Last week, we hosted our fourth Soil Carbon Removal Think Tank session – a series of webinars bringing together leading experts in the fields of soil carbon removal & the voluntary carbon market (VCM).
This time, we explored ‘Mutually Beneficial Carbon Credits: Opening up the Dialogue Between Companies & Land stewards’.
We were joined by Meghan Sapp of Curly Creek Ranch, Merijn Dols of Danone, Elodie Champseix of the European Landowners Organisation and Tobias Bandel of Soil & More Impacts to dive deep into this inquiry.
The idea of land stewards selling carbon credits was once a strange concept. But as the realisation that our soils can sequester significant carbon from the atmosphere gains traction & the business world races to reach net-zero, regenerative management has taken centre stage in the carbon market discussion.
This is understandable – it offers an unprecedented opportunity for businesses to restore entire ecosystems vis-a-vis their investment decisions while supporting farmers as they build economic and ecological resilience.
But with barriers from lack of financial incentives to farmers bearing the brunt of upfront investment, the question is, how can we adequately support land stewards as they make the transition?
CHANGES IN THE AGRI-FOOD SPACE
Throughout history, our agri-food system has changed dramatically. Tobias is no stranger to these developments, witnessing firsthand the true cost and value of the food system’s shifting guises.
Early in his career, Tobias asserts he often felt frustrated as companies prioritised penny-saving over sustainability. Now, he believes the tide is turning.
One significant shift was the launch of the Natural Capital Protocol in 2016. As Tobias notes, suddenly, a group of allies – banks, financial auditors, insurers – said natural capital isn’t just a market trend; it’s real. CO2 emissions, water scarcity, and biodiversity loss threaten supply chains.
“Who would’ve thought financial auditors would be some of the biggest allies of regenerative agriculture? They love it because it reduces climate risk, and that’s maybe in a nutshell how I’ve seen the space change over the last ten years”. — Tobias Bandle
Similarly, Merijn believes we’re amid a groundswell. Pressure to internalise negative externalities is rising, reflected in booming carbon markets & emission caps. On the other hand, we also see the formation of the International Sustainability Standards Board & accountancy standards for ESG reporting.
Transformation is underway, but a lot still needs to be done. We need metrics, means, financial innovation & a fundamental paradigm shift to get where we need to be.
ARE THESE DEVELOPMENTS PART OF THE ESG CONVERSATION?
If we want to utilise the carbon market as a financial mechanism to drive change in the agricultural sector, we need to open up the dialogue between companies and land stewards.
Reflecting on her work at the European Landowners Organisation, Elodie states that many partners are already highly engaged in regenerative agriculture, but more needs to be done.
Untapped opportunities and solutions are abundant, waiting to be utilised, but we need to position farmers at the forefront of the discussion.
We’re destined for a roadblock if we fail to engage farmers. Our efforts to utilise the carbon market in transforming the agricultural sector will collapse like a house of cards if we don’t prioritise the most important players – land stewards.
BUILDING REGENERATION INTO SUPPLY CHAINS
To transform our food system, we must build regeneration into our supply chains. But with complex supply webs spanning continental borders from production to consumption, how exactly can we shift the status quo?
Reflecting on his work at Danone, Merijn asserts one of the most crucial mechanisms making this possible is forming relationships with farmers.
As he puts it, “we’re not the ones who should be describing or prescribing what needs to happen. We’re the ones who should be supporting farmers in making the shift possible.”
We must find ways to support farmers’ transition to regenerative management. According to Meghan, this starts with paying farmers what they’re worth. We need to pay the correct price for food products, so farmers aren’t reliant on subsidies. We also need to shift the narrative to reflect their value in safeguarding ecosystems while providing food, fibre & fuel.
As Tobias highlights, it’s not that regenerative food production is too expensive but that conventional food is too cheap. We need to include externalities & fix the cost dimension. “If the cheapest always wins, sustainability will often lose”.
There’s no silver bullet solution in an ecosystem. When looking at carbon content in the soil, we also need to understand biodiversity, plant life, and the soil’s capacity to capture and store water. Given how many indicators we’re working with, how can we best harness the power of data to drive transformation?
According to Tobias, this is where technology plays a vital role. Our current methods for collecting data are often time-consuming and laborious. As he puts it, “we need to make data collection more 21st century like”.
Regenerative agriculture isn’t a fixed practice. It’s a complex learning journey. We can bring transparency to this complexity by harnessing data. We can understand the manifestations of climate change and use this as a basis for policymakers, investors, and stakeholders.
HOW CAN WE ENSURE TRANSPARENCY?
Transparency is the pillar of credible data & the foundation of a fair carbon market. Just as significantly, it’s also the make-or-breaker for investors having confidence in a company’s sustainability strategy.
How, then, are companies ensuring transparency in the complex process of advancing regeneration?
According to Elodie, a lot is happening to ensure transparency, but problems remain. On the one hand, there’s saying with certainty that data is correct, and on the other is accessing the data itself.
There needs to be greater alignment around protocols and processes for measuring soil carbon storage. But above all, there need to be strong, functional & supportive relationships between companies and land stewards to bypass the roadblocks we currently face.
In Tobias’ view, “if we don’t crack the cheapest and most efficient method, a lot of sustainability effort is just hot air”.
HOW CAN WE MAKE CARBON CREDITS WORK FOR FARMERS?
Farmers steward our soils, produce 95% of our food, bolster biodiversity & restore entire ecosystems from the ground up.
To leverage regenerative agriculture to offset business-driven CO2 emissions, we must ensure the carbon market works for them.
Doing this, however, is, in Meghan’s view, where it gets tricky. Right now, the market’s not where it needs to be. We have the means to make carbon liquid, but we don’t have the processes to connect that to the farmers on the ground.
We need to make sure farmers aren’t setting themselves up to fail. If we aren’t offering the support, financial incentive or technological assistance the process demands, it will fail to materialise beyond an ambitious idea.
“When it comes to making carbon credits work for farmers, there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done. We need to make sure they’re getting access to the financial resources required to transition to regenerative practices – and above all, we need to make sure that process is done in a way that doesn’t make them worse off a few years down the line.” — Meghan Sapp
There’s an increasing realisation that business can be a driving force for good, which has spurred massive innovation, momentum and motivation in the climate space. The business world as we know it is changing. However, a lot more needs to be done.
Much of the GHG emissions & environmental degradation associated with climate breakdown are attributable to business-driven economic activity. At the same time, however, businesses have the unprecedented potential to contribute to innovative solutions that prevent, mitigate and adapt to the adverse effects of climate change.
Sometimes fighting bad isn’t an easy message, but building good is. And that’s exactly where nature-based solutions can excel. We have a 10 gigaton per year opportunity to get this right. We just need to be bigger, bolder & faster in our actions.