Tackling greenhouse gas emissions in food production with the Cool Farm Tool

Researchers at the University of Aberdeen are working with Unilever and wider industry to tackle climate change associated with the global food chain.

The United Nations estimate we will need to produce 70% more food to support a growing global population by 2050. To achieve this goal, the agriculture industry will need to find a way to tackle the numerous challenges this demand represents. Climate change, caused by greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs), is among the most significant ones as currently up to a third of all GHGs come from the global food system and have a far-ranging environmental impact.

Research led by the University of Aberdeen has developed a tool known as the "Cool Farm Tool", with a series of applications for the agriculture industry, land managers and policymakers. The tool was created to allow stakeholders in the industry apply the best available scientific methods and to support their decision-making. in turn enabling an actual reduction in GHGs. 

Creating the Cool Farm Tool

To create the Cool Farm Tool, the team led by University of Aberdeen researchers Pete Smith and Jo Smith collaborated with colleagues at the University of Edinburgh (Jon Hillier – originally at University of Aberdeen), the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) centres, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Forest Research, the James Hutton Institute, the Sustainable Food Lab, Cool Farm Alliance, Yara (a leading agrochemical company) and others.

Complex mathematical models of how emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide cycle affect agricultural processes like fertilization, tillage and irrigation were used to create a tool that is easy to understand and use and that allows for tangible aimed at reducing GHGs in the farming and food industry.

The development of this tool was carried out in partnership with food giant Unilever in 2008. Since 2013, the tool has been expanded to include perennial crops (such as apples, figs, and olives), while a water module has also been added to estimate the extent of water use in agriculture leading to further uptake of the tool by industry.

By 2013 Unilever had partnered with 17 industry competitors (including PepsiCo, McDonald’s, M&S, McCain, Mars, Kellogg’s, Heineken, Branston, Danone, Tesco, Heinz, and Costco) to create the Cool Farm Alliance. Since 2013, the Cool Farm Alliance membership has grown further to include 89 companies and more than 10,500 registered users.

Companies use the tool to calculate and find ways of reducing their environmental impact without affecting their productivity. Since it was created, the Cool Farm tool has been used in 118 different countries to make a total of 47,000 assessments.

Cool Farm success stories

The Cool Farm Tool has enabled substantial reductions in GHGs in food supply chains. Unilever reported a 25% reduction in GHGs from its tomato farmers, while ADAS (the UK’s largest independent provider of agricultural and environmental consultancy) and PepsiCo, working alongside Walkers Crisps, achieved an average reduction of 50% for carbon emissions and water use in five years (2010-2015) across their UK potato farms.

The addition of the water module allowed Solidaridad, an international development agency, to improve yield by 21% alongside a reduction in emissions of nearly 28,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents by collaborating with 7,361 farmers in Mexico, Columbia, and Peru. This would not have been possible without the tool.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) – India, in cooperation with Marks & Spencer, used the tool to assess the GHGs generated by cotton cultivation in Warangal, India and used the findings to promote better management practices that simultaneously lower the use of fertilisers and reduce the environmental impacts.

Many other members of the Alliance reported similar success stories. Due to the unprecedented uptake of and utility of the tool, in 2014 ownership of the tool was transferred from the University of Aberdeen to the Cool Farm Alliance, which now administers it and implements updates from the research team.


  • The Cool Farm Tool enabled the creation of the Cool Farm Alliance in 2013, which now counts 89 companies and 10,500 registered users.
  • The Cool Farm Tool has been used in 118 different countries to make 47,000 assessments.
  • The Cool Farm Tool revolutionized the agriculture sector’s capacity for practical behaviour change and decision-making and has enabled substantial greenhouse gas (GHGs) reductions in food supply chains.
  • By December 2020, 6,190 learners had graduated from a programme using the Social Practices Approach taught by a trained tutor and a further 6,132 were awaiting examination.
  • Some of the most notable GHGs reductions include 25% less emissions in Unilever tomato farms in 5 countries, a 12% GHGs reduction in Danone farming operations in 13 countries, and a 50% GHGs reduction in Walkers Crisps UK potato farms over a period of 5 years.
  • The Cool Farm Tool use increased yield by 21% alongside a 28,000 tonne of CO2 equivalent reduction in emissions for 7,361 farmers in Mexico, Columbia and Peru.
  • WWF-India used the Cool Farm Tool to assess GHGs in traditional and better management practices (BMPs) cotton cultivation in Warangal, India, enabling it to start a programme of promoting BMPs in cotton production in the region to lower the use of pesticides and GHGs.