The tangible sense of joy in being able to interact with people face-to-face at last week’s World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit soon switched to a business-like determination to confront the big issues of the day. Chief among them are the twin topics of regenerative farming and carbon capture. I had plenty of lively discussions about forward strategies as the industry comes to grips with the challenges – and vast opportunities – of doing the right thing for both business and the planet.

More of that in a moment, but first let me take you back to the West Coast to give a flavour of what went down. A broad and sizeable crowd from across the global agri-food community descended on the San Francisco Marriot Marquis for the event’s first in-person gathering for three years. It’s fair to say there was a buzz in the air. Actually, I would describe day one as one of relief and joy as people came out from behind masks and Zoom backgrounds to shake hands and catch up with friends they hadn’t seen for so long.

This spirit had a really positive effect on energising conversations and relationships. It very much felt that there as a real desire to get on with business, propel ambitions and really make things happen. On the Tuesday I chaired a breakout session on identifying the missing pieces of the soil carbon puzzle with a diverse and dynamic audience, including Chris Tolles, CEO and co-founder of Yard Stick PBC, Emma Fuller, Science Lead for Carbon & Ecosystem Services at Corteva & Director of Sustainability Science at Granular, Rori Cowan, Director of Advisory Services at Radicle, and Julie DiNatale, Commercial and Strategic Partnerships Lead from Land O'Lakes.

Our agenda focused on why rocketing carbon prices have yet to translate into revenue for growers and the wider agri ecosystem. We examined the issue across the board – from sensing and project execution to channel to market. The thrust of my argument was that now is not the time to leap to definitive conclusions about right and wrong solutions. Let’s put it this way. Carbon sequestration is a goldrush – but the only people who made money out of the goldrush were shovel sellers. It really is yet to be determined who the shovel sellers of carbon are.

Carbon adoption and scale up

For me, the priority for the industry right now is clear – it revolves around adoption and scale up. With regenerative agriculture, and specifically carbon capture, one of the emerging themes is the need to achieve better standardisation. It’s absolutely key to successful scaling. As I’ve already alluded to, the market has something of a Wild West feel about it and needs to grow and gain strength from something firm and tangible.

Driving net zero – is agritech ready to capture carbon?

 There was general consensus around the room that we need standardisation in measurement, we need standardisation in defining a project, we need standardisation in what we trade and how we trade. These are the primary hurdles that the market needs to overcome to become viable and offer pathways to growth. Perhaps understandably, the need for standardisation was welcomed and relayed by the financiers among the audiences. Achieving it will be fundamental to VCs getting on board and feeling more comfortable as the market starts to scale. 

One thing no-one disagrees on is the need to make it happen. For the good of humanity, we need to store carbon – but we need to do it in a proper way. We need the right combination of tools and processes, and we need them to be accessible to growers through tried and trusted channels. Currently, carbon capture is voluntary in nature – essentially it is driven by people and companies doing the right thing and be seen to be doing the right thing. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong about that of course, but for adoption to really take off we must move from this voluntary period to a time of compliance.  

That might not mean all-powerful regulation from on high by bodies like the US Department of Agriculture and its global equivalents – indeed heavy-handed intervention will do far more harm than good – but there will have to be compliance to deliver cohesion. Ultimately, as we move on from COP26, countries are now signed up to legally binding targets on carbon emissions. And once you have imperatives that are legally binding, you are going to need compliance to drive it. Take carbon measurement. You can’t simply say “yes, hand on heart I measured this once and didn’t count the credit twice” – you need a body with authority to confirm it. 

This takes me into areas that CC is exploring and well-placed to develop. I’m talking about the various tools that will be needed in both measurement and data aggregation. At the highest level, as we move from voluntary action to compliance, so the needle moves from modelling to measurement. It will always require a balance of both, but the best models will need to be underpinned by highly transparent measurement data. 

‘Ground truth’ for modelling accuracy

Currently, modelling is about making approximations from satellite images. As we gain ground towards compliance, better measurement will be necessary to complement it. Robust measurement will give greater trust in the accuracy of your model. Using a technical term, you’ll actually have some ‘ground truth’ to develop you models from.

At World Agri-Tech, I was able to share CC’s vision of what that more measurement driven world might look like – and also discuss what the industry needs from a data science perspective. If you’d like to dig deeper into that, my colleague Simon Jordan has written a report encompassing everything from the practicalities of in-field measurement to the new economic realities of carbon sequestration. Catch up with it here: Driving net zero – is agritech ready to capture carbon?

I mentioned the investment community earlier – and the fact is that getting this set of stakeholders comfortable through standardisation will help drive greater capital flow. Further crucial issues here are trust and channel to market. The entities that have had connections with farmers for generations will be trusted but there is a need to ensure they are not conflicted – do growers want to be tied into a carbon programme by their provider of seeds? Will they feel tied to certain products as a result of that to maximise sequestration? Growers want to be as independent as possible when it comes to picking providers, whether that is equipment, inputs or carbon credits. Adoption will likely be highest where freedom of choice is maintained.

Alternative plant and cell-based proteins

Perhaps the second hottest topic in San Francisco was alternative proteins – inexorably linked to the carbon sustainability issues of course. Again, the challenge is vast. We must reduce our environmental impact, and one of the ways forward is to consume less meat. There was plenty of debate around how the industry can scale up with insect, plant and cell-based proteins.  

There are some really blurred industry and technology lines here, not least how the alternative protein industry can learn from industrial biotech. Our multidisciplinary teams – from computational biotech experts to agritech specialists and right through to industry strategists are actively defining ways to turn challenge into opportunity. There’s plenty for more to come on this topic for sure – we need to escape the lab scale on cellular based meat for one. But for now, please drop me an email if you’d like to discuss the issues I’ve covered here. It’ll be great to hear from you.

Niall Mottram
Head of Industrial & Energy

Niall leads business development in our Industrial & Energy group, focusing on identifying new opportunities for ambitious companies through the leverage of emerging technologies and implementation of new business processes.

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