practices might have some advantages however not in the event that they assist the overproduction of probably the most climate-intensive meals like beef.”

Raj Patel, writer and professor, says “it’s good to see reductions in fertilizer use, and a transfer away from monoculture,” however to make a distinction, he provides, means pushing towards present financial coverage, which helps probably the most environmentally damaging food production actions.

“There may be going to be plenty of skepticism,” admits Koeune. Aware of the greenwashing that has undone so many different “sustainable” initiatives, McCain says it should repeatedly publish its findings and be as clear as potential because it tries to win folks over. Individuals shouldn’t underestimate the reluctance of the agricultural sector to vary, Koeune says. “However the price of not altering is being demonstrated each day. It’s relentless.”

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