By Sam Duncan
- Agtech needs to support a range of different models and techniques for soil carbon measurement that suit the areas, demographics and agricultural industries they operate in.
- The King Review recently recommended subsidising the cost of measuring carbon abatement, and introducing methods to favour small scale farm operations.
- Reducing the cost of soil carbon projects is critical, as is scale. Since 2012 only 78 Agriculture ERF Projects have been registered in Australia.
- Agtech companies are critical in helping develop scaleable and commercial systems to better incentive growers.
- To highlight the value of soil carbon, soil carbon measurement platforms need to integrate with Farm Management and Accounting Software to bring together farm data.
In 1602 a few Dutch merchants met in an open air courtyard in Amsterdam. They were there to sell shares that they hoped would finance their risky, but burgeoning, trade in the new world. Rather than work alone to raise capital, they realised that if they banded together they could offer shares that reduced the risk to the buyer, and generate higher returns for their businesses. Over time this evolved into what would become the world’s first formal stock exchange and those merchants would become directors of the Dutch East India company.
Today we’re seeing a similar story in the establishment of carbon trading markets across the world. Yet unlike in the case of the Dutch in the 1600’s, we’re seeing one major difference. Many entities are trying to provide and trade carbon off the basis of complex models and methods, resulting in stove-piped markets and a lack of adoption by growers. Whilst there are some promising signs locally, with the development of the carbon industry code of conduct, there is still some way to go in banding together to establish trusted markets and methods globally.
It’s probably worth mentioning right now that agriculture accounts for 37% of global greenhouse emissions, and so is a critical industry to target in not just reducing global emissions, but sequestering carbon too.
(I’ve written about the need to sequester carbon and make soil sexy, and if you’re reading this article you’re probably already aware of its potential to not only mitigate but also reverse climate change by sequestering carbon back into the soil. If you’re not aware, check out this awesome article from Nature.com on the role soil plays in storing carbon.)
More recently, a report on the Australian Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF), known as the King review, has shone a light on a need for better methods and approaches to improve soil carbon under Australian ERF projects. In relation to soil carbon, this report includes recommendations to subsidise the cost of directly measuring carbon abatement and introduce methods of carbon measurement that favour small scale farming operations. It’s not the first report to focus on the barriers to adoption of carbon projects across agriculture. In 2019, an Agrifutures (Australia) report also highlighted carbon prices, measurement methods, and a lack of awareness by farmers as barriers to the adoption of carbon projects across agriculture.
The challenge is that, unlike financial success coming from the trade of goods in the new world, soil carbon is not as easy to measure. The variability of soil carbon across the landscape is not well known at the farm scale, and mechanisms to improve it in agricultural systems are still not commonplace (as they often conflict with short term profit goals for the farmer).
AgTech plays a major role in reducing the cost and barriers to improving soil carbon and establishing carbon markets in Agriculture. Without technology we would struggle to introduce methods that allow us to sequester carbon at all, so it’s no surprise we need technology to take us the next step. Here are what I consider 3 of the major opportunities AgTech can solve today when it comes to soil carbon management and the creation of carbon markets in agriculture.
Challenge 1. Quantification
Current measurement methods for soil carbon are conservative and based on scientific best practice for establishing the exact amount (in tonnes) of carbon in a body of soil. Measurement approaches such as that mandated by the Australian ERF, require a lot of sampling to be done in the paddock in order to establish an accurate baseline. While this method might be a ‘gold standard’ when it comes to the quantifying soil carbon, its high cost and relative complexity make it a poor approach if we’re looking for the global uptake of soil carbon improvement methods.
To be clear, most of the cost of this measurement method is in the labour associated with soil sampling, and project management, rather than the cost of soil testing or the data management itself.
The alternative to this in the ERF is that projects may take a ‘modelled’ approach, using scientifically based standards for modelling the increase of soil carbon in a system. The downside of this approach is it is far less accurate in it’s measurement of soil carbon, and this means when it comes to the generation of carbon credits, it’s less profitable .
Having a range of technologies and methods that support the measurement of soil carbon will support the grower to work with the method that best suits their operation. Even if the estimation is not exact, as long as the model can accurately estimate the trend of carbon sequestration — factoring into account changes to other emission sources such as inputs — the farmer gets a feedback loop that supports their management approach in relation to soil carbon.
The need for estimation is probably most important when it comes to measuring the spatial distribution of carbon in our soil too. It’s hard to correlate remotely sensed data to something in the soil because none of this data actually measures soil carbon (NDVI measures plant biomass, elevation measures the change in terrain). When we start to combine ‘layers’ with actual soil test results we start to gain (at least a local level) an understanding of soil carbon variation across the landscape. This understanding has been our goal at FarmLab, and the early results with the right covariates are promising; but further work needs to be done across industries and for the good of global carbon abatement. We (the wider Agtech community) can’t work in stovepipes. We will need a range of different models and techniques to suits areas, demographics and agricultural industries. To service these, we will need to work together, share knowledge and integrate with one another.
Challenge 2. Scale
Soil carbon projects under the Australia ERF require a soil carbon consultant to support the project management and administration on behalf of the farmer or landholder, which comes with a major challenge around scalability.
In the case of carbon abatement projects, we end up with a project manager who must have the requisite expertise, experience, and trust, as well as being independent from the grower, to support the project. Unfortunately the need for consultants causes a bottleneck in the adoption of projects across the industry.
Let’s take this example, and assume a standard carbon project, including baselining, requires 1 x Full Time Equivalent (FTE) person over the course of 2 weeks to map and register a project, then another 1 x FTE person to sample an area. This example assumes 100% process efficiency (no delays due to paperwork, weather or mistakes made throughout the baselining). In this case, at absolute best, these two individuals can undertake a maximum of 26 projects a year. This example also ignores the downstream services required to undertake these projects, such as soil testing labs and the hardware needed to take the samples. Now let’s look at the entire industry in Australia today, still in its infancy. There are probably 25 ‘carbon consultants’ (of varying sizes) operating in Australia. So that’s a total of (25 x 26) 625 soil carbon projects that can be undertaken per year in this market (out of 110,000 farms). At face value there are simply not enough to make a dent in improving soil carbon when you extrapolate this a global scale (assuming the ratio of carbon consultants to farmers remains the same). Even if the ratio of consultants to farms increases by 10 times (which would require significant training across industry), we would still only be able to service less than 10% of the total market in Australia.
The grim reality around the uptake of carbon projects over the last 8 years is that Australia has only had 78 ERF projects registered for agriculture (out of a total of 811 ERF projects registered since 2012). Less than half of these relate to the measurement of soil carbon too, and whilst the lack of uptake might just result from the lack of scalability, it’s clearly one of the major reasons for the lack of adoption.
The inability for people to scale, in terms of processes and tasks, has been a key driver for technology adoption over the past 30 years, and it’s no different in the carbon space. Technology has an obvious role to play, through the simplification of registration for soil carbon projects, to the automation of baselining processes like establishing carbon estimation areas and the commercialisation and marketing of carbon management platforms. Probably the most important role technology has to play in this space is in project ownership. The landholder, often the farmer, needs to be accountable for the establishment of the project/s because in doing so they themselves will reap the rewards for success (CO2 reduction or carbon abatement). While there are risks and challenges around projects, like most agricultural endeavours these should be quantified and understood.
Agtech can provide platforms that allow growers to enter projects and take ownership of them, with few barriers to entry. Using Agtech to reducing barriers to project entry also allows for increased experimentation in soil carbon improvement methods, and hopefully the increased sequestration of carbon. In the end this allows for many more growers who wouldn’t otherwise enter projects because of time and cost constraints.
In addition to the project management, a marketplace for trading credits created using varying methods will be critical. We’ve already seen a few such markets begin to open up, such as Nori and Puro; the challenge is creating the carbon credits through soil carbon projects to trade in these spaces.
Challenge 3. Integration with farm data.
It’s rare that someone wanting to improve soil carbon will do so without care for their existing farm business. In fact, this decision is a terrible one; even if carbon credit prices meant people could buy land just to improve soil carbon, there would be detrimental effects for our food systems worldwide. So, it’s important that processes for improving soil carbon are also looked at holistically in line with the rest of the farm operation. This holistic view is often hard to take when increasing soil carbon may negatively impact farm profitability in the short term, and this is where understanding farm financials and budgeting for these projects comes in.
Unfortunately, while most farm businesses will use some accounting software and maybe separate farm management software, it’s rare that all of these will talk to one another. Throw in to the mix a soil carbon project, and farm management starts to get complicated. Carbon credits aside, it’s important to understand the economic value that increasing soil carbon has on an operation to view co-benefits such as improved drought tolerance, available water capacity, or nutrient availability. Soil carbon in the context of Natural Capital also has important repercussions for insurance risk.
Unless a farmer wants to trawl through spreadsheets and manually build the correlations themselves, well-formed integrations between agricultural financial software providers (Xero, Agdata), farm software management systems (Maia Grazing, Agworld, Agriwebb), and soil carbon management software like FarmLab or Platfarm is crucial. Data integration is complex as it comes in different shapes in sizes. Fortunately, farm data integrators like Pairtree are starting to emerge to help integrate data between ag platforms. The end result is that the farmer is able to form a picture of soil carbon changes against financial and operational decisions. Carbon markets aside, sharing the resulting economic benefits of soil carbon across a farm can have huge repercussions for the uptake of carbon abatement strategies globally.
The AgTech community is still relatively small globally but especially in Australia. There are also very few companies that solely focus on soil carbon, probably because revenue generation and market size is uncertain. Platforms are starting to emerge that support the automation of soil carbon projects, offering the ability to increase the number of consultants as well as growers to directly enter the market at a reduced cost. In the context of the Agtech community, the early stage of the market provides an opportunity to form partnerships and combine products to better support the end user when it comes to managing carbon. Even outside of carbon projects, the value of combining soil data with farm and financial data is clear, and means that regardless of whether Agtech companies focus solely on soil carbon or not, we all have a role to play in returning carbon to our soil.