With the Cop26 summit in Glasgow providing a noisy, politically charged backdrop via the mainstream media, there was a real sense of relevance and urgency in the air as I contributed to last week’s virtual REAP Conference, organised by Agri-TechE. As agriculture is the only industry in the world with the potential to be carbon negative, I’m also happy to report a heartening camaraderie and consensus among my fellow speakers. It really does feel to me that the industry is starting to pull in the same direction over this crucial issue of our times.
Driving net zero – is agritech ready to capture carbon?
Let me explain. I was among a number of presenters sharing insights and ideas to help growers realise the potential of carbon sequestration and the additional revenue stream it could bring the backgrounds couldn’t have been move diverse – from the innovative start-ups Map of Ag and Bx (the climate tech spin-out from the Bardsley fruit company) to multinational Bayer CropScience. Everyone attacked the problem from a slightly different angle, but we all arrived at the same conclusion. There is tremendous potential for carbon storage to be a new revenue stream for farmers. We just have to fill some gaping holes in the necessary ecosystem.
The whole industry is pushing at an open door, with a real hunger to convert the opportunity for what we might call ‘carbon farming’. And when it comes to filling holes in the ecosystem, my focus is set firmly on sensing and measurement. It goes without saying that you can only give farmers credit for storing carbon if you know how much was there in the first place, and then how much has been captured. At the moment it’s all done with approximations and assumptions. You can, for example, use satellite imagery to look at crop growth, make a rough calculation about the nutrition used then take a stab at the amount of carbon involved.
The problems with soil sampling
But clearly, such an approach is not up to scratch – and nor is the current approach to soil sampling. At the conference, I used an industry analogy, comparing the current status quo to the medical industry. Today when you take a soil sample it has to be packaged up and sent to a central lab where a highly qualified operative unwraps it, preps it, and puts it though an expensive piece of kit called an elemental analyser. This laborious, and time-consuming process can be compared to medical diagnostics of 25 years ago. These days, the medical industry has responded to circumstances and moved to point-of-care diagnostics at the patient’s bedside or in their home.
It is absolutely vital that the same thing happens in agriculture – sampling and analysis must be carried out in the field. Hitherto, sampling has been very much an academic pursuit that requires special understanding of the health of the soil. But if we are turning carbon measurement into a revenue stream, then the process needs to scale. A few hundred samples here and there won’t cut it – many hundreds of thousands of samples need to be processed every day.
Some of the speakers at REAP were looking at what future carbon trading platforms might look like, some were sharing ideas about the imaging platforms that might give us insight in the fields, while some like Bayer were discussing service provision where farmers get paid for outcomes rather than traditional yield. My talk zeroed in on the commercial opportunity that awaits companies that are able to exploit in-the-field carbon monitoring.
Farmers themselves will not be taking the measurements – ag retail companies will provide that, taking the appropriate readings and provide time-stamped, location-stamped data. They will be a vital cog in the chain of trust that will also require a body to police matters from a regulatory standpoint. This will very probably government based: DEFRA in the UK or USDA in the States. Indeed the European Commission intends to launch its carbon farming initiative by the end of the year. In any case, an authoritative organisation will need to provide validation before any money changes hands in the form of carbon credits or offsets.
Allowing the ecosystem to function
I also shared my view of how the players will sit in this evolving ecosystem. At the moment there are hundreds of companies offering trading platforms, thousands of companies, often from carbon heavy industries, who want to buy credits and there is no shortage of companies wanting to answer the digitised financial transaction challenge. The missing piece is the companies that will provide the ground obtained data. For this vision for farming to be realised, we need ambitious innovators to provide the hardware and the data analytics to allows the whole of the ecosystem to function.
The assumptions and approximations I mentioned earlier are good enough when it’s a voluntary based system like it is today – but when it becomes a matter of compliance that approach won’t cut it. My view is that the winners in this Wild West of competition and rapid consolidation will be those with the best data. Emerging companies will need to grasp both the physics of the sensing – the spectroscopy – and the machine learning aspect that is required to conduct the analysis and baseline the data. Thanks to our expertise in both key areas. the Cambridge Consultants team is uniquely placed to offer advice here. So do please drop me a line if you have ambitions in soil data analytics, or you’d like to discuss any aspect of the broader topic in more detail. It’ll be great to hear from you.