Peanut’s environmental footprint stretches beyond the farm

- Brad Haire, Southeast Farm Press

For peanuts, the sustainability story starts in a field on a farm, but the story doesn’t end there. The next act starts when wagons loaded with peanuts pull away from the field.

In this the fourth installment of the Southeast Farm Press ‘Peanut: It’s Sustainable’ series sponsored by AMVAC/Thimet, we’ll introduce you to a study that measures peanut butter’s impact on greenhouse gas emissions, and introduce you to the country’s most-recent and largest peanut shelling facility’s efforts to create a program to connect its farmers’ sustainable practices to its buyers.

For a glimpse at peanut’s post-harvest environmental impact, Marshall Lamb, research director of the National Peanut Lab, pointed Southeast Farm Press to an industry study very academically titled “Life Cycle Assessment of Greenhouse Gas Emissions Associated with Production and Consumption of Peanut Butter in the U.S.” The study was published by the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers in 2014. Funded through a grant by the American Peanut Council, the peer-reviewed study looks at the journey of peanut butter as told through its emission of CO2e, which stands for carbon dioxide equivalent and is commonly used to quantify and describe different greenhouse gases and potential global warming impact.

The detailed study looks at the supply chain of peanut butter and breaks down the chain into six sub-systems in the process: the farm, to the buying point, to the sheller, to the processor, to retail and finally to the consumer. It measures how much CO2e of each sub-system in the chain is created to make, deliver and consumer 1kg, or 2.2 pounds, of peanut butter. The stated goal of the study was “to equip peanut industry stakeholders with data concerning the environmental performance of peanut butter manufacturing to support decision-making and to provide an opportunity to benchmark performance. This would be accomplished by quantifying GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions associated with the production, consumption, and disposal of peanut butter in the U.S.”

In short, from ‘cradle to grave’ as the study puts it, “1 kg (or 2.2 pounds) of peanut butter contributes an average of 2.88 kg CO2e to global (greenhouse gas emission) impacts.”

Of the 2.88 kg CO2e created by 2.2 pounds of peanut butter consumption, the processor, retail and consumer sub-systems contribute 2.4 kg CO2e. The farm sub-system (or what it takes to grow the peanut) creates .4 kg CO2e per 2.2 pounds of peanut butter consumed.

So, is 2.88 kg CO2e good or bad? Well, the point of the study was not really to judge that. But the study does point out the CO2e output for the making and consumption of cheese (about 13 kg CO2E per 1 kg consumed), egg (5 kg CO2e per 1 kg) and milk (about 2 kg CO2e per 1 kg consumed).

Something the study does do is set benchmarks, or a baseline, the industry didn’t have before. The peanut industry can use it now and in the future to compare peanut’s GHG footprint, said Lamb. It can be a valuable tool to compare the environmental impact of the industry down the road as new techniques or technologies are introduced and adopted in each sub-system along the supply chain.

Premium Peanut is taking steps now to be part of peanut’s sustainability story and message from the farm to the consumer. Located in Douglas, Ga., it’s the newest and largest peanut shelling facility in the world, and will shell its second season of peanuts this year.

Two months ago, Shannon Parrish was hired by the farmer-owned company to be its supply chain sustainability coordinator and to develop a program to help its 260 or so farmers understand what sustainability means and to show that many production practices they implement are already considered sustainable but possibly can be improved.

But most importantly to the company, also show its growers how sustainable practices can make them more profitable and at the same time make the company’s product more appealing to their buyers and to the growing number of consumers who care about where and how their food is created.

Parrish was brought onboard “to develop our program from the ground up. We wanted someone to work one-on-one with our growers to produce a better crop, a better yield, less waste, save them money in the longer-run, and create for Premium Peanut a higher-quality product to build on what I think is already our good reputation and be on the forefront of the industry,” said Lee Taylor, Premium Peanut’s current human resources director who will begin later this year directing the group’s new peanut oil facility.

“There are many companies that are willing to or want to buy products or sell products that are produced sustainably. And I feel like if a farmer can say he is producing his peanuts sustainably that that would give him a premium in the marketplace,” Parrish said.

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