- Interview -
Piet van Asten Head of Sustainable Production Systems at ofi
‘Be the change for good food and a healthy future’
The Olam Group is seen as an agri sector frontrunner on sustainability. Here Piet van Asten, one of the people driving the Group’s efforts on this front, discusses the approach, achievements, challenges and ambitions of its ingredients business ofi (Olam food ingredients).
Based in Singapore as Head of Sustainable Production Systems for ofi, a global supplier of sustainable, natural, value-added cocoa, coffee, dairy, nut, and spice ingredients, Piet van Asten has a dual role. First, to provide direct support to both ofi’s own estates and the origin teams in the countries where ofi works with and sources from farmers. This includes explaining what regenerative agriculture and decarbonization mean in practice, and providing practical advice on technical issues, such as what measures to prioritize or how to address specific implementation challenges.
Piet’s second role is as a member of ofi’s global sustainability team, meeting regularly with colleagues to look at sustainability issues at a strategic level: what the local teams can implement, where the risks lie, etc. With his agronomy and production systems background, and a track record in agricultural R&D in the tropics around areas such as livelihoods and communities, Piet is tasked with looking at how ofi can support farmers in decarbonizing food production whilst improving their livelihoods, helping ofi to achieve its own sustainability ambitions, and support those of its customers.
Building on Olam Group’s strong sustainability track record over the last two decades or so, ofi is currently exploring potential decarbonization pathways across its global supply chain in order to help its customers meet their Science-Based Targets (SBTI), while using insights from AtSource, its own sustainability management system, to track and tailor any action plans. Later this year, ofi will publish its new sustainability strategy with dedicated 2030 targets that will focus on accelerating decarbonization on a path to net zero.
ofi's coffee wet mill in Tanzania
DRIVERS FOR CHANGE
Piet sees the primary driver of ofi’s decarbonization agenda as a strong intrinsic motivation from within the business. “Our approach to sustainability is guided by our Purpose, to ‘Be the Change for Good Food and a Healthy Future’, which, in a nutshell, means that we aim to provide ingredients to our customers that are ‘good’ for consumers, as well as the landscapes and people they are grown in and sourced from.
“Employees want to work for companies that are purpose-driven and set on making a meaningful difference to the world around them. Only recently, I was talking with a plant scientist who’d just joined us who told me that he’d wanted to work for ofi because of our reputation as a frontrunner on sustainability. The relationships that our teams around the world have developed in farming communities for many years mean that we can offer ingredients that combine provenance and sustainability impact, with on-trend food applications to satisfy consumer demand.” This links to another driver of ofi’s decarbonization efforts. “During Covid in particular, a number of our major customers approached us on how we can help them make progress with their sustainability goals.” One way ofi does this is by running projects in partnership with clients. “Generally, a client will approach us to start a project together, partly because they want to learn from us. They often take a supply chain from which we source for them to see how we can intensify support to local farmers or communities. Our relationship with these customers and understanding of their needs are critical to enabling us to scale up what we are doing already and accelerate change.”
STRATEGIES FOR SUCCESS
How does ofi determine which GHG reduction strategies will be most effective? “First, you need to map your footprint, where your emissions are occurring. At the corporate level you can use readily available, widely used and generic third-party data that provides global emission factors per commodity (and in a few instances, commodity per country). From this, using the simple equation: tonnes of production x emission factors = amount of CO2, you have a footprint per product, including what proportion of the emissions are from farm-level inputs, transportation, processing, etc. But for the real insights, Piet and his colleagues then drill down to the landscape and farm level. “Among other things, we’ve developed an in-house tool called the Digital Footprint Calculator (DFC), based on the principles of Life Cycle Assessment and the GHG Protocol, which allows you to determine the carbon footprint of a product at farm and landscape level.”
Piet takes the example of nitrogen fertilisers. “Manufacturing solid granules of nitrogen fertiliser from Nitrogen in the atmosphere costs a lot of energy. But the carbon footprint of nitrate fertilizer production can be 2-3 times higher than that of urea, another nitrogen fertilizer. So, fertilizer choice has an impact on carbon footprints. Farmers’ choices on timing and application of fertiliser on the field also has an impact on their emissions. Our field teams collect detailed information on which inputs farmers are using and how they’re applying them. We then enter this into the DFC on the sustainability management system AtSource to calculate the impact of each of the various fertilisers and methods of using them. We do a similar job with all the other relevant factors, from seedling nurseries and waste management, to packaging and logistics, to determine the exact composition of the footprint. And basically what we see is that 70-80% of the GHG footprint of all our commodities comes from three things: nitrogen; crop residues, in particular ‘wet waste’ (harvest by-products such as coffee cherry pulp, cocoa pods, cashew apples and wastewater from primary processing); and land-use change.”
Coffee beans are removed from the cherry and the remaining pulp is often left on big heaps to decompose for many months. The wet heaps start to ferment and anaerobic conditions start to create methane emissions (= 26x CO2), making up to 25% of the coffee carbon footprint.
When asked which measures are the most effective in reducing GHG in ofi’s own production, Piet divides things into four ‘buckets’: land-use change, crop residue management, nitrogen management and yield improvement. Of which he says, eliminating residue emissions is probably one of the quickest way to meaningfully reduce footprints. “Take coffee. Almost half the crop’s mass ends up as waste. And though it does create some logistical and operational challenges for the farmer, basically you can avoid the anaerobic, wet decomposition of residue from a farm relatively easily and cheaply. In our plantations we now avoid leaving the pulp on heaps but return it to the field where it is spread out, so it decomposes without producing methane while reducing nutrient losses.”
1. LAND-USE CHANGE 2. CROP RESIDUE MANAGEMENT 3. NITROGEN MANAGEMENT 4. YIELD IMPROVEMENT
REDUCING THE IMPACT OF NITROGEN MIGHT SEEM AN EASY WIN
Reducing the impact of nitrogen might seem an easy win, but as Piet explains, it isn’t as straightforward as one might imagine. “If you simply stop using nitrogen fertilisers, your yield plummets by 50-70%. And if it goes too low, your product footprint will actually go up, as you still have fixed carbon costs (per hectare) in terms of land-use change and cost of field establishment, etc. The challenge is to get your application of nitrogen fertilisers just right. For example, not every tree in a field performs equally well. It sounds counter-intuitive, but if you apply a fertiliser uniformly, you’re basically giving the high-performing trees too little fertiliser and the low performers too much. And you can’t avoid emissions by simply switching from synthetic to organic fertilisers either. Because while you avoid energy emissions from processing, the way compost is produced can also emit a lot of methane, a potent GHG, and you will still get field emissions from compost in the form of nitrous oxides. So as you can see, it quickly becomes very complex — technically and operationally for the farmer, and for us in terms of implications for the business, around for example supply chain costs or the cost/benefits of switching fertilisers.” Yield improvement offers real opportunities to reduce GHGs, Piet says, but is also far from straightforward. “A large proportion of tropical crops like coffee and cocoa are produced by smallholders, who tend to have low yields. Through more effective pruning, weeding, disease control, etc you can push up that yield. Even if the farmer now uses slightly more nitrogen fertilisers, their carbon footprint (based on yield per unit product, not per hectare) will still shrink. What’s more, farmers who have the means to invest in their farms thanks to higher yields and income, can implement regenerative agricultural practices and are less likely to encroach into protected areas to expand their farms.”
BIG YIELD, SMALL IMPACT
Because yield improvement can have major benefits in terms of livelihoods and local economic benefits, it is a key area when it comes to environmental impact, as it can reduce the amount of land-use change. However, as Piet explains, this is a complex and demanding area of engagement. “Management of a local landscape isn’t driven by a single company like us. First, we obviously can’t just tell a farmer what they can and can’t do. And there are many other public and private sector stakeholders influencing landscape-level decision-making. Local policy makers are also critical in this debate, and their level of understanding and engagement can vary enormously. It means that for landscape approaches to work we must have a very strong engagement with the public sector, rally the private sector and, of course, ensure the farmer remains at the centre of everything, as they have to know what behaviours (e.g. stopping cutting down trees or controlling erosion) they need to change. So you have to get the agenda just right and then align interests behind it. “There are specific landscapes and supply chains where we have developed strong partnerships that we’re very proud of. For example, summer school programmes to avoid child labour during the coffee harvest in Guatemala and hazelnut harvest in Turkey. And supporting conservation actors, such as WCS, to engage in community-level conservation planning near national parks and at biodiversity hotspots like East DR Congo and South Sumatra. Nevertheless, this is an area where for us as a company it’s more difficult to move the needle, and we need to scale up these ‘islands of success’ to create quantitative impact on a global scale.”
TRANSPARENCY AND TRACEABILITY
An interesting service ofi offers customers is access to data from their supply chains through the sustainability management system AtSource. The granularity of the data provides a window into the social and environmental footprints of ofi’s ingredients, specific to each customer’s supply chain. This helps reveal where further interventions are required, and presents opportunities for customers to work with ofi’s teams to explore and create action plans to drive improvement. “With this information, our customers can help consumers better understand how the cocoa and hazelnuts in their snack bar, or coffee and almond in their frappé, are grown, and the social and environmental story behind them.”
Photo caption here
NO CARBON CREDITS
Piet’s response to the question of whether ofi looks at ways to offset any remaining carbon emissions, for example by purchasing carbon credits, is unambiguous. “Our current focus is on designing and targeting interventions that reduce GHG emissions in our supply chains. In other words, insets rather than offsets. Our priority is on activities that will reduce the emissions from our suppliers’ farms, and the areas that surround and connect with those farms, in order to make the whole production system more resilient, and support soil health, biodiversity and water stewardship.”
Asked what one thing has the greatest potential for reducing GHGs in the agri sector in the future, Piet is surprisingly quick with his response. “There are so many things that can be done, but I think the biggest single driver would be to have farm-level carbon footprints fully audited and validated by third parties, as the footprint will then have a monetary value. And that would mean a market tool could be developed with which to set carbon reduction premiums on products.
“As yet, there isn’t the market mechanism or market confidence for such a system to operate outside individual projects. But if there was, we could have an objectively agreed upon carbon premium for, say, Colombian coffee sourced from a particular supply chain, and the customer would have to pay that premium as part of the cost of their coffee. This wouldn’t be just another incremental step towards better practices or transparency. It would be a game changer.” And one suspects that if such a system is ever launched, Piet van Asten and ofi will be amongst its earliest adopters.
Farmers participating in sustainability programs in Vietnam Robusta coffee here in the Gia Lai province receive new planting material. Better yield and more resilient varieties help lower the carbon footprint.
In order to improve plant growth and fertilizer use efficiency, ofi collaborates with academic partners like Wageningen University - in picture, Kalima Kabanda WUR PhD student observes coffee root systems.