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Soil carbon

Agri-tech in Action: Why ecometric is backing soil health

By Tech in Action

When your passions are flying and farming, opportunities to combine your interests are, it’s fair to say, limited. Yet, David Wright has managed it. He has transitioned from Red Arrow Pilot, through Agri-tech CEO, and on to Climate-tech CEO. In 2021, David founded ecometric – a company combining physical and spectral sampling to reveal annual carbon changes in agricultural soil. Today, ecometric provides accurate data and evidence-based decision making support to farmers looking to explore regenerative agriculture while opening opportunities for carbon trading.

Can you introduce yourself and explain why you decided to found ecometric?

The idea for ecometric stemmed, not from trading carbon, but as a means to draw focus of agriculture towards soil health. My previous Agri-tech company mapped crop canopy development from the air, which highlighted how yield was often dictated by limiting factors in the soil that couldn’t necessarily be corrected with chemical inputs. ecometric was set up to identify and monitor these key soil performance indicators to support improved management decisions. Soil organic carbon (SOC) was identified as one of the key indicators of system productivity and health, so we set about building a methodology to accurately monitor the SOC change associated with every production cycle.

The first stage was to design a soil sampling system that could account for a high degree of field-level SOC variability and to begin gathering data. The second stage was to introduce emerging AI technology that could relate spectral samples from multispectral satellite imagery to soil samples. This would increase the accuracy of quantifying SOC stock change. The third stage was to work with the farm management team to relate SOC change to specific, causal management decisions.

Rather than take a combative, disruptive approach, ecometric seeks to complement existing farming practices. We work for the farmer; we don’t work for the carbon market. Indeed, we sit completely outside of the transaction and make no money from the trading of carbon. This avoids conflict of interest and makes ecometric an extremely trustworthy farm management support tool.

Could you say more on the problem you seek to solve?

A problem with conventional farming is the risk of SOC loss through oxidation, mineralisation, leaching and erosion. Such depletion of SOC stocks has many consequences, including making farmers increasingly reliant on artificial fertiliser to maintain yields. As the single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions from the arable farming production system, the rising use of nitrogen fertiliser is exacerbating global warming.

A system change is needed to reverse this SOC decline. In moving towards regenerative practices, farmers can minimise soil disturbance, maximise the size and duration of crop roots and canopies and, where possible, reintroduce livestock or their manure into the rotation. The resulting increases in SOC levels are a reliable indicator of soil health, productivity and resilience against climatic extremes and, as we are beginning to evidence, increased farm business profitability.

ecometric is committed to creating a compelling, evidence-based case for regenerative agriculture. The concept of soil sampling is not new, it has been used for decades to assess the availability of nutrients and calculate fertiliser requirements!  But at ecometric, we measure for the opposite reason. Our aim is to provide clear evidence that regenerative agriculture can sequester carbon from the atmosphere in contrast to the carbon emissions released from conventional systems. In doing so, we can directly relate increased organic carbon stocks to nitrogen requirement, yield, greenhouse gas emissions and business gross margin.

Let’s get technical: How does your product work?

There are three key components: the soil sample, the spectral sample and the Artificial Intelligence (AI). First, to directly measure soil organic carbon, we use the Dumas method. This measures and reports SOC and total nitrogen to a greater accuracy than alternative test types such as Loss on Ignition. As well as physical soil samples, we also source coincident spectral samples from multispectral satellite imagery.

Together, these measurements give us two, seemingly unrelated, sample types. To establish a relationship between the two datasets, we need a powerful computing system. This is where the AI comes in. We use an Artificial Neural Network (ANN) which is a technology constructed to work like a human brain. It learns iteratively from each dataset you give it, growingly progressively better with time and repetition.

The ecometric ANN is trained to relate the georeferenced soil sample results gathered at high density across the project area to the coincident spectral samples values. Once the system has established the site-specific relationship between the spectral and soil samples, it can accurately estimate SOC stocks from the multispectral imagery alone, reporting a discrete value for every 10-metre squared pixel. As the final test stage of this cycle, ANN results are directly compared back to the original soil sample results to calculate and report the average accuracy. With this method, ecometric has achieved repeatable accuracies of >95% over tens of thousands of hectares.

However, the process does not end when the ANN’s accuracy exceeds 90 percent. In line with the agricultural cycle, we take new samples every 12 months. And every 12 months, we retrain our models. As well as consistently improving the ANN, this means we have up-to-date physical results against which to check ANN accuracy. This tethers ANN estimations to on-the-ground realities and prevents the error rate increasing over time which is a common limitation of untethered models. Accuracy levels are ‘measurable’, and all sources of laboratory and AI error are treated as potential sources of over-estimation and deducted from the SOC stock totals.

Central to our methodology is the commitment to only trade climate positive, soil carbon gains. This means we deduct all the greenhouse gas emissions released during the farm’s production cycle and a landowner can only trade if there remains a surplus. This carbon balance report proves that the farm has added more carbon to the soil than has been emitted while growing food and fibre. The carbon revenue becomes a major incentive for farmers to adopt and improve regenerative methods that sequester enough carbon to generate a tradable surplus.

Can you share a story of success?

Within regenerative systems, we are evidencing an average annual SOC increase across the whole rotation and have correlated these findings to higher yields per hectare with lower quantities of nitrogen fertiliser. As an example, our highest performing project in 2022 yielded 11 tonnes of wheat using only 140 kg of nitrogen. To put that in perspective, the UK average for a crop that big, is 220 kg of nitrogen per hectare. This same farm also had the lowest greenhouse gas emissions of all benchmarked projects.

But it’s not just the nitrogen. When farmers exit the cycle of depletion, they unlock numerous additional benefits:

  1. Soil organic carbon holds water.
    Every 0.5 percent increment in soil organic carbon stocks can hold another 150,000 litres of water per hectare. Therefore, by increasing the organic carbon content of soil, farmers are straight-away improving the resilience of that soil to droughts and dry spells.
  2. There is a relatively fixed relationship between carbon and nitrogen in the soil.
    As you increase the carbon, you also increase the naturally available nitrogen. This brings both environmental and economic benefits as yields can be consistently maintained while reducing quantities of applied nitrogen fertiliser.
  3. More accurate reporting.
    Many farmers use online carbon footprint calculators to estimate the emissions from their production systems. However, ecometric can provide more accurate insights by replacing the assumed sequestration values with a real-life measurement of soil carbon stock change. This is useful for supply chain reporting as supermarkets increasingly ask for environmental credentials to be displayed on a product’s packaging and accuracy is vital to optimising farm management decisions.

Finally, what’s next for ecometric?

To make the biggest, most positive climate impact, we need to operate over the largest possible area. Already working in ten countries (and with data share projects ongoing in another two) our priority is to scale internationally.

We are also digging deeper into our metrics to look beyond soil carbon and into other indicators of soil health. Soon, we will be looking at the bacterial and fungal loading of soil biomes with the aim of relating the soil carbon content with the biodiversity of the soil. From here, our ultimate aim is to relate these metrics to the nutritional value of the food coming out of the system. We have heard and seen much anecdotal and empirical evidence that food grown in regenerative systems is better for human consumption. So our next step is to prove this with data.

However, the central value of ecometric will always remain. We have balanced very carefully the need for accuracy from a carbon buyer perspective with affordability from a carbon seller perspective. At our core, we give land custodians the tools to measure improvements in soil health as a result of their changing land management practices. We don’t just give findings and walk away, ecometric is always part of the data interpretation and evidence-based action to support system change.

 

Disclaimer: ecometric works with one of Respira International’s flagship portfolio projects, Blaston Farm. Read more about ecometric here and about Blaston Farm here.

ICROA

Why we must invest in soil carbon storage

By News

It may sound far-fetched, but it’s true – the top thirty centimetres of the earth’s soil contains almost twice the volume of carbon as in our atmosphere. But while we increasingly acknowledge the role of the oceans and trees for carbon storage, we often forget the huge potential of the ground beneath our feet. 

To address this lapse of attention and raise awareness of the power of the soil, we will answer the following questions:

  • How does soil carbon storage work?
  • Why do we need healthy soils?
  • What prevents effective soil carbon storage?
  • How can we farm for soil health?
  • How do our flagship portfolio projects work to improve soil health?

How does soil carbon storage work?

The world’s soils are inherently carbon-rich. On a basic level, as plants photosynthesise, they capture carbon which is, as they die and decompose, stored in the soil. However, human activity can also seriously alter the soil’s carbon content. 

On the one hand, we can increase the ability of soils to capture carbon by planting crops. As they grow, these plants capture – or sequester – carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This is transported through their intricate root systems and stored below the earth’s surface. But our growing needs for land and food are placing additional, excess pressure upon the earth. As forests are cleared and we turn to increasingly intensive agricultural practices, we prevent the soil from storing carbon at scale. With the climate crisis already at our door, destroying a natural method of carbon capture is extremely serious – we have no time to delay, we must invest to improve the health of the world’s soils. 

Why do we need healthy soils?

Our soils are absolutely foundational to support life on earth. When soils are healthy, they contain the correct mix of nutrients and microbiology to support a region’s native plants. This, in turn, supports an area’s overall biodiversity as mammals, birds and insects can consume the nutrients they need. What’s more, soil can hold more water when it is healthy and uncompacted. This can improve water retention, serving to reduce risks of flooding.

But this is not all; when soil is in a state of good health, it offers extensive benefits for our climate. Globally, our soils could sequester and store carbon at such a scale as to be transformational to climate mitigation efforts.

There is an increasing scientific consensus that farming can play a pivotal role in soil carbon storage. For instance, Jacqueline McGlade – former chief scientist at the UN environment programme – estimates that improving agricultural practices can boost soil carbon storage. The study finds that enhancing the farming techniques on half of the world’s agricultural land so as to store just one percent more carbon, would be enough to create substantial change. 

McGlade is not alone. Another study reports that if soil protection and restoration efforts were improved to the maximum, an additional 5.5 gigatonnes of CO2e could be sequestered and stored every year. However, other sources offer different estimates. Indeed, the NCS World Atlas – a tool developed by Nature4Climate and The Nature Conservancy to convey the potential of natural climate solutions for emissions reductions – considers 1-2 billion tonnes annually to be achievable. Although a smaller volume, the NCS World Atlas estimate is still a material amount – roughly equivalent to the entire annual emissions of Russia in 2020.

What prevents effective soil carbon storage?

The climate crisis poses a serious threat to soils. As temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change, soils can become dry, dusty and more likely to blow away. Not only does this limit the soil’s ability to capture and store carbon, it also reduces agricultural output. Without moisture, yields are lower, and more irrigation is required to keep farms productive. With the global population already exceeding 8 billion, maintaining (and increasing) the capacity of soil to produce food is critical for future food security.

 With so many mouths to feed, it is understandable that much of the world has turned to intensive agriculture over the past decades. In the agricultural sector, many farmers remain financially (and culturally) tied to nitrogen fertilisers, the extensive application of pesticides and using land, seemingly ceaselessly, for production. But the over-cropping and overgrazing of farmland has caused nutrient depletion and soil degradation. Therefore, in a collective bid to increase agricultural productivity, we have actually further limited our ability to produce food in the long-term. 

On a local scale, effective soil carbon storage can be prevented if farms operate from a place of financial insecurity. Without stable, steady incomes, transitioning to more sustainable agricultural practices can be unfeasible. However, financial incentive mechanisms could help farmers focus upon the health of their soils and shift to a more regenerative way of farming. 

How can we farm for soil health?

Despite the increasing body of scientific evidence on soil carbon storage, strategies to improve soil health are not widely deployed. But, this can be short-sighted; many of the methods used to boost soil carbon storage – such as regenerative agriculture – also improve yields and long-term soil fertility

Regenerative agriculture is a way of farming with nature, leveraging natural processes to safeguard soil health. For example, rather than relying on ploughing to aerate the soil, in regenerative farming, a thriving worm population fulfils this role. Pesticides and nitrogen fertilisers are exchanged for crop rotation, cover crops and the integrated grazing of livestock. This means that the same fields are not used repeatedly for a single species and that additional crops are planted between harvests. Therefore, carbon can be continually drawn from the atmosphere and into the otherwise barren soil and more nitrogen can be ‘fixed’ in the soil. As a result, farmers have less need for synthetic fertilisers. 

But, if faced with financial insecurity, how can farmers implement these changes? Fortunately, we are increasingly equipped with financial incentive mechanisms to offer support. Indeed, carbon finance payments can act as a bridge, helping farmers to incorporate regenerative approaches. Although generating carbon finance from soil organic carbon (SOC) requires accurate measurements, emerging Measurement, Reporting, and Verification (MRV) technologies offer great potential. MRV tools can be used for both direct measurement – such as soil sampling – and remote sensing.

Our commitment to soil carbon storage

At Respira, we recognise the power of healthy soil for climate mitigation and have been early supporters of two innovative soil carbon storage projects: one focused on grassland management and the other on regenerative, arable farming.  

First we partnered with the world’s largest soil carbon storage project – Northern Kenya Rangelands – which is restoring two million hectares of community-managed, grassland habitat. It is working to establish rotational grazing plans to limit the impacts of overgrazing, improve soil health and, as a result, sequester more carbon from the atmosphere.

Just last year, we welcomed a second soil carbon storage project to our portfolio. Established in 2020, Blaston Regenerative Farming Project is working to improve soil health across 230 hectares of Leicestershire farmland. Supported by independent agronomists, Indigro Ltd, Blaston Farm uses regenerative agricultural methods such as the direct drilling of arable land, crop rotation, the use of cover crops, and integrated livestock grazing. Not only do these methods enable the soil to store more carbon – but they also boost the farms overall biodiversity, long term productively and ultimately profitability. 

Based on the additional carbon stored in Blaston’s soils, the project generates soil carbon certificates which represent the net amount of carbon sequestered on the farm after deducting all emissions associated with the farm’s activities. The sale of these certificates is now the second largest source of income for Blaston Farm, providing an alternative to EU subsidies in a post-Brexit Britain. In this way, regenerative agriculture is an opportunity to promote environmental and financial sustainability. While producing nutritious food, a farm can take climate action via the direct sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere. 

Such projects prove that agriculture can be a solution to – not a driver of – climate change. We remain extremely committed to soil carbon storage and are optimistic of the climate mitigation potential these projects provide. With more soil carbon storage projects in the pipeline, we invite you to watch this space for announcements.