Soil Carbon Initiative Looks to Reverse Climate Change by Regenerating Soil Health

As part of our ongoing Regenerative Programs and Incentives Feasibility Study, the Organic Council of Ontario (OCO) is exploring how The Soil Carbon Initiative (SCI) is unlocking the economic viability of drawing carbon out of the air and into the soil, known as carbon sequestration. Read on as we break down what SCI is doing to promote soil health, how they are collaborating with farmers to regenerate land, and what members of Ontario’s agricultural sector can learn from SCI’s work. 

What is the Soil Carbon Initiative?

The roots of SCI can be traced back to The Carbon Underground (TCU). Created in 2013 and based in California, TCU was created to galvanize efforts to reverse global warming by drawing carbon into the soil. In collaboration with the Green America Center for Sustainability Solutions, TCU created the Soil Carbon Initiative with the mission of making it economically viable for farmers to restore their soil’s health. Designed with the input of over 150 stakeholders such as NSF International, Danone North America, and Ben & Jerry’s, SCI aims to achieve this mission by providing a scientific and verifiable standard designed to help farmers, supply chains, and anyone with the desire to measure improvements in soil health and soil carbon. 

The design of the SCI standard was guided by four key principles:

  1. The standard is outcomes-based not process-based, and was designed to be helpful regardless of crop type, geography or production system. Participants from around the world are welcome. 
  2. The standard was designed to scale quickly to include more operations in order to help reverse climate change as quickly as possible. 
  3. Testing and reporting of soil health are designed to be easy and affordable to maximize uptake and impact.
  4. Participants are incentivized to reach minimum carbon sequestration levels, and are also rewarded through SCI’s point system for movement in the direction of improved soil health and increased soil carbon capture. 

How is the Soil Carbon Initiative collaborating with farmers to integrate regenerative practices? 

Participation in the SCI boasts a number of potential perks. For example, the agronomic benefits could include reduced inputs and improved yield. Farmers and associated brands also pay for access to education to improve their soil health knowledge as well as the tools to test and measure soil carbon. Farms successfully sequestering carbon can also tap into carbon markets or use their SCI participation to enter eco-friendly supply chains.  

Farmer rewards are based on SCI’s points-based system. After receiving points for signing up, farms are expected to document and submit written and (if possible) photographic evidence of commitment actions which include covered soil, minimization of soil disturbance, livestock integration, continual live plant/root, plant diversity and farm biodiversity. Once they complete a minimum number of commitment points, farmers can earn a “Stamp of Participation” that acts as an early benefit and signal to supply chains that they are committed to regenerative soil health practices. A valid “Stamp of Participation” requires an annual commitment report.

The annual commitment report displays evidence of regenerative practices that demonstrate commitment to soil health and carbon sequestration. Actions are farm-dependent, and include but are not limited to; an annual submission of test results, a mix of agricultural plans, educational experiences, on-farm actions, integrating animals, crop coverage, and living roots, buffer zones, compost application, crop rotations, forage/biomass planting, perennial planting, mulching application, riparian restoration. 

The foundation of the standard, and the final stage of the SCI points system, is the Outcomes Based Testing of Performance Areas. Performance areas were selected by a committee of leading farmers and soil scientists to include:

  1. Soil organic carbon
  2. Soil water infiltration or holding capacity
  3. Aggregate stability
  4. Microbial biomass

SCI has provided two tracks for measuring Performance Areas. The SCI-Reported track relies on self-reported scores and is meant for producers whose lab access is especially difficult or impossible. The SCI-Verified track requires more extensive in-field, in-lab testing, and verification by SCI-certified staff. The two-track system is meant to reward participants with points in a way that is sensitive to individual capacity for engaging in regenerative activities while still encouraging the most robust tests and results. Those in the SCI-Verified track are eligible for more points than those in the self-reported track, allowing them to stand out to supply chains looking for more robust scientific evidence of land regeneration. 

What can members of Ontario’s agricultural sector learn from the Soil Carbon Initiative?

The agricultural sector in Ontario should take note of SCI’s two-track system design, whereby farmers unable or unwilling to gain access to a lab for soil testing can still participate in the program. This flexibility in program application could be especially useful if programs were to set up pilots in Ontario or attempt to reach those operations in more remote areas of the province.  

Farmers in Ontario should be careful to consider any potential market gains from programs like SCI against the costs of participation. For example, it is unclear whether the market differentiation provided by SCI’s Stamp of Participation is significant enough to make an economic difference to farmers and supply chains. A similar concern applies to farmer participation in carbon markets, which have thus far provided mixed results in their attempts to compensate farmers for drawing carbon out of the atmosphere. Unless the cost of soil measurement tools and tests is significantly subsidized by a large corporation in a farmer’s supply chain, the costs of sequestering carbon and regenerating soil will continue to disproportionately fall on individual farmers. 

Comments are closed.