Climate solution or corporate greenwashing? Tech taps farmers to help offset carbon footprint

A tractor on Gruenbaum Farms cuts down a cover crop before planting corn. (Gruenbaum Farms Photo / David Gruenbaum)

Five years ago, David Gruenbaum abandoned dairy farming and a conventional method of growing vegetables that relied on tilling large quantities of cow manure into his fields, which released carbon into the atmosphere in the process. Today, the Ohio farmer grows corn and soybeans without tilling the land. In the off-season, he uses a variety of cover crops that trap carbon in the soil and improve its fertility, rather than leaving the fields bare.

These so-called regenerative practices are gaining popularity as a way to draw carbon down and mitigate the effects of climate change and the tech industry is taking notice.

Fueled by enthusiasm from the Biden administration, tech companies like Microsoft and Shopify are eyeing agriculture as an untapped opportunity to offset their carbon footprints. Advocates for soil carbon sequestration are hopeful that the influx of cash will motivate cautious farmers to shift to more sustainable practices. But skeptics fear the program will only marginally impact climate change while giving corporations license to continue polluting.

For Gruenbaum, selling carbon credits is a way to recoup some of the costs of the changes hes made in recent years and reinvest in his farm. Microsoft plans to pay Gruenbaum for the carbon he has already trapped in his soil. Its one of several agricultural carbon credits Microsoft is purchasing through Truterra, a sustainability program launched by the dairy company Land OLakes in 2016.

Were just trying to do better, Gruenbaum said. When I leave here, I want this place to be better than I found it.

The shift at Gruenbaum Farms is one of the rare agricultural projects that Microsoft approved as part of its first ever purchase of carbon credits in January. Each credit is meant to represent one metric ton of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere.

Microsoft agreed to buy 1.3 million carbon creditsin one of the largest offset purchases in history. But just 200,000 of Microsofts credits are for soil carbon sequestration projects. The company is being selective about this emerging market because measuring the actual impact of carbon capture in soil is costly and difficult, as Gruenbaum Farms illustrates.

Like forestry, its hard to prove that agricultural projects really store carbon that would otherwise remain in the atmosphere. Gruenbaum said that even without Microsofts money, I would continue on with what Im doing. But he said this initial round of projects could be a bellwether for farmers who are more hesitant to shift to regenerative practices.

I will talk about it, youll see other farmers see that benefit and then they will take that same money and start adding conservation-minded practices and doing things to preserve the soil, he said. Thats the end that will come out of this as the money comes downstream, youll see other farmers that wouldnt have made that change. Theres always some people that do things that are ahead of the curve.

Microsofts big purchase is part of its ambitious carbon removal plan. The company is working to become carbon negative by 2030 and remove all of its historical carbon emissions from the atmosphere by 2050. Elizabeth Willmott, head of Microsofts carbon program, said the company can leave no stone unturned in pursuit of these goals despite the limits of carbon removal.

Elizabeth Willmott, carbon program manager at Microsoft. (Microsoft Photo)

One of the biggest challenges for this emerging soil carbon sequestration market is a lack of clear standards that buyers, sellers, and regulators agree on. Microsoft hopes that President Joe Biden, an advocate for farmland carbon removal, will change that.

We know we need to invest in carbon removal to mitigate climate change and we need to know that were doing the math in a transparent and clear and accountable way, Willmott said. Those standards are absolutely necessary. Will they ever be perfect? Probably not, but the best we can do is to still be practical, impactful, and transparent. The transparency comes in the partnerships that need to happen with government.

Microsoft could require 6 million carbon credits annually by 2030 to meet its goals, according to the companys sustainability chief Lucas Joppa. He told Reuters that agriculture has to be part of that equation but echoed Willmotts call for greater transparency.

A few entrepreneurs see that need for transparency as a business opportunity. Startups like Nori and Indigo Ag have emerged in recent years to validate agricultural carbon credits and help farmers find buyers.

Seattle-based Nori uses third-party auditors and a USDA computer model to estimate how much carbon farms in its marketplace are capturing. Its an approach that gets around the high costs and accuracy challenges of soil sampling a barrier for some farmers. Though the company has had some early success with small and medium-sized businesses, its proving difficult to land large corporations, Nori CEO Paul Gambill said. Nori submitted a proposal to Microsoft but wasnt selected for its first round of soil projects.

Nori CEO Paul Gambill speaks at a 2020 Techstars event. (Nori Photo)

Theres a big potential risk factor for big corporate buyers, Gambill said.

Companies can land in hot water for funding projects that dont actually remove atmospheric carbon or prevent future emissions.

Weve taken care of all of that diligence, Gambill said. Weve done the hard work of building out these generalizable standards and verification processes so that you, as a customer, dont have to have teams of sustainability people and consultants doing that work. Weve turned this into a simple e-commerce checkout flow. Ironically, the people at the big companies who are responsible for big purchasing, theres inertia to how they make their decisions and this doesnt quite fit.

Those decision makers are hopeful that the federal government will step in to create standards for farmland carbon credits.

The Biden administration is studying what it would take to create a carbon bank that encourages farmer participation. One idea is to guarantee a minimum price for farmland credits. Meanwhile, the Senate is considering a bipartisan bill that would create a certification program at the USDA to create standards for carbon removal in agriculture.

A more formalized agricultural carbon program could encourage other tech companies with high emissions and big sustainability goals like Amazon to follow Microsofts lead. But some environmental groups are begging Congress not to establish a carbon offset market for farmers because of the difficulty in accurately measuring the benefits of such projects. Soil carbon sequestration is too new and untested to scale this quickly, they argue.

Theres sort of a gold rush in this space right now because people see the true value of soil carbon practices as a solution to climate change and to other issues, but there havent been clear standards set for the market yet, Microsofts Willmott said. Thats one of the most exciting things that I see potentially coming out of the Biden administration.

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