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Tina Casey headshot

This GHG Measurement Model Could Be a Game-Changer for the Agriculture Industry

By Tina Casey
GHG measurement in agriculture

This article series is sponsored by Smithfield Foods and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team. 

There is a good reason why Smithfield Foods was the first major protein company to measure its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The protein supply chain is front-loaded with GHGs long before livestock arrives at the processing facility. A lack of uniformity among suppliers adds another layer of complexity to the already daunting task of tracking emissions.

Nevertheless, Smithfield has plunged into the effort, backed by a pledge to reduce its absolute GHG emissions 25 percent by 2025, compared to a 2010 baseline. That includes everything in the supply chain, from hog feed to the finished pork products and the transportation in between. 

If that sounds like an ambitious challenge, it is. The payoff could be equally impressive. Smithfield and its collaborators have created a measurement model that could be used throughout the meat processing industry.

Applied nationally, and globally, the impact would be significant. Smithfield alone expects to reduce its absolute GHG emissions by more than 4 million metric tons, or the equivalent of taking 900,000 cars off the road, through its “25 by ‘25” commitment.

Not too long ago, that would have been a nearly impossible task. Today it’s a different story. Biogas digesters and other emissions-reducing systems are now mainstream technologies. Just as importantly, a deep well of sustainability research and expertise is at hand. 

Collaborators in the Smithfield effort include the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the University of Minnesota’s NorthStar Initiative for Sustainable Enterprise, which developed the GHG measurement model.

Rylie Pelton, a post doctorate associate at the university, explains how this collaboration connects the private sector with fact-based insights into their operations: “NorthStar is about applied science. We talk with companies like Smithfield that are interested in sustainability and figuring out what challenges they are facing. Our part is the research to overcome those challenges.”

Without fact-based research, well-intentioned companies are left to practice a hit-or-miss approach to reducing GHG emissions. NorthStar helps identify priorities for action based on impact.

When the Smithfield collaboration began in 2016, NorthStar had to start from scratch. A lack of visibility among Smithfield’s feed suppliers was one major complication. Sorting through the different hog suppliers was another, as Smithfield receives part of its hog supply from contract farms. NorthStar also recognized the need to refine data collection and analysis with more precision. The institute had previously performed a national supply chain study for The National Pork Board, but that was just a jumping-off point for new research.

Smithfield’s NorthStar model relies on actual data from the company’s operations, not industry estimates. As a result, the model can trace specific details right down to the capacity of individual feed mills and their feed mix.

“For example, if your North Carolina facility purchases hogs from an operation in a particular county, and that operation purchases feed from several other counties, we can see what part of the supply chain drives emissions,” Pelton explains. The model enables Smithfield to track water resource impacts, too.

The biogas opportunity

Not surprisingly, one element that sticks out like a sore thumb is methane emissions from hog manure. Improvements in that area will make a significant difference, Pelton says.

Smithfield also has high expectations for reducing GHG emissions through improved manure management. The organization foresees significant bottom-line benefits as well. 

In a blog post last December, EDF summarized the steps Smithfield is taking: “Smithfield announced earlier this fall that it will invest hundreds of millions of dollars in infrastructure that converts manure methane emissions into renewable natural gas. The new technology will be installed on 90 percent of Smithfield’s hog finishing spaces in North Carolina and Utah; and on nearly all in Missouri. In total, the company will capture emissions from more than 1,000 farms nationwide.”

Typically, biogas from agricultural operations is used on-site. Smithfield’s approach is more ambitious. As EDF describes, the company has partnered with Dominion Energy in a $250 million joint venture called Align Renewable Natural Gas (RNG) that will feed biogas from manure into the gas distribution grid in North Carolina, Utah and Virginia, where it can be used off-site by residential and commercial customers. That distribution partnership is a major key to success. 

Pelton notes that it is difficult to incentivize farmers to invest in manure covers and biogas digesters. The new Align RNG venture provides that incentive by enabling farmers to tap into a potential new revenue stream. In effect, it monetizes manure biogas through aggregation. According to a Smithfield contract farmer, that revenue could run as high as $70,000 annually for an individual farm.

It’s complicated

Manure management is also just part of the work undertaken by Smithfield. The company is working with EDF to reduce nitrous oxide emissions from grain farms. Reducing carbon emissions by improving feed conversion efficiency is another goal.

The company has also targeted its processing plants for energy-efficiency upgrades, including refrigeration and boiler equipment, and it is working to reduce carbon emissions from its transportation chain.

Pelton also notes that Smithfield has some interesting choices to make regarding downstream impacts. For example, emissions can be reduced at the consumer end by adding more pre-cooked items to the product line, but that could make it more difficult to reduce emissions at the processing plant.

As for NorthStar, Pelton emphasizes that the model they develop with Smithfield can be used by any company in the pork industry. Beyond that, NorthStar is using lessons learned from the Smithfield collaboration to build a supply chain model that can be applied to poultry and wheat crops on an industrywide basis.

All in all, the Smithfield effort demonstrates the power of collaboration. By working together on a common goal, the private sector, the research community, and environmental organizations can break down a seemingly impossible task and create new pathways for swift, effective action on carbon emissions.

Image courtesy of Smithfield Foods

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey