Moving beyond “know your number”

Do you know your number? When did you find it out? What has it meant to your life since you found it out? 

You may be wondering precisely which number I’m talking about, and why it should have such importance. That’s a fair question. 

Across our electricity usage and options, budget for retirement, or greenhouse gas emissions, we are encouraged to know what our personal (or business) number might be. Knowing your number often intended as a form of empowerment. It’s reasonable to ask, “is this helpful?” and “is this sufficient?” 

The number I’m thinking about today is the greenhouse gas footprint for a farming operation, the target of a campaign that New Zealand farming industry group, He Waka Eke Noa, ran in 2021-2023. The point was to give farmers a handle on the emissions from their farming operations, and several calculators were developed and promoted to achieve this outcome. 

Is knowing a farm’s greenhouse gas emissions number helpful? 

The saying “Knowledge is power” is often attributed to Sir Francis Bacon, who aside from having a fantastic last name, wrote “Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est” or “Knowledge is itself power” (Meditationes sacrae, 1597). His point was that there is as much power in knowledge as in doing things.  

We use this phrase today to imply that the power of knowledge is that it gives us options and enables us to choose our actions. Instead of doing what we have always done, we can choose our priorities or path. 

There is a sense in which knowing our number can be helpful. Benchmarks help us to understand how we compare with others in our region or internationally, typically using some intensity metric such as emissions per kilogram of milk solids or meat, or per hectare or per head. 

More useful is the breakdown of emissions and warming potential by activity. This can help us understand the relative contributions to warming of our electricity use, the nitrogen in fertilisers, and the methane from ruminant animals. 

At the same time, numbers by themselves are not sufficient. They can help us understand the gap or opportunity, but a number rarely provides long-term motivation to change. Even if the motivation is there (and most farmers I’ve met want to be contributors and not laggards), a number by itself is not a plan. 

In our experience helping agri-food supply chains and finance businesses to monitor emissions, what farmers and their value chain partners seek are: 

  • Using benchmarks and activity breakdowns to understand the gaps and opportunities that are relevant to each farm system and business.
  • Identifying potential abatement or mitigation options for reducing absolute emissions or emissions intensity.
  • Weighing up the local environment and team practicality and financial or capital implications of the options and forming a plan and budget.
  • Monitoring progress against the plan and adapting as needed.

We focus our efforts on helping farmers and value chain organisations such as processors, brand-owners, and financial institutions to connect the data that provides evidence for sustainability, and this often includes greenhouse gas emissions. We’re agnostic about which calculator our customers select, though if I’m asked, I provide some guiding questions: 

  • Does the calculator you’re considering align with current IPCC methodology, work at an appropriate tier for farm businesses, and support local emissions factors?
  • Can we populate data into and out of the calculator, so that farm-scale activity data drives calculations, and the results can be benchmarked?
  • Will it support identification and analysis of options for reducing emissions or emissions intensity? If so, is this something that the farmer can drive, or do they need an advisor? Using an advisor can often be great, especially if they bring deep understanding and real-world experience.
  • Is there room (in the calculator or elsewhere) to track activities, efficiency improvements, and other changes, and see progress?

Just knowing your number – while disconnected of decision making – doesn’t deliver the power and benefits that farmers and supply chains seek. Add benchmarking and context to help understanding, and it can become helpful. If you can provide tools and options to identify levers for change, and help with the planning and tracking, then there is power indeed. 

And as Voltaire (1694-1778), Winston Churchill, and Peter Parker would say “With great power comes great responsibility.” 

Let’s use those insights prudently. 

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