The alcoholic beverage industry has a long tail of carbon emissions due to its seat at the nexus of agriculture and industry, but fortunately for members of the drinking public, the winds of sustainability are blowing. One good example is the centuries old Martinique distillery Rhum JM, which aims to lead the way into the low-carbon future of rum production with an assist from drones and other new agricultural technologies.
Carbon Emissions, Sustainability, & Alcohol
Back in 2012, the Beverage Industry Environmental Roundtable undertook an ambitious project to map the carbon footprint of beer, bottled water, carbonated soft drinks, spirits, and wine. If you’re wondering why not juices, that’s a good question. If you know the answer, drop us a note in the comment thread. It might have something to do with those little juice boxes with their wrappings and straws, which are such an obvious environmental disaster that the research dollars are better spent elsewhere.
In the spirits category, BIER used a 12-pack of bottled whiskey produced in North America, consisting of 750 milliliter glass bottles in a corrugated cardboard box. The carbon mapping project included the following features:
- Raw material selection (emission factor)
- Distillation type (column vs. pot),
- Distribution assumptions (transportation modes)
- By-product processing (allocations)
- Primary package weight
- Primary package material
- Recycling methodology
Without digging into the numbers, that list indicates there is plenty of opportunity for the global beverage industry to reduce its carbon footprint, especially in the distillation process.
Rhum JM Steps Up Its Game, With Drones
Many distillers have taken up the challenge, so we’ll narrow the field by focusing on the Martinique distillery Rhum JM as a standout example of a legacy brand re-tooling itself for sustainability. Rhum JM also faces the challenges posed by its location in a small, tourism-dependent island nation, where sites for solar arrays and wind turbines are hard to come by, to say nothing of land for growing sugarcane.
CleanTechnica got an up-close look (and taste) of Rhum JM last week, when the company visited New York to announce the official launch of its EDDEN sustainability model. Rhum JM is counting on EDDEN to stake its claim as a sustainability showcase for other distillers to follow.
It might take some time for others to catch up, because EDDEN builds on a’s worth of decarbonization focus by Rhum JM There is plenty to unpack and dealing with the sugarcane alone is a monumental effort, so let’s zero in on that.
One key feature of the EDDEN model is re-using 100% of the sugarcane byproduct in one way or another. That includes using some as biomass fuel to run the still, donating some to a local power plant for biomass-sourced electricity, composting some as organic fertilizer, and using the liquid byproduct to help irrigate the fields. The field schedule includes rotations of banana crops and fallow periods to help maintain soil health.
Rhum JM also gets most of its sugarcane from fields in direct proximity to the distillery, which helps to reduce transportation-related emissions, but what really caught the CleanTechnica eye was the use of drones and smart tractors to increase productivity in those fields. After all, sugarcane fields don’t exactly grow on trees in Martinique. Part of the EDDEN portfolio is aimed at maximizing agricultural output at Rhum J.M’s existing land without running afoul of biodiversity goals and other elements of sustainable agriculture.
Drones, Rational Agriculture, & Sustainable Rum
Third verification party is a key element of the EDDEN model, so the company’s agricultural strategy is aimed at achieving certification through the Bonsucro sustainability platform. That involves committing 25% of Rhum J.M’s agricultural investments to research that leads to a more precise and sustainable science based approach to land productivity, reducing the need for herbicides.
“This is what has enabled us to utilize cutting edge scientific techniques to identify and work with only those ultra-precise varietals of sugarcane whose molecular makeup align and thrive in the particular soil and environment which Rhum JM cultivates,” the company explains.
“AgTech for sugarcane farming—drones, smart tractors, and meteorological software systems— is supporting Rhum J. M’s sustainability goals by providing data points and recommendations on precision farming and distillation techniques that make rhum production more efficient, less wasteful, and ultimately more environmentally viable,” they add.
What’s Up With Agricultural Drones?
We’ll be touching base with Rhum JM sometime soon for a closer look at the role of drones in the EDDEN model. Meanwhile, it’s important to note that researchers are only beginning to scratch the surface of drone use in agriculture.
Just last month, the open access publisher MDPI posted a review of the literature on the use of agricultural drones in sugarcane farms, which included the observation that “pilotless aircraft systems will reshape our critical thinking about agriculture.”
“[Drones] can enable the stakeholder to make early-stage decisions at the right time and place, whether for mapping, re-planting, or fertilizing areas producing feedstock for food and bioenergy,” the authors wrote. They were especially excited about the potential for drones to accomplish pest control “more precisely and environmentally responsibly than what is possible with traditional approaches (without the need to heavily traffic and touch the object).”
As an affirmation of Rhun J.M’s biofuel strategy, the authors note that sugarcane “can massively produce sugar and lignocellulosic biomass, whether for manufacturing biofuel (eg, bioethanol) or co-generating biopower. Hence, sugarcane proves an exciting sustainable and renewable energy crop to strategically replace fossil fuel in the Global Energy Grid.”
There being no such thing as a free lunch, the authors note that many countries could produce sugarcane at an industrial scale, but “resource-poor farmers, harsh soil and weather, pesty outbreaking, and insufficient adoption of breakthrough plant material make it harder for them to grow it sustainably.”
Get Ready For Future-Ready Sustainable Sugarcane
Based on their review of the literature, the authors anticipate that drones will play a key role in the development of “future-ready,” sustainable agricultural practices in the sugarcane industry.
Meanwhile, the biofuel angle is an interesting one. Some legacy fossil fuel stakeholders are leaning on biofuel to paint a sustainable label over their oil and gas operations (looking at you, ExxonMobil), which could give the whole industry a bad rap. However, as the EDDEN model demonstrates, locally sourced biofuel could help fill supply gaps that would otherwise go to imported fossil fuels.
As for liquid biofuels, the airline industry, for one, is depending on the biofuel to hold the fort until electric aircraft scale up. That opens up a whole new cans of worms regarding land use issues and food supply, which could breathe some much-needed oxygen into the algae biofuel field, so stay tuned for more on that.
Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.
Photo: Sustainable sugarcane farming is the name of the game for the Martinique rum distiller Rhum JM (photo courtesy of Rhum JM).
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