ForumforAg Food Systems Podcast Summary

Food Systems Podcast 35

In discussion with Chris Harbourt Podcast summary

Wednesday, Nov 10, 2021

Carbon farming: Changing behaviour for the long term

With climate change increasingly top of the news agenda, interest in carbon farming is growing fast. Our latest podcast heard from Chris Harbourt, Global Head of Carbon at Indigo, about how it can work in the field, how almost any farmer can benefit, and why prices of carbon credits are likely to rise. For a taster, read our short summary below, or dive into the full 28-minute Food Systems Podcast for much more. Indigo is a supporting Friend of the Forum for the Future of Agriculture. 


Let’s start on the farm: what does a farmer have to do to sign up for carbon farming?

They have to decide carbon farming is for them: that’s a major decision as they have to make significant changes to how they do things. They have to add a practice or make a physical change. The most important thing for me is, they have to innovate. And they have to document the changes. We designed the programme to pay for performance.

What are the most common operational changes that farmers make?

Cover cropping, because if the fields are green, they are sequestering carbon. Limiting the loss of carbon from the soil, with no tillage or reduced tillage. Changing rotational practices, or changing major inputs.

Can all sizes of farms do carbon farming?

With the Indigo programme, you’re part of a very large cohort, you gain from the participation of a very large pool. We have no minimum size.

What about investment, for example, equipment or seeds for cover cropping? Is the current price of carbon credits high enough?

In some cases, it certainly is. We have a massive programme that we started first in the US, and it’s working. We recently issued first payments to over 200 farmers.

We anticipate carbon credits will go up in price. So as prices go up, there’s a bigger opportunity. Farmers have to be ready to capitalise on that. If they want to be excellent at carbon farming three years from now, when prices are significantly higher, they really need to get started. We are excited about increased pricing to unlock more supply. There’s a landslide of buyers looking to purchase credits.

What’s the minimum in technology a farmer needs to take part?

The minimum is to be able to do some type of electronic recording. Then it’s the availability of an education programme that would inform them what in their area are the right type of practices to adopt to lead to carbon sequestration.

What kind of buyers are typically looking at carbon credits?

It’s the voluntary market: tech companies, consumer packaged goods companies. Heavy emitters are aware and looking at offset credits. Aviation is a great example – for the foreseeable future we’re going to burn jet fuel to fly around the world. There’s no way to offset that, and so the offset market comes in. I hope our buyers of today are not our buyers of the future, and they’ve figured out ways of removing carbon from their supply chains.

Cover crops and rotations are already mandatory in Europe under the CAP. What would you ask European farmers to do above and beyond?

The buyers of carbon credits are looking for something new, that the farmer doesn’t already do. There are opportunities in any of these practices and in new technology as well. So, for example, if a farmer’s been using a cover crop for many years, a switch to a multi-species cover crop, or changing the timing. There’s an opportunity with almost every farmer.

Are the rewards tiered, based on the impact of the practices?

Yes, they are incremental. It’s pay for performance, not pay for practice. What we’re trying to do is effect long term change, make sure that these practices stick. Credit is not just about the creation of the element, but it’s also to make sure it stays for a very long time.

Is carbon farming actually measurable? Can we deliver accurate, verifiable data at the farm level?

The science is certainly there. We’ve worked with a model called DayCent – that’s day and century together. We’ve created a hybrid between soil sampling and modelling, that can actually estimate carbon credits. Is there opportunity for improvement? Absolutely.

Credits are seen as ‘permanent’ if the atmospheric benefit of emission reductions is the equivalent of 100 years. Can we really guarantee such a long period of carbon storage? How do you incentivize farmers to keep up the practices for a century?

It’s more of a fundamental question of, can we make the work we’re doing today withstand the test of time and beyond the concept of a carbon credit? Can we educate farmers in a way that makes sure the behaviour sticks over the long term? The key is in driving the behavioural change, making sure it sticks, that it becomes generational. If it’s profitable… why would you go back from that?

If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 28-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.

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