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Scaling Sustainable Agriculture: Regenerative Farming and the Next Generation of Carbon Markets

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By Jenette Ashtekar, Ph.D.

The Next-Generation Carbon and Climate Solution

Awareness of climate change and new opportunities to reduce our carbon footprint have never been greater. And while agriculture has long been under the spotlight as a contributor to climate change and soil depletion, today it has become clear that agriculture is part of the climate solution.

Through broad adoption of farm management practices that replenish the soil and help trap carbon in the ground, meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and improvements in soil-based carbon sequestration can be achieved. These practices– called sustainable and regenerative agriculture– are known to promote long term economic and environmental sustainability by increasing soil organic carbon, improving soil health and building farm resilience. 

Additionally, these practices have the added benefit of reducing dependence on greenhouse gas intensive fertilizers, and in some cases drawing down and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. The unique advantage of agriculture is that the same actions which so positively impact the climate and reduce emissions are the same actions that regenerate and replenish the soil. 

Sustainable and regenerative agriculture have long been economically and environmentally aligned, but adoption has been slow. While the concepts are broadly understood, it has been difficult for farm owners and operators to easily understand the regenerative potential for their specific parcels of land. Additionally, farmers have historically not been sufficiently incentivized to adopt and maintain regenerative practices. Despite the benefits to soil health, productivity, water retention, and erosion control, only about 25% of farmers in the US commit to regenerative practices for 100% of their land1. More can and should be done to support farmers and incentivize the transition to regenerative practices that benefit the land, our food system, and our shared climate. 

Regenerative Farming is Part of the Solution, Not the Problem.

Climate change is a challenge that is both immensely global and inherently local. Our individual actions matter and solutions that scale are the only way we can make an impact. For too long, agriculture has been viewed as an environmental bad-guy. This narrow view too often blames farmers for the environmental footprint of a food system that feeds us all, while also failing to recognize the contribution farmers make and the thoughtful stewardship they provide.

The time has come to adopt a modern view of farming and develop solutions that recognize, reward, and support farmers for the good decisions they make to restore and regenerate the land.

Regenerative Agriculture is part of the solution farmers are adopting to address sustainable farm management and promote long term productivity and profitability. With it, farmers improve soil health, reduce Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Farming practices like conservation tillage (e.g. low-till, no-till, strip till) cover cropping, erosion prevention, and precision fertilization all contribute to reducing and offsetting carbon while also restoring soil health and farm resiliency.

It all starts with the ground beneath our feet. Understanding the challenge is important in order to understand the components of the solution and how they can best be implemented. 

The Challenge: Conventional and Intensive Agriculture can Deplete Soil, Promote Ghg Emissions and Pollute Waterways

According to the world’s best scientists, soil is disappearing. The soil that remains is being depleted of vital nutrients, organisms and ability to support the crops that grow on it. 

“…nearly half of the most productive soil has disappeared in the world in the last 150 years, threatening crop yields and contributing to nutrient pollution, dead zones and erosion. In the US alone, soil on cropland is eroding 10 times faster than it can be replenished. If we continue to degrade the soil at the rate we are now, the world could run out of topsoil in about 60 years, according to Maria-Helena Semedo of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. Without topsoil, the earth’s ability to filter water, absorb carbon, and feed people plunges.2

Under conventional management, intensive tillage practices churn the soil and expose it to the elements causing CO2 to be released into the atmosphere and tilled soil to be eroded by wind and water. Lack of cover cropping on the field further perpetuates erosion and combined with excess nitrogen application, allows nutrients and nitrogen leach out of the soil and into surrounding water bodies and the atmosphere, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions and large scale eutrophication3 like that found in the Gulf of Mexico. 

Further complicating the challenge is that each field is unique. Every single field has its own unique combination of soil, topography and micro-climates, requiring farmers to adapt their management annually to optimize for many factors including yield performance, input costs, environmental incentives, and commodity prices. 

The Solution: Regenerative Agriculture can Reverse Soil Loss and Minimize Nutrient Loss to Mitigate Climate Impact.

The reality is that the earth’s soil contains massive amounts of carbon – about 2,500 gigatons – 300% more than is in the atmosphere; and it can hold even more4. By allowing our soils to degrade, this carbon is released into the atmosphere, further perpetuating climate change. But by keeping our soils healthy, through the right kind of management practices, we can keep the carbon in the soil and even grow it over time. These practices are commonly known as regenerative agriculture. 

According to Regeneration International, regenerative agriculture is, 

“…a holistic land management practice that leverages the power of photosynthesis in plants to close the carbon cycle, and build soil health, crop resilience and nutrient density. Regenerative agriculture improves soil health, primarily through the practices that increase soil organic matter. This not only aids in increasing soil biota diversity and health, but increases biodiversity both above and below the soil surface, while increasing both water holding capacity and sequestering carbon at greater depths, thus drawing down climate-damaging levels of atmospheric CO2, and improving soil structure…5

Practically speaking, regenerative agriculture is a collection of management practices and decisions that farmers make regarding how and what to farm, each and every season. There are many kinds of regenerative practices, including conservation tillage, crop rotation, cover cropping, precision fertilization, soil erosion prevention, and rotational grazing. The use of these practices typically leads to increases in soil health by keeping soil in place, reducing it’s exposure to oxygen, and growing it’s organic carbon content through incorporation and sequestration of plant biomass. 

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Challenges to Scaling Regenerative Agriculture

Though regenerative agriculture is considered a win-win for both farmers and the environment, broad adoption of these practices has yet to be achieved. This lack of scale can be explained by the cost and risk taken on by farmers when they choose to adopt new regenerative practices. Cover cropping can be expensive and may cost as much as $50/acre per year to purchase seeds and implement the practice. Real ROI and returns on regenerative farming take time. More than one season is required to grow soil health and increase profitability. This means that farmers bear the up-front costs of these practices, sometimes for years, before realizing the benefits in increased productivity and yield and reduced input costs. As clear as the long-term benefits are, the short and medium term costs are non-trivial and the business of farming is one where a single year can define a boom or a bust. Farmers deserve a clear assessment of their expected benefits and immediate incentives based on their real, seasonal management decisions.

Scaling Regenerative Farming: The Soil Carbon Opportunity

Under regenerative management US row crop land can sequester 350 M tonnes of CO2e a year for an estimated market value of more than $5 billion. The carbon sequestration and GHG mitigation capabilities of regeneratively managed farmland has not gone unnoticed. 

Corporations and individuals are beginning to recognize and act on the carbon sequestration potential of farmland and the win-win opportunity offered by regenerative practices. CPG companies with strong ties to growers– like General Mills and Danone– are actively promoting the adoption of these practices within their supply chains, and technology companies– including Microsoft, Apple, Amazon and Shopify– are making good on their carbon neutral commitments by purchasing carbon credits derived from farmer’s regenerative practices. 

These soil-carbon credits, and the voluntary markets materializing around them, present an exciting opportunity to incentivize farmers to adopt new sustainable and regenerative management practices. Unfortunately, contrasting to this dramatically escalating demand signals for farm-based carbon credits, farmer access to carbon credit buyers and meaningful financial returns have largely failed to materialize. Legacy carbon markets require multiple 3rd party stakeholders and intermediaries to quantify, verify, register, broker, and sell the carbon credits generated from farmer financed regenerative practices. Because each stakeholder requires payment for their services, the eventual return to the grower is minimal, especially when compared to the cost of practices implementation. 

Though the opportunity to monetize on- farm soil-carbon sequestration and GHG avoidance is large, modernization and streamlining of the current system is needed to scale grower adoption. The time has come for a new, direct, carbon marketplace that focuses on farmers and creates economically and environmentally sustainable ROI for them. This is exactly what CIBO technologies has done with CIBO Impact(™). 

CIBO Impact: The Next-Generation Technology Platform for Scaling Regenerative Agriculture and Soil-Based Carbon Credits

CIBO Impact is a new marketplace that allows growers to participate in these new and exciting soil carbon markets. CIBO Impact drives and accelerates the transition to sustainable agriculture by clearly communicating the benefit of practice adoption as well as mitigating the financial risk of implementation for farmers. This next-generation technology platform connects farmers with the carbon credits that come from their own sustainable farming choices and lets them sell their credits directly to Enterprises and Individuals with carbon offset commitments, through a new, voluntary carbon marketplace.

CIBO Impact quantifies and verifies the Regenerative Potential(™)  of farms and fields across the U.S. Regenerative Potential is the amount of carbon credits that could be generated in a particular field based on the difference between conventional management practices and the actual, sustainable farming and management practices a farmer has adopted. Practices like low and no-till, cover cropping and precision nitrogen application all contribute to Regenerative Potential. 

CIBO scales verification of regenerative practices with a combination of remote sensing, satellite based computer vision, farmer attestation and 3rd party, in-person review. Well established and proven verification regimes such as the IPCC, RUSLE2, WEPP and the SALUS model with over 30 years of proven, in-field and academic validation are used in concert with each other.

By combining immediate and quantifiable reductions in agricultural greenhouse gas emissions with medium and longer term changes in soil carbon for every farm and field in the US, CIBO Impact creates a unique and scalable approach that accelerates economically and environmentally sustainable farming. By making it easy for farmers to enroll their operations and paying them every year for the management practices and choices they make each season, CIBO eliminates the complexity and uncertainty that has long plagued agricultural carbon marketplaces. 

CIBO Impact delivers the only verifiable solution that works at scale for agricultural sustainability climate change.

  • CIBO’s proprietary climate model simulates long-term climate viability and change, minimizing uncertainty and risk to growers.
  • CIBO Impact creates certainty for operators, portfolio managers and companies concerned about improving the sustainability and carbon neutrality of their entire agricultural supply chain. 
  • Under regenerative management US row crop land can sequester 350 M tonnes of CO2e a year for an estimated market value of $5.2 B.
  • CIBO delivers easily understood environmental impact assessments under multiple scenarios and verifies management practices at scale.
    • CIBO Impact includes:
      • Management History
      • GHG Emissions
      • Nitrogen Leaching
      • Soil Erosion
      • Carbon footprint
      • Regenerative Potential™
      • Carbon Sequestration potential
      • Remote Verification

CIBO works directly with growers to implement and verify sustainable and regenerative practices and to quantify carbon sequestration and sell the generated offsets in carbon marketplaces.

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Embracing Seasonality

Agriculture functions on a seasonal and annual cycle that requires owners and operators make decisions every year on what to grow, how to grow and what inputs to use (e.g. fertilizers, chemical applications, pesticides etc.). This is obvious and intuitive when thinking about farming operations. However, the implication on carbon credits has not been explored previously. 

Unlike carbon sequestration from refineries or smoke stack scrubbers, agricultural carbon exists in a bio-dynamic environment directly affected by the farming management decisions farmers make every season. The simple summary is that richer, replenished soil is able to store more carbon for longer than tilled and exposed soils. Regenerative practices enrich the soil, help prevent erosion and create environments where carbon can be effectively trapped for longer periods of time6. Because of this, CIBO Carbon Credits are calculated on an annual basis for practices that are implemented over the course of a single growing season– beginning with the planting of a cover crop in the fall and ending with the harvesting of a primary cash crop the following fall. 

The annual approach to carbon offset calculation is the only approach that makes sense in a bio-dynamic environment like farming. Several factors about the business of farming contribute to the necessity of this seasonal approach. Farmers have to decide each season: 

  • What to plant – rotate crops or not?
  • How to manage the land:
    • What kind of tillage will they use? 
    • What kinds of fertilizer will they use? 
    • How precise or promiscuous will they apply inputs – from seeds to chemicals?
    • What kinds of buffers will be used, if any?
  • How much residue from the cash crop harvest will be left on the field, if any?
  • Will a cover crop be planted or not in between cash-crop harvests?
  • Will the cover crop be harvested for hay or a cash value or will it be left on the field as a biomass residue?
  • What irrigation strategies will be used, if any?

Additionally, most crop farmers lease at least some of the land they farm. The overwhelming majority of leases are renewed every year, meaning that there is a decision each and every year by both the owner and the operator to continue or move on7. The prevalence of leasing land and short-term lease durations mean that the long-term benefits of soil regeneration and the subsequent benefits for productivity accrue primarily to the land owner and less so to the leasing farmer. This imbalance is exacerbated in the early and initial years of the regenerative transition when the operator may be expected to adopt more expensive and labor intensive practices that will not necessarily produce a positive commercial / yield impact for several years. 

Yet, the farmer can make decisions every season that can either advance or unwind the regenerative, greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration progress made in the prior season. It is vital, then, that any agricultural based solution for greenhouse gas emissions and carbon sequestration acknowledge and incentivize the annual decisions of farmers. 

Conclusion

Our agricultural ecosystem and the food chain it supports are facing an unprecedented threat. Increased demand, growing economic uncertainty, and a rapidly changing climate are prompting farmers to explore new practices and opportunities. Regenerative management is gaining popularity and acceptance as a means to increase farm resilience, reduce and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, and monetize the carbon sequestration potential of soil. 

Stakeholders throughout the agricultural ecosystem now agree that sustainable and regenerative management practices are our best bet at reversing soil carbon loss while building resilience into food supply chains.

CIBO Impact is breakthrough technology that combines the latest in computer science, soil science, agronomy, climate science and marketplace capability to provide easy and efficient access to carbon markets that reward farmers. CIBO aims to grow and accelerate the transition to and adoption of regenerative practices at scale. Though agriculture may have historically been viewed as a contributor to climate change, the times are changing. The time is now to see how regenerative agriculture helps improve the business of farming. The time is now to see how economically and environmentally sustainable farming practices help restore climate resilient soils, crops and supply-chains.

The time is now to see CIBO. 

1  ANNUAL REPORT 2019-2020 National Cover Crop Survey August 2020, https://www.sare.org/wp-content/uploads/2019-2020-National-Cover-Crop-Survey.pdf

2  Susan Cosier, “The world needs topsoil to grow 95% of its food – but it’s rapidly disappearing”, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/30/topsoil-farming-agriculture-food-toxic-america

3  Eutrophication is an excess of nutrients in bodies of water – usually from runoff – that stimulate hyper-growth of microbes, plants and algaes in the water which can then cause massive die-offs among animals due to oxygen depletion and toxicity.

4  Renee Cho, “Can Soil Help Combat Climate Change?” , 2018, https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2018/02/21/can-soil-help-combat-climate-change/

5  The Carbon Underground and Regenerative Agriculture Initiative, 2017, https://regenerationinternational.org/2017/02/24/what-is-regenerative-agriculture/

6  Ontl, T. A. & Schulte, L. A. (2012) Soil Carbon Storage. Nature Education Knowledge 3(10):35, https://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/soil-carbon-storage-84223790/

7  “U.S. Farmland Ownership, Tenure, and Transfer”, Daniel Bigelow, Allison Borchers, and Todd Hubbs, August, 2016, https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/74672/eib-161.pdf?v=0

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About Jenette Ashtekar, Ph.D.

Jenette Ashtekar is the VP of Sustainability & Regeneration at CIBO, a science-driven software startup. Prior to joining CIBO, Jenette spent ten years as an academic soil scientist and environmental modeler developing algorithms to help predict soil and environmental properties across scales. While pursuing research at Purdue University, Jenette co-developed and commercialized a soil mapping technology used to better inform farmers’ management decisions. Her functional soil mapping technology is used today in a commercially available, farm management software application. Jenette is passionate about the development and promotion of university technology into practical, real-world software solutions and believes that today’s agricultural challenges can only be solved through the integration of many diverse sciences, technologies, and industries.

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