Given the unsettled science on the permanent sequestration of carbon and the present volatility of carbon markets, REGEN1 has chosen to focus on a range of verifiable benefits made possible by regenerative agriculture. While the first four are fairly straightforward—air, water, soil, and biodiversity—the last, equity, may prove among the most important benefits arising from regenerative agriculture: the opportunity to reframe our current food production model to create more visibility and greater market support for BIPOC producers will have a lasting impact in ensuring a more equitable food system
By building SOM and keeping roots in the ground, regenerative systems allow more water to infiltrate, resulting in less overall water use, less water running off-site, and less soil, nutrients, and herbicides/pesticides ending up downstream along with it.
Case Study No. 1: Sierra Orchards
Sierra Orchards increases water holding capacity of their soil with regenerative practices
Farmed by Julie and Craig McNamara and their children Sean and Emily, Sierra Orchards is a 450 acre certified organic walnut orchard located in Winters, CA. The farm produces, on average, 850,000 lbs of walnuts each year (that’s about 2,000 lbs per acre). Currently, all of their walnuts are sold to Andersen and Sons Shelling in Vina, CA, for a premium of around 100% and then continue on to be sold to consumers at Trader Joe’s.
Sierra Orchards have implemented a number of regenerative practices on their farm. Those that relate to water conservation and quality are outlined below.
Cover crops are planted on the farm so that the ground is covered throughout the year. Cover cropping reduces runoff and erosion and leads to increased soil organic matter. Soil organic matter is the percent of living things in the soil. It improves soil structure, stability, nutrient retention, and water holding capacity. In addition to cover crops, compost is applied to the soil as fertilizer (no synthetic fertilizers are used) and the farm is no-till, meaning that the soil is not disturbed through tillage, further reducing erosion and runoff and increasing soil organic matter. With these practices, Sierra Orchards has increased their soil organic matter from 1.8% to 3.5% in 5 years. This increase in soil organic matter represents an increase in water storage on their orchard by around 4.5 million gallons (or 10,000 gallons per acre) per year over the course of those five years. This water storage is especially important in a place with frequent droughts for crops that need a lot of water, like walnuts. Furthermore, the farm uses buried drip irrigation to reduce water use and minimize nutrient loss and the farm also has tailwater ponds, sediment traps, and hedgerow plantings to minimize water use and waste.
Putah Creek runs through the orchard and the McNamaras have worked with the Solano County streamkeeper to preserve the creek’s watershed. They’ve planted the creek banks with thousands of California native plants and created hedgerows that stretch for miles to help keep the creek clean and healthy. Their organic practices of not using synthetic fertilizer or pesticides is also great for water quality.
Alongside reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere is key to mitigating climate change. Forests and oceans are well-known carbon sinks, but there is growing recognition that the proper agricultural management may also enhance the soil’s capacity to store carbon from the atmosphere. In other words, being smart about what you eat may be an effective way to help mitigate climate change.
One key aspect of regenerative agriculture’s growing popularity is its focus on building soil health and increasing plant cover over bare soil. Both of these practices provide the benefit of drawing carbon dioxide—a significant contributor to climate change—from the atmosphere and into the ground for long-term storage. Additional practices like planting cover crops and minimizing tillage are also important for increasing and maintaining soil’s ability to capture and store carbon. The application of compost is still another agricultural practice that can boost these ecological processes in many regions. Collectively, these regenerative practices lead to a host of other ecosystem benefits that also include improved air and water quality and increased biodiversity.
Achieving positive outcomes may lower costs for farmers, especially since regenerative practices require less inputs, including pesticides and fertilizers. Nonetheless, transitioning to a regenerative system from one previously dependent on synthetic amendments comes with significant risks and requires upfront financial investment, at least in the first few years. Along the way, maintaining and improving yields remains a challenge. Consequently, and despite its benefits, adoption of regenerative agriculture is still in its infancy.
One emerging idea is for farmers to be paid incentives that reward them for their system thinking approach by placing a monetary value on the ecosystem services they provide, including the carbon they capture in the soil. From where would the money for these incentives come? Companies, governments, and even individuals emitting GHGs through their activities are now considering mechanisms that pay farmers for the GHGs they pull out of the atmosphere and “sequester” in the soil, offsetting this benefit against the pollution that others generate.
Accounting models can identify the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by a polluter in one place, then balance it with an equal amount of corresponding carbon “sequestered” in the soil somewhere else. This carbon offset model has created a new marketplace, one where anyone, including environmental polluters, can mitigate the environmental impact of their emissions by purchasing carbon credits equivalent to the ecosystem benefits created by a farmer or rancher whose practices reduce GHGs.
When it comes time to sell a carbon credit, the prevention of double-counting, a system where multiple parties attempt to “own” the credit created by a farming activity that sequesters carbon, is crucial to keep everything straight. To avoid this issue, some programs restrict carbon credit sales to just one instance, after which the credits are immediately retired, while others embed critical information in serial numbers or blockchain technology to reliably and transparently track the movement of a credit.
Carbon credits are typically expressed as 1 ton of CO2 removed from the atmosphere for a specific amount of time. To maintain the value of an offset transaction, that carbon sequestered in the soil would need to be kept out of the air. But for how long? Ideally, that would be forever, but the question of how to measure and insure the permanence of this sequestration varies across carbon markets. Some require at least 10 years while others set the bar at 100 years. The problem is that current measurement techniques are far from accurate.
Some carbon markets require direct soil sampling, usually over multiple years and with multiple sampling points. Currently, the costs and relative imprecision of these soil testing results have proven to outweigh the economic value of whatever ensuing carbon credit could be established from this collected data. In the near future, AI, as well as technologies using mapping and other aerial analysis, may provide predictive modeling with enough accuracy to enable carbon offset transactions with a higher degree of certainty.
While burgeoning carbon markets are aligned on the goal of monetizing carbon sequestration, their approaches vary. One difference is in determining if a practice—and the subsequent carbon sequestered—can actually be directly attributed to offset funding. In other words: did this activity or outcome specifically occur because of the offset or would it have happened anyway?
Remember: the point of purchasing a carbon offset is to underwrite activities that accelerate the reduction of GHG concentrations in the atmosphere, with the intent being to mitigate climate change. However, if the purchasing of a carbon credit goes toward a sequestration of carbon that would have happened anyway, the act of purchasing a credit, while well intended, has provided no additional value. Unfortunately, determining this additionality has proven quite challenging to several emerging carbon offset markets. Some have even shifted their programs, requiring that producers only receive credit for practices implemented for the first time or instituted in the recent past.
As proponents of regenerative agriculture celebrate the carbon sequestration potential of these practices, scientists urge the community to check their numbers. The concern is that overestimating and generalizing the amount of carbon soils can take in to mitigate climate change could not only compromise the goals of the movement but also the value of these carbon credits. Furthermore, the rapid and competitive nature of these markets could be hindering collaboration to support a sound scientific foundation for soil carbon offsets.
Many environmentalists express concern that carbon credits commodify nature, equating its value to dollars, and prompting a system where the flow of money allows polluters to continue harming the environment while placing the burden on others to clean it up.
If the marketplace is focused on additionality and conditioned to solely reward producers for new practices that capture and store carbon in the soil, how can farmers that have adhered to enlightening agricultural practices—including those requiring organic certification—for decades be rewarded for their work? REGEN1 seeks to answer this question by identifying not just carbon sequestration but a range of ecosystem benefits that result from more regenerative practices. Many long standing organic farmers, for example, may find that joining the regenerative movement will create new markets and previously untapped financial returns that reward them for their methods.
We asked three REGEN1 members to compare their carbon market protocols, then conducted case studies to show who benefits from these models.
|How each program...||Nori||Regen Network||Climate Action Reserve (CAR)|
|Producer has adopted the practice since 2010||Producer has not used the practice before (lookback period defined to 10 years)||Establishes a threshold to differentiate whether an adopted activity is additional or common practice|
|Counts Permanence||10 years||25 years||100 years|
|Prevents Double-counting||Credits can only be sold once, and then are immediately retired upon purchase||Uses blockchain to create immutable records of GHG removals||Assigns unique serial number to each credit|
1 ton of CO2
|Nori Carbon Removal Tonne (NRT) - Calculated difference between CO2 removed from new practices minus CO2 removed from old practices||
GHG - Difference in the net amount of carbon resulting from the estimation of changes in soil organic carbon (SOC) stocks between two periods of time and subtracting GHG emissions on the farm. |
Co-benefits - ranking ecosystem health, soil health, and animal welfare
|Climate Reserve Ton (CRT) -|
|Measures and monitors sequestrations||Modeling (Soil Metrics based on COMET-Farm Tool)||Soil measurements coupled with satellite remote sensing analysis.|
|US, croplands only||International||US and specific projects in Canada and Mexico|
|Credits verification||Third party verifier||Third party verifier||Third party verifier|
|Has this program sold any soil carbon sequestration credits?||Yes||Yes||Yes|
Take a look at these case studies