Innovation That Matters

The potato farm of the future

Innovation Snapshot

The global company is working out how to reduce emissions and restore biodiversity while increasing yields

Potatoes are the third most important food crop globally in terms of human consumption, after rice and wheat. They’re grown in 125 countries and eaten by more than a billion people worldwide. 

However, this staple food is under threat from the negative impact intensive farming has had on soil quality and biodiversity, which affects the quality and quantity of the crops. Climate change is also an issue for farmers as extreme heat and water scarcity around the world adversely affect yields. This year, for example, crops are delayed across Europe due to the hot weather and drought conditions. And this comes on the tail of a summer drought in 2022 that resulted in a 5 per cent decline in production year on year, according to estimates from industry association North-Western European Potato Growers.

McCain Foods is the world’s largest manufacturer of frozen potato products, and so has a vested interest in mitigating against these threats. In 2021, the company announced a commitment that 100 per cent of its potato crop will involve regenerative agricultural practices by the end of this decade, which means that the 3500-plus growers in its supply chain will need to adapt. 

To help them do so, McCain has established a project called Farm of the Future, the first of which began operations in 2021 in Canada with another located in South Africa, and another planned in Europe in the near future. The farms bring together scientists, agronomists, and experts in advanced farming technology to test and embed smart and regenerative approaches to the cultivation of potatoes across the three, varied climates in each of the Farm of the Future locations. McCain will then transfer the learnings to its network of growers so that they feel confident that a more sustainable approach makes both business and environmental sense. 

Some of the regenerative techniques being used as part of the initiative include planting cover crops to protect the soil once the potatoes have been harvested; reducing the use of fertilisers; integrating livestock; and minimising soil disturbance through controlled-traffic farming. These practices are being complemented by technological innovations such as GPS systems on all farm machinery and soil scanning technology.

The results are promising, with McCain’s latest sustainability report showing an eight per cent reduction in CO2 emissions per tonne from potato farming, storage, and freight, as well as an 11 per cent reduction in water use efficiency in water-stressed regions. Meanwhile, yields at the Farm of the Future Canada are up by 17 per cent. 

Regenerative agriculture can’t change the weather, but it can improve the outlook for some of our most essential crops.

Written By: Angela Everitt

Video credit: RE:TV