Food Companies Look to Measure How Soil Captures Carbon
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.