The horticulture sector is taking steps to improve sustainability in all areas, including packaging, energy, crop protection and substrate. But tackling everything at once puts you at risk of losing focus. So you need to make choices, preferably based on facts: what applications will help me reduce my carbon footprint the most?

Raymond Scheepens

The HortiFootprint Calculator is a tool that provides you with substantiated facts, as it calculates the carbon footprint of your entire operation. Raymond Scheepens of MPS explains how the HortiFootprint Calculator works: “The grower enters data that the tool links to a standardised European calculation method specifically created for the horticulture sector. The calculation tool translates everything into an easy-to-understand carbon footprint that shows you which part of your production process produces the biggest share of it. You can then decide which knobs to tweak to reduce the footprint and what you need to consider in doing so.”

Scheepens explains that in 2021 MPS ran a pilot together with several growers to develop and test the tool. “Based on the results of the pilot, the vast majority of the growers involved continued to calculate and improve their footprint. We now have more than 25 customers using the tool in practice. We are continuing to develop it further with their input.”

Roel van Schie (right)

Standard calculation
Managing director Roel van Schie of hydrangea specialists Sjaak van Schie started using the calculator early on: “Being market leaders in hydrangeas, we also want to be at the forefront in terms of sustainability. We are already fully immersed in the MPS environment, so it is easy for us to use the HortiFootprint Calculator. In my view it is important to have a standard calculation that enables you to visualise your sustainability profile, and I think this tool can contribute to that. However sustainably you produce, there comes a point when the facts are more important than the story: what are you actually doing?”

Combining data efficiently
Scheepens: “For companies that already have MPS-ABC certification it is easy to start using the HortiFootprint Calculator, as around 70 percent of the data is already there. Our data partner LetsGrow analyses the data and displays it on a dashboard. But growers who don’t (yet) have MPS-ABC certification can also feed the HortiFootprint Calculator with information. This can be done through its dedicated registration system or via the MPS record-keeping environment. The advantage of the latter option is that the data is already compatible with the calculator.”

He adds:’ “Recording a lot of different types of data is very time-consuming for the grower. And of course that also applies to the statutory records they are required to keep. Fortunately, there is a lot of overlap with what you enter for the HortiFootprint Calculator or for MPS-ABC… We are convinced that with the combination of MPS-ABC and the HortiFootprint Calculator you can achieve the greatest efficiency in your record-keeping. The calculator can also be a step towards applying for certification, or vice versa.”

On ice
Van Schie agrees: “We have obtained all relevant certificates, such as MPS-ABC, MPS-SQ, Grasp, MPS-GAP and MPS-ProductProof, so we have a lot of data that can be used in the HortiFootprint Calculator models. We also like the fact that this enables us to contribute to improving the sustainability of the horticulture sector, because this tool delivers knowledge and insights. We are seeing some growers putting their sustainability efforts on ice at the moment because of all the uncertainties such as inflation, sustainability requirements and high energy prices: you simply don’t know where you stand. But using this kind of tool can also give you more certainty. You get reliable knowledge and insights from it which help boost your confidence that as a company you can move forward into the future.”

Zoom in
Scheepens: “The data you input is used to produce a so-called impact score: the CO2 impact of each subject. For inputs such as packaging, energy and substrate, this indicates in what areas their impact is high or low. A breakdown of the analysis is also provided. As a result, you not only find out what the impact of your substrate usage is as a whole but also what proportion is caused by the various raw materials such as coir, peat or bark. Based on that, you can then make decisions on how to reduce the impact.”

Van Schie adds: “I actually see the calculator as a tool that provides management information, because it tells you which processes are better and which are less good. With many different market parties involved, you get reliable information that gives you a consistent narrative for the consumer and policymakers. In the debate around sustainability, public opinion sometimes tends to focus on one particular subject, for example that growers should stop using gas. But there is a lack of knowledge of many factors that also play a role. In these debates it would help to be able to tell a complete story, substantiated with facts, that is clear to everyone. A standard calculation like the one used in the HortiFootprint Calculator contributes to that.”

Scenario planner
“To make the calculator even more insightful, we have added a scenario planning feature,” Scheepens says. “This enables you to enter the fact that you want to replace a proportion of peat with a proportion of bark, for example. The system will then tell you what implications this has for your CO2 emissions. Likewise, you can enter the details of various scenarios you are considering and work out what their impact is. In summary, the HortiFootprint Calculator gives you a breakdown of what your current carbon footprint is made up of, and you can use detailed scenarios to predict how you can change this impact. The calculator works out precisely what you can achieve in terms of CO2 emissions.”

Leading the way
Scheepens notes that there is significantly more demand for the HortiFootprint Calculator from ornamentals growers than from the fruit and vegetable sector. “The fruit and vegetable sector is often at the forefront of developments, but in this case the opposite is true. We’re not entirely sure why that is.” But for Van Schie, what is important is that his company wants to be a front-runner. “We are committed to contributing to these developments because we can see that they are inevitable. As a relatively large company we also have the opportunity to contribute something. I can understand that a small business will initially see this as just another cost. So I believe that as a leading company we need to take a leading position in this. Once it has been developed, this standard calculator will also help small businesses identify what effect their footprint has and how they can respond to that. And it delivers insights that enable you to keep your sustainability efforts affordable and remain attractive to the customer.”

Reliable standard
A tool like this must be reliable, Scheepens points out. “That is why HortiFootprint is based on the European standard FloriPEFCR. As such, the HortiFootprint Calculator uses a harmonised calculation method that allows the European horticulture sector to perform consistent LCA analyses. This means that we follow the European Commission’s template for the development of environmental footprint rules for product categories (PEFCR stands for product environmental footprint category rules).”

“It will probably take a few more years for this tool to become commonplace among growers,” Van Schie says. “The companies that are already participating are adding so much data that the tool will continue to improve and become more reliable.” According to Scheepens, MPS is in fact moving forward with its development: “A next step in the development of the HortiFootprint Calculator is validation. This means that the claims you make about your CO2 performance as a company can be independently verified. This kind of guaranteed footprint gives you credibility vis-a-vis the outside world, which helps raise your company’s profile.”

Impact categories
At the moment, the HortiFootprint Calculator calculates the carbon footprint of a grower’s production. In practice, this impact category is the most important one. There are 16 environmental impact categories altogether which together form a complete life-cycle analysis (LCA). Scheepens: “Which categories will be added depends on the market for which there is the most demand. Apart from CO2, we expect the environmental impact in respect of water, ecotoxicity of products and fertiliser runoff in water and on land to be the major ones. In terms of other categories such as radioactivity we will see whether there is sufficient demand for them, but it may well be that in 10 years’ time it will be customary to undergo a complete LCA. This is not a problem for the calculator; we will just have to implement the relevant data and link the record-keeping data to it.”

No window dressing
Of course it’s good to know how big your carbon footprint is. But it must not stop there. Scheepens: “For a start, you get a concrete, substantiated insight into the CO2 impact of your operations, which means you don’t have to rely on estimates. You can then decide how to improve your sustainability in a meaningful way so that your CO2 emissions actually fall measurably. Also, if you use the analysis smartly you can often save money over time. You can already see a pattern in measures that are more or less likely to lead to CO2 reductions. In practice, we are above all seeing growers making adjustments in the use of substrate and energy in order to reduce their carbon footprint. Making your packaging and crop protection more sustainable is also important, but that often has less of an impact on CO2 emissions. The HortiFootprint Calculator provides hard data, the ability to prioritise and tips for taking concrete steps.”

This article originally appeared in Dutch on the website Boom-in-Business on 6 October 2022.