Soil mapping advances: Helping farmers one acre at a time

Modern farmers face both opportunities and incredible challenges in equal amounts as a result of the need for everyone on planet Earth to achieve net zero emissions by 2040. Like their counterparts in the electrical, technology, or car manufacturing sectors, they have no choice but to not only try, but succeed.

An example of what is happening in the latter three groups is a movement called the Climate Pledge, founded in 2019 by Amazon and Global Optimism, a civic and social organization that “embraces the complexity of the climate crisis and the solutions we urgently need.”

The two joined forces in launching a platform they say is “for signatories to work together on ambitious actions to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2040, 10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement.”

Over 300 organizations from 51 industries and 29 nations have since signed on, including Schneider Electric, Microsoft, and Mercedes-Benz, and the global annual revenues generated by all signatories currently stands at over US$3.5 trillion.

It is within this vortex of activity that farmers around the world are grappling with how best they can help to solve the climate crisis. One possibility, and something that could also generate added revenue for them, revolves around carbon credits.

On its site, the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC), a national land conservation organization, defines a carbon credit as a “certificate or permit that allows the purchaser to offset their greenhouse gas emissions through the capturing or sequestering of carbon in the trees and soil, rather than it being released into the atmosphere. One carbon credit represents the reduction of one metric tonne of carbon dioxide or its equivalent in other greenhouse gases.”

A technical paper released by the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy in April stated that there has “been little exploration to date of the effectiveness of using carbon credits to encourage Alberta farmers to practice farming techniques that lower emissions, while earning extra revenue without jeopardizing their agricultural output.”

Authors Nimanthika Lokuge and Prof. Sven Anders wrote that “carbon-credit systems allow agricultural producers to earn an extra revenue through selling their surplus of carbon credits to producers who emit higher amounts of greenhouse gases (GHGs).

“However, agricultural carbon-credit systems are still at early stage; hence, these benefits cannot be guaranteed due to their uncertain nature and the paucity of scientific evidence about agricultural carbon credits.”

They went on to say that “some lower-emission farming protocols have proved profitable for farmers by improving efficiency, even without carbon offset incentives. While farmers may adopt these practices for their own reasons, they are reluctant to participate in Alberta’s carbon-offset market unless they are sufficiently rewarded.”

Farmers in Alberta and elsewhere would likely participate in carbon markets if they knew the soil efficiency of their acreage and how much carbon is stored and to that end, technology now exists that allows that to happen.

One company that provides such a service is SoilOptix. Based in Tavistock, Ont., the company’s technology offering, “involves a standard four-step process that includes soil mapping, extraction of soil samples, processing and the retrieval of results.

“The resulting data can be used for multiple purposes including variable rate application of fertilizer or seed, precise management of water, or more informed practices around field scouting. In some instances, historical field management (or lack thereof) can influence the present-day decisions growers may make in their fields.”

Paul Raymer, chief executive officer and founder of the nine-year-old company, describes it as a “fancy tube” that contains sophisticated technology: “It acts like a sponge. Soil gives off a natural radiation that we can’t taste, smell or feel as humans, but this instrument can. It digitizes the energy coming out of the soil.”

Last November, Hutchinsons, a U.K.-based SoilOptix service provider and crop production specialist, announced the launch of the nation’s first carbon mapping service called TerraMap Carbon.

Matt Ward, the company’s service manager, said in a release that “despite growers coming under increasing pressure to look at their carbon foot print in response to the NFU’s (National Farmers Union) commitment for U.K. farming to achieve carbon net zero by 2040, until now there has been no accurate means of measuring carbon in the soil.

“And unless you can measure carbon there is no way it can be managed. In fact, unless carbon can be measured, how will we know when we are at net zero.”

Using the SoilOptix technology, the service Hutchinsons provides can accurately map both organic and active carbon.

“The pressure to manage carbon is only going to become greater as other industries are already showing positive change,” says Ward. “As an industry, U.K. farming is in a unique and enviable position as farming activities can make positive changes to carbon, which most other industries are not able to do.”

On this side of the Atlantic, carbon in the soil is indeed being turned into cash. Last month, CNBC reported that start-up Indigo AG now helps farmers obtain carbon credits.

“Through Carbon by Indigo, increased soil carbon sequestration and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from these practices can also generate registry-issued carbon credits, which are increasingly in demand by major corporations,” the company said.

Meanwhile in an interview with IT World Canada, Chiranjib Adak, head of BFSI (banking, financial services and insurance) Canada Business Technology Solution for Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), said while carbon credits have merit and a marketplace will be created, they only represent one piece of a puzzle, with the other two being sustainable or regenerative agriculture and a trustworthy marketplace.

The three together can be viewed as a “value triangle,” he said.

Adak added that if you look at the client base of his division, it is wide ranging: “We are working with a leading pharma and biotech firm, we are working with a large chemical company, we are working with a multinational food, snack and beverage company.”

“For all of them, regenerative farming, crop productivity, soil fertility, all under the overall umbrella of sustainable agriculture, becomes critical.

“That leads to better crop health, better yield, better soil fertility and a better supply chain visibility from Farm to Fork. And in addition to lending possibilities and carbon credits and the trading of carbon credits, you also have the ability to do crop insurance.”

As for the key technologies that will be needed to create and sustain smart farming, Adak said that includes the ability to “ingest data from different sources” such as satellites and drones, followed by the ability to analyze that data in real time through machine learning techniques.

“We are focusing on both improving the food production and crop yield and also creating a platform that allow farms to conduct better crop planning and production,” he said.

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Paul Barker
Paul Barker
Paul Barker is the founder of PBC Communications, an independent writing firm that specializes in freelance journalism. His work has appeared in a number of technology magazines and online with the subject matter ranging from cybersecurity issues and the evolving world of edge computing to information management and artificial intelligence advances.

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