By Sam Duncan
Today marks World Soil Day, probably the most exciting day in my calendar (being the founder of a software company that maps and measures soil). This year our announcement makes it even more special. Today we launch our mission to help 1 million farmers sequester 1 billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere by 2025, roughly equivalent to removing 217 million cars from the road in that same time.
After it was announced by Agfundernews yesterday, I wanted to spell it out below in some detail to help others understand how agriculture can be used to not just kerb, but reverse the effects we’re having on the climate.
The #1million1billion plan sounds ambitious, but unlike other plans from tech companies to sequester carbon in agriculture, we have a clear strategy, a timeline, and a scientific approach developed by the world leaders in soil mapping to do so.
Our plan is not just about us, it’s about encouraging others to promote the right market incentives to motivate farmers to sequester carbon.
First the numbers
We picked 1 million farmers not just because we’re a fan of Austin Powers, but because we also wanted to focus on providing incentives to smallholder farmers (<100ha/200acres) to increase soil carbon. In fact, the International Fund for Agricultural Development estimates there are over 500 million smallholder farmers globally, the majority in developing nations. Because there are various flow-on impacts to improving soil carbon, including better water retention, nutrient availability and yield, a focus on smallholder farms is likely to have positive economics effects as well as environmental ones, in countries where they’re needed the most.
We picked 1 billion tonnes of CO2, because of the potential that agricultural land globally has to increase is absolutely achievable by 2025. This was partly inspired by a recent University of Sydney report highlighting that across the Southern Australian (see the below picture, it’s a very large area), we have the potential to sequester nearly 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2. That means sequestering 1 billion tonnes of CO2 globally should be easy, right? Well only if we have the incentives.
Economic, market-driven incentives are always going to be more useful than one off projects or government subsidies. Because farmers are business owners first and foremost, we need to look at what financial incentives are available to drive them to increase profit. Fortunately, we already have one mechanism that’s reasonably established; the Emissions Trading Systems.
The challenge with this mechanism is that to create carbon credits that can be traded in these systems, you need to measure soil carbon. This is relatively expensive to do. Right now in Australia, which has one of the most mature carbon trading systems in the world, it costs approximately $25–50k USD to enter into a soil carbon project and conduct an initial baseline of soil carbon. For 90% of farmers that’s simply too much. Our major hope lies in bringing down these costs.
Our approach to solving this in FarmLab is a hybrid model that combines remotely sensed data and ground-based soil samples to reduce the amount of soil samples that need to be taken. This is significantly reducing the labour involved in the collection of those samples and the creation of carbon maps required to baseline and measure the improvements to soil carbon across the landscape.
Ground-based soil carbon measurements are necessary due to the depth required to measure ‘inert’ soil carbon. This is done at a depth that, with today’s technology, cannot be measured using satellite remote sensing alone. Whilst many companies are claiming that satellite remotely sensed data can be used to measure soil carbon, their models work only in the top 10cm, which is often made up of a short term (labile) form of soil carbon and as a result does not offer the long term sequestration required to offset CO2 emissions in the long run. Labile carbon is not ‘bad’, in fact it’s definitely useful for increasing production, but it’s not hitting the mark when it comes to reducing global CO2 emissions in the long term.
To read more about ‘labile’ and ‘inert’ carbon pools, check out http://soilquality.org.au/factsheets/labile-carbon
So by using hybrid models, we can decrease the cost to measure soil carbon, and encourage more farmers to enter soil carbon markets, right?
Well yes, but there will always be a portion of the market that will never get access to those markets, be it due to cost, education or other socio-economic circumstances.
That’s where the second incentive comes in.
By introducing a carbon accreditation program to help a farmer demonstrate to their consumers or supply chain that they are ‘Carbon Neutral’ or ‘Carbon/Climate Positive’ (they sequester more CO2 than they emit), we can give farmers a premium for what they produce (assuming consumers are willing to pay for carbon neutrality in their food).
Whilst an accreditation system will still need some way to measure soil carbon, it doesn’t need to be as strict as we need to produce carbon credits (which are a financial instrument, and must have some form of trust used by the market trading them).
This is similar to a stock-market, where shares for companies are traded, and those companies are held to specific standards in relation to their governance, fiduciary duties and ethical standards by the market they operate in. In the context of carbon markets, those standards involve how soil carbon is measured and improved.
Of course companies can still operate if they’re not on the stock-market, and whilst they might not benefit from the capital raised by selling shares, they also don’t need to meet the same governance and fiduciary standards that publicly traded companies do.
In the context of carbon, this approach is accreditation.
Accreditation is less reliant on measurement accuracy, and instead uses averages to account for soil carbon across a farm over a period of years. This incentive is important because it offers farmers a cheap incentive to increase carbon, that is still measured, but is low cost and can be used to receive a premium price for their product in the market.
Imagine if the next steak you bought was carbon positive, or next time you reached for that pack of cornflakes you could rest assured it was carbon neutral from the farm to your fork (or spoon)?
FarmLab are already providing a soil ‘accounting’ platform to growers across Australia, and we’re now working with our growers to help them share their data and their carbon improvements to their supply chains. We are now working on decreasing the cost of accreditation to less than $1,000 a year per farm using smarter sampling and mapping techniques, this will also allow cooperatives or small producers to receive a carbon neutral/positive accreditation, without having to jump through the hoops of a carbon market.
The next 5 years
It takes a village to raise a child, and it’s going to take more than a village to make the #1million1billion mission happen. That’s why we’re already working with amazing non-profits, governments, investors, industry and of course farmers to make this happen. We have a plan, we have the technology, and we‘re taking this to the market. Over the next 5 years I believe we’ll gain the traction we need to hit our target of 1 million farmers, and 1 billion tonnes of CO2.