Soil holds the promise of capturing greenhouse-gas emissions to help slow global warming. Companies are now working to measure how soil stores carbon as they encourage farming techniques that reduce emissions across their sprawling supply chains.
Improving soil health is a goal of so-called regenerative agriculture, which typically involves tilling less, growing more than one crop on the same land and using less synthetic fertilizer. Many farmers are hesitant to shift from established farming methods, but companies and governments are investing to educate them on the benefits.
Regenerative practices can increase soil nutrients and yields while also absorbing carbon dioxide from the air, scientific studies say. Healthier soil could offset up to 15% of global fossil-fuel emissions, according to a 2004 study published in the journal Science.
Many of the world’s biggest food companies, including
General Mills Inc.
and Nestlé SA, are working with farmers to promote the practices. However, determining the emissions captured in the soil still largely relies on imperfect estimates. Companies are eager to improve the measurement ahead of coming mandatory climate disclosure rules that are expected to require them to publish reliable information about their emissions and climate plans.
The entire food-and-agriculture value chain—including processing, packaging, transport, waste and household cooking and refrigeration—contributed 31% of human-caused greenhouse-gas emissions in 2020, according to the United Nations.
Nestlé sources from more than 600,000 farmers and pays premiums to those who follow regenerative practices, such as using organic fertilizers or growing cocoa beneath oil palm trees. Nestlé doesn’t disclose how much carbon it estimates the methods capture, but it is researching how to better measure the effects. The company aims to have 20% of its key ingredients sourced from regenerative agriculture by 2025 and half by 2030.
“It’s all about changing practices on the ground,” said Nestlé’s global head of climate and sustainable sourcing, Benjamin Ware. “We want our supply chain to understand what they have in their hands is no longer a physical asset, a ton of fresh meat, a ton of wheat. It’s also a soft asset—a ton of carbon.”
Companies often rely on satellites, models and scientists on the ground to estimate regenerative agriculture’s environmental benefits, but don’t have real-time information on either soil composition or on how much carbon is stored as time progresses.
“Measuring regenerative agriculture outcomes can be a significant undertaking, requiring time, manual field sampling and expensive data analysis.”
The U.S. Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year, earmarked nearly $20 billion over five years to support environmental benefits in agriculture and forestry, including sequestering emissions in soil. The money is intended to provide technical and financial assistance to farmers and nature-conservation projects, among other aims. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is undertaking research, including on how soil can capture carbon, to ensure it qualifies for the funds, a USDA representative said.
General Mills has more than 235,000 acres engaged in regenerative agriculture and aims for 1 million acres by 2030, representing about 30% of its farming supply chain. Last year, it expanded its partnership with Regrow Agriculture Inc., a software suite that estimates how emissions are stored using sources such as satellite imagery. General Mills is now working to include the soil carbon and emissions data into its annual footprint.
“Measuring regenerative agriculture outcomes can be a significant undertaking, requiring time, manual field sampling and expensive data analysis,” General Mills Principal Scientist Steve Rosenzweig said.
The practices can also face resistance from farmers who are unsure how to get started or are confused by the lack of a clear definition of what regenerative agriculture is. General Mills has tackled the hesitancy with education in partnership with the Soil Health Academy and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, among others.
“We learned quickly that once the farmer mind-set evolves to see the farm as a living ecosystem, they can begin to identify and address root causes versus symptoms of an unhealthy ecosystem,” Mr. Rosenzweig said.
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