aFor a backdrop of blue skies and autumn leaves that would make an Instagram filter blush, a group of agricultural graduate students on a New Brunswick farm tinker with a technology they hope will one day help solve an existential crisis: how to save the world’s potatoes.
The Canadian farm in Florenceville is owned by the McCain family, heirs to the 65-year-old frozen food company that is now the world’s largest manufacturer of frozen potato products and a supplier of restaurant giants including McDonald’s. The company claims that one in four French fries in the world are McCain fry.
But like a growing number of people in the food and agriculture sector, executives at McCain Foods are concerned about what the strangest weather in the world means for their business and the future of the planet.
Max Koyon, a multilingual Luxembourgisher who is McCain’s CEO and President, has a global view of how quickly the climate crisis is affecting the world. McCain sources potatoes from nearly 3,500 farmers worldwide, from smallholders to giant corporate farms, and is updated daily on how the climate is changing.
“When I joined, we had a bad harvest every 10 years that was ‘historic’ – you won’t know when it’s coming. For the past 10 years, there’s been a bad harvest somewhere every year,” says Koyun.
New Brunswick’s “Farm of the Future” is one of a series of labs the company plans to spread around the world where it tests best practices appropriate to saving potatoes, while reducing the company’s carbon footprint. McCain has committed to implementing renewable agricultural practices across all potato tracts worldwide by the end of 2030.
Different geographic areas will allow McCain to assess different environments. New Brunswick has a short growing season and very cold winters. In South Africa, where another farm is set up, potatoes grow all year round but water scarcity is more of a problem than in (historically) rainy Canada.
Not that water isn’t a problem in Canada either. Crops there were hit by floods in 2018 and 2019. The heat dome brought “head-shaking” temperatures to Canada and large parts of the US in 2021. Droughts in Europe and the UK have also damaged potato crops, reducing them by double digits. “We can no longer use the past to figure out what will happen to our business,” Koyon says.
With population growth and rising temperatures, a shift to a more sustainable future in agriculture is essential. According to a 2018 analysis of diet’s impact on the environment published in Nature, if the systems we use now do not change, the diet’s environmental impacts could increase 50% to 90% by 2050, “reaching extra-planetary levels that define a safe working space for humanity.” “.
Koyun says, you should think of potatoes as a human. “They like a temperate climate. They shiver when it’s too cold and sweat when it’s too hot. That’s all the energy they need to grow.” After 10,000 years of domestication, our increasingly strained world threatens the future of the third most important food crop after rice and wheat.
“What happens affects us as farmers, us as people, us as a company. We have to think about this differently,” Koyun says.
The typical farm looks like Star Trek for potatoes: an international multicultural crew with laptops, sensors and drones boldly goes where no potato farmer has gone before.
A team of postgraduates from Dalhousie University are working on a crop sprinkler that uses artificial intelligence to identify insects and weeds that can harm the crop. Instead of spraying the entire field, pattern recognition systems detect unwanted invaders and direct nozzles to target them. Recognizing and spraying a beetle takes only 200 milliseconds.
Humphrey Mambo, a PhD student, excitedly waves a small blue flag representing an insect under a nozzle to show how it works. Spritz! Science is dead. He says the sprayer can cut pesticide use by 50%-80%, and says it can easily be modified to fit existing machines.
On a potato sorter, or “self-vision tuber grading machine,” sensors check the potatoes as they enter the storage shed. Red, green, and blue blocks appear on display, like disjointed copies of Ugo Rondinone’s brightly colored rock carvings. The machine scans for gravity and density, which is important for the quality of the fry and problems such as “hollow heart” – when hollows form in a tuber.
Traditionally, farmers manually sampled a small number of potatoes from a field to ascertain quality. This new system, though, evaluates seven out of every 200 potatoes, giving more data to identify problems and even trace them back to where they originated.
Another unit reads gamma rays to draw a physical and chemical map of the field. McCain’s scientists also use DNA samples to determine the biodiversity of their plots, drones to see how the crop grows, and close-up satellite images to capture the bigger picture.
Not all initiatives are high-tech, and Yves Leclerc, director of agricultural engineering, North America, at McCain Foods, thinks we’re obsessed with games. “It’s all about the soil. It’s soil,” he says seriously, as he rushes into the field to uproot plants and a handful of soil.
The farm is experimenting with initiatives to reduce tillage, which enables the soil to hold more organic matter. Cover crops were planted to protect the field once the potatoes were harvested – last year the team planted 28 different varieties. It’s an ancient practice in which plants provide nutrients to the soil and protect it from pests – millet, for example, helps protect against nematodes. This year, Leclerc worries that they have planted a lot of buckwheat and orchard grass. We are dealing with a complex system. It’s not a simple recipe, all things evolve.”
Cover crops also help the soil retain water. “Retaining water in the soil is the best way to cope with the increasing temperatures,” says Dr. Manful Vajira, chief scientist and director of Future Farm. “In 2020 farmers lost 35% of their crops here because it was too dry.”
Cover crops cost more, in terms of labor as well as seeds. But it’s cheaper than the long-term alternative, which is soil erosion, Vageria says. And in a subtle synthesis of the old and the new, all the data farmers can now collect can determine which crops cover the best that helps them increase their yields.
McCain’s fields stand in stark contrast to the empty, brown land of its potato-growing neighbors. The company hopes its experiences will encourage others to follow suit. Nearly all of the world’s food is grown in the topsoil, but half of the planet’s most productive soils have disappeared in the past 150 years, in part due to modern farming practices.
In another area, an ancient method of cultivation is being tested. A herd of cows, borrowed from a nearby farm, grazes and lazes, harvesting vegetation and dumping manure. Fageria jumps to show how the herd moves around the field using a remote-controlled moving fence. Fences are expensive and Fageria is considering switching to electronic collars that will keep cows within specific GPS coordinates. The cows seem very comfortable with Fageria, perhaps because he is a vegetarian or perhaps because he grew up on a farm in Rajasthan, India, herding camels, goats and sheep. We separated animals from plant production. In this system composting becomes a problem. In this is the solution,” he says.
Enthusiasm is palpable, but how can this happen to farmers suffering from high inflation and the climate emergency?
Koyon admits that the project wouldn’t matter if farmers weren’t convinced by the change. “Farmers are not interested in concepts. It has to be tangible. We have to do it, show that it works and prove that it is economically viable,” he says. “Farmers believe what they see.”
It’s only two years but the crops on this New Brunswick farm seem to be on the rise. The increasing power and lower costs of computers mean that the technology McCain’s team is testing could be within the reach of many farmers.
Coyon says McCain alone can’t change the world. On Thursday, McCain and other big companies including Mars and PepsiCo released a report arguing that the amount of sustainable agriculture should triple by 2030.
In France, McCain has partnered with Crédit Agricole to provide loans to farmers who invest in sustainable agriculture. McCain charges the interest while the farmers repay the capital. It’s a deal that could cause publicly owned agribusiness to disintegrate but “as a family-owned business, McCain thinks of generations,” Koyun says. “There is no good business for us if there is no healthy farming community.”
McCain’s actions look promising, says Andrew Challinor, a professor of climate impacts and crop designer at the University of Leeds in the UK. “Trying new approaches and measuring success is a reasonable first step before expanding.”
But other experts pointed out that McCain needs to think more if he really wants to change the diet. “McCain is the supplier to McDonald’s, which serves more beef than any chain of restaurants on the planet,” says Jennifer Moulidor, principal food activist for the Center for Biological Diversity, based in Tucson, Arizona. “Covering crops and no plowing [farming practices] They became a window decoration for business as usual.” “These practices may have some benefits but not if they support the overproduction of the most climate-intensive foods such as beef.”
“It is good to see decreases in fertilizer use, and a move away from monoculture,” says Raj Patel, author and professor, but to make a difference, he adds, it means pushing against current economic policy, which supports more environmentally harmful food production activities.
“There will be a lot of doubts,” Coyeon admits. Aware of the green bleaching process that has spoiled many other “sustainable” initiatives, McCain says it will publish its findings regularly and be as transparent as possible in its attempt to win over people. Koyon says people should not underestimate the agricultural sector’s reluctance to change. But the cost of not changing appears on a daily basis. It is relentless.”