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How a surprising middle man made French crops greener

Service design agency Hellon incentivized farmers to grow more sustainable crops—while boosting a green fertilizer company and helping a biofuel company scale up.

How a surprising middle man made French crops greener

Around half of the world’s habitable land (glaciers and deserts aside) is used for agriculture. That’s over 12.6 billion acres dedicated to cropland and pastures for grazing livestock, both of which produce significant amounts of greenhouse gas emissions.

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When it comes to cropland, one big culprit is fertilizer, a product of fossil fuels. And though greener fertilizer exists, mass adoption has been stymied by the fact that it’s much more expensive. Enter Hellon. The service design agency set out to decarbonize farming by making it more economically viable, and it’s the winner of Fast Company‘s 2022 Innovation by Design award in the Established Excellence category.

[Photo: Hellon]
To better understand the process, take these three players in France. On one side, there are farmers who have been pressured to farm more sustainably to meet the EU’s goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, but a lack of economic incentives has meant they can’t do it profitably. On the other side is Yara, a crop nutrition company, which produces mineral fertilizer. And then in the middle, there’s a biofuel processing company, which has had the means and infrastructure to scale their operations but not enough biomass (read: sustainable crops) to turn it into biofuel.

The crux of the matter is that each of these companies had the same goal of greener farming but faced challenges scaling up. So Yara partnered with Hellon to connect the dots by building a circular service and an emissions calculator that helps farmers calculate their carbon footprint. Now, Yara can sell its greener fertilizer to farmers. The farmers can use the calculator to measurably reduce their carbon footprint (thanks, in part, to Yara’s fertilizer) and get a premium from the biofuel processor company, which pays them to collect their greener crops and field waste. As a result, the farmers are both greener and more profitable, the biofuel processor has enough biomass to turn into fuel — and the entire operation produces close to no waste.

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[Image: Hellon]
“It’s a weird paradigm where we could farm the world with a much smaller carbon footprint and be more sustainable, but it’s more expensive for the farmer and the farmer doesn’t get anything out of it,” says Timo Patiala, managing director and founding partner at Hellon. “We wanted to create a way to make low carbon farming profitable.”

As part of the new value chain, known as “Objectif CoolZa,” Hellon designed a browser-based emissions calculator. (The actual software was then developed by Yara.) For now, the calculator helps farmers measure their carbon emissions and gives them a rating. Next up, Hellon is working on a concept that would use machine learning to simulate how certain decisions, like changing how they water crops, would affect the farmers’ carbon footprint. (For accurate analytics, Patiala says the simulator will need at least 1-2 farming cycles, so it won’t be functional before 2024.)

[Photo: Hellon]
In 2021, the operation was put to the test during a pilot project that lasted a full farming cycle. Yara invited 25 French rapeseed farmers, working across 500 hectares of land, to use its fertilizer. By the end, the farmers had cut 15% of their C02 and still raised their profits by 4.7% after offsetting the cost of the more expensive fertilizer. “We created a circular economy where there wasn’t one, basically creating a business for low carbon farming where it didn’t make sense as a business before,” says Patiala.

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For now, Objectif CoolZa remains a French initiative with an ambitious vision to bring 3,000 rapeseed farmers and 60,000 hectares into the fold by 2025. But Palatia says the concept is “100% scalable” to other kinds of crops (like barley) and other countries. In this case, the value chain connects three parties, but there’s potential to bring in more partners. This could mean beer producers who want to produce more environmentally friendly beer and are willing to pay a premium for greener hops. Or it could mean transport companies who can purchase biofuel from the processing company, use it to transport the crops, and further help lower the entire operation’s carbon footprint.

Ironically, the current fuel crisis might help speed things along. “Biofuel has become increasingly popular as an alternative way of fueling, but there weren’t enough green crops to cover all these needs,” says Hellon design director Andreas Pattichis. “There are so many potential partners to replicate a similar model.”

This story is part of Fast Company’s 2022 Innovation by Design Awards. Explore the full list of companies creating products, reimagining spaces, and working to design a better world.

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Call for Most Innovative Companies entries! Apply now.

500+ winners will be featured on fastcompany.com. Final deadline: 9/23.