Model helps businesses track ‘greenness’ of supply chain

A University research team is helping corporations discover where their products are grown.

by Keaton Schmitt

New tools from a University of Minnesota team could give large corporations the ability to sell greener products and lighten their environmental footprint.
Researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Northstar Initiative — who created a model to track environmental impacts of agricultural products such as corn — now want to expand the food types covered by their model. 
The project began when the Environmental Defense Fund asked members of the initiative to research the influence of a company on food producers, said Tim Smith, Northstar’s director.
Often, when crops are purchased by corporations such as Walmart, it’s unclear where the product came from or how it was grown, said Jennifer Schmitt, lead scientist for the initiative. 
“Corn [is] a commodity. It all gets mixed. It’s all the same, and so it can just move around to where it’s the least cost,” Schmitt said.
The team’s model predicts how corn gets from producers to businesses, Schmitt said. With the model, corporations can motivate farmers to use greener growing methods.
The researchers are now working to expand the system to other commodities like soy, she said.
Businesses can’t estimate how much they harm the environment, and the researchers’ model could help for corporations to reduce their impact, Schmitt said.
“It’s very challenging [to estimate harm] … when you’re dealing with these large commodities. … It’s much more difficult to track the flow of matter along the supply chain,” said Jason Hill, a biosystems engineering associate professor.
Smith said predicting the impact of meat is even more complicated because livestock require food, and scientists have to measure food and livestock impacts separately. 
He said this complexity also translates to reducing a company’s carbon use. If corporations want to sell more environmentally friendly meat, they have to reduce the impact of the corn the cows eat, even if they never buy corn themselves. 
Intermediate businesses keep records of their suppliers private, making it impossible for those like Walmart to track where products come from, Schmitt said. 
“There are very few people who go out and say, ‘I want to destroy the environment as much as possible and pay extra to do it,’” Hill said. “But there are reasons why farmers make decisions that lead to greater environmental harm.”
Currently, some farms use extra fertilizer that can seep into ground water, and others leave no buffer area between crops and water sources, causing contamination, he said.
“If you over-fertilize … often that fertilizer will [evaporate] into ammonia, which can damage air quality, or as nitrous oxide that can contribute to climate change … or it may run off into waterways,” Hill said.
If companies buy greener products, farmers would be motivated to grow in more environmentally friendly ways, Hill said, adding that much of the ability to fight negative impacts also falls on consumer food choices.