Forward Food Tech Podcast

#2 - Daniel Baertschi - The Future of Carbon Farming

January 13, 2021 ForwardFood.Tech Season 1 Episode 2
Forward Food Tech Podcast
#2 - Daniel Baertschi - The Future of Carbon Farming
Show Notes Transcript

We’re going to be digging deep into the hot topic of Carbon Farming. Our guest is Daniel Baertschi. Daniel is an expert in the field of regenerative agriculture and works all over Europe, the US and Australia.

He’s passionate about farming and how we can make it the solution for climate change. Daniel’s vision is a 'world where people live in harmony with nature, and enjoy life in all its fullness.' His mission is 'to help regenerate our agrifood system, from farm to fork. ' Rob and Daniel discuss and challenge the real issues of how the carbon market can legitimately become a new source of income for farmers. But does carbon farming have a viable future? Listen to the podcast and find out.

Iliyana Dimitrova:

Welcome to another episode of the Forward Food Tech podcast. Today were going to be digging deep into the it the solution for climate change. Daniels vision is a 'world where people live in harmony with nature, and enjoy life in all its fulness.' His mission is 'to help regenerate our agrifood system, from farm to fork. ' Rob and Daniel discuss and challenge the real issues of how the carbon market can legitimately become a new source of income for farmers. But does carbon farming have a viable future? Listen to the podcast and find out.

Rob Ward:

Good morning, Daniel. How are you?

Daniel Baertschi:

Good morning, Rob. I'm fine. Thank you. And thank you for the invitation. It's great to talk to you.

Rob Ward:

It's a pleasure. Can you tell us a bit about what you do?

Daniel Baertschi:

Well, I'm a consultant. I've background in agronomy, and I work with farmers organisations and companies that want to shift to regenerative agriculture. And mainly I work in in Switzerland, but also in Germany and Eastern Europe. And I have some context to the US and Australia. So I try to add value to people that want to shift to regenerative agriculture. And often we have to start somewhere. And my goal is really to work with people on the way and help them rediscover what's the power of regenerative agriculture.

Rob Ward:

And that would go right down to being on the farm and deciding what crops are or what level do you go down to?

Daniel Baertschi:

Well, mostly, I work on a systemic level, but also occasionally work with farmers. And because I'm a trained farmer have a practical knowledge. And I try to connect those. So let's say people with different skills. So it's not only me, it's a group of people. And I'm president of the Association for Regional culture in Switzerland. And we connect basically people and farms that have experience in a lot of practical farms, they have a lot of experience, and we try to help them to share their experience. So I'm more like a broker than just the expert.

Rob Ward:

Okay, that's brilliant. Thank you for explaining that to us. So I'm really interested in carbon farming, but I'm interested in it from an acquisitive perspective and its potential impact on the whole of agriculture in the world and the environmental benefits it could lead to so I'm really want to know more about it. But I'm sure I'm not alone in this industry of trying to understand more about it. So first off, let's walk through this for me, just so I can really understand it at the initial a very basic level, let's just try and ask some simple practical questions. In the carbon trading market for carbon sequestration, first off, what is carbon? Is it CO2? Or is it carbon? And that's my first question. And presently, today and January 2021, what is it worth per tonne?

Daniel Baertschi:

Well, that's an interesting question, what it's worth, there is a price and there is a worth and does not have? Similar the similar thing, the price actually it's between 50 and 100 euro or Swiss francs that's quite similar or dollars, it's not far away, per tonne of carbon we put back in soil and of course, we take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and then it's processed through the plants through photosynthesis and, and then the roots will exude that in the soil and, and just feed soil microbes. So in soils, you have carbon and I mean 1% more of organic matter is more than 10 tonnes of carbon per acre, or more than 20 pounds of carbon per hectare, we put back in soil, which of course, is interesting. And also from a financial point of view, it adds value to the bottom line in the Swiss context where I work mostly, of course, that's not a huge amount compared to the yields they generate per hectar, but it's an add on, and it especially pays farmers that do more than just normal things. So to build soil organic matter often is not well paid and to pay farmers to put them back in soil that just add value to their work.

Rob Ward:

Where are we measuring carbon but tonnes of carbon or carbon dioxide?

Daniel Baertschi:

Yeah, I mean, you mentioned different things. And, you know, we have this tradition of soil testing in the lab. And that's something which my understanding is still working. And in most teams, they rely on soil testing in the lab, and then you just measure organic carbon in the sample. And I think that's not the most advanced technology, there is more advanced technology, there's satellite based data, where you can monitor how much carbon you have in soil. And if we are able to monitor that more exactly, then it's easier to sell it somehow on the market and to pay farmers and to have systems in place that are transparent. And let's say there is no risk of reversing this back to the old state.

Rob Ward:

Yeah, I'm glad you mentioned testing. Because essentially carbon sequestration, as far as I understand is in different depths of soil, and also depending on different soil types. And so satellite data that is looking at soil from above, sorry, at the surface level, so there are different depths and understand some analysis and testing is going down to a metre, or different layers within that. So, we're getting different, we're gonna get different amounts of sequesteration at different depths. So if we've got different crops that are doing different types of sequestration, obviously, they've got different root structures. So that immediately says to me that there'll be different amounts of organic matter produced in different areas of the soil at different depths. How can we measure this affordably?

Daniel Baertschi:

there are different standards around there's one standard from FAO, there's another one in in Dolton, from Vera. And because soil is so different from one area to the other, it's quite difficult to have one standard that fits every context. My personal view, is that we need to have a more flexible approach and and not only measuring soil carbon, but also just assessing what's the technology and what is the farm really doing on the ground? What are the crops? What's the rotation, what the intercropping system, what's the what's the diversity, and things like that. And I think today, we have tools that can integrate different sets of data in one model, and then we can take this model and input different data from different areas, and then find the best, let's say, best estimates. It's always an estimate, you know, you're never perfect, but it's quite obvious that if you compare different farming systems, you have different, let's say, content of soil organic matter. And if we can combine the systems approach together with the analysis approach, then we have acquired like an accurate measurement, an accurate assessment of carbon content in soil. And of course, there is there is also risks, if you go for no till, there is more carbon in, let's say, the topsoil and less carbon in the below soil. But if you have the right cropping system, then you still have the root system in place that brings carbon quite steep in soil. So I think a combination of different assessment and measurement tools would be the most appropriate thing to use. And of course, that gets to a certain complexity. But with digitalization, we are able to manage more data. And I think there are companies are in many places that are working on that area. Now it was quite narrow, it was underdeveloped for certain point of time, certain time, but now we have a momentum because of climate change, where science and also research is catching up. And just recently we have research in Switzerland that if you have more extensive cropping system, then you have more carbon soil than intensive system. So less fertiliser means more carbon in soil, which is interesting. And of course more organic fertiliser on soil and in soil also means more carbon in soil. So if we combine all this data in one set, one model then we have quite accurate information about the real state.

Rob Ward:

I think you're absolutely right. And it's the total totality of it as a benefit. I completely understand that. So back to if I was carbon trading, and I was a large corporate airline, for instance, and I'm looking to offset carbon, and I was in the carbon market. You said a price I think was about $20 a tonne. And you also said that 1% increase in organic matter is about 25 tonnes a hectare or 10 tonnes an acre, what is the highest level of organic matter you've seen increase in one year on a farm?

Daniel Baertschi:

Well, that's the interesting question I have seen in one farm, it's more than 1% per year. That means more than 20 tonnes per hectare per year. And if we have $20 it's still only $400 which doesn't really, let's say it's not the only motivation to do more for soil. So a farmer that wants to benefit from healthy soil will not only look at what we get from carbon compensation, but what's the overall benefit, but still, I mean, we have to reach 1%. And that that requires that you have a very, very sophisticated let's say cropping system with a lot of organic matter, you just leave in soil because microbes they just need organic matter. And if they don't have the foods, they will not thrive. The goal is to have let's say 1.2 1.3% per year that literally a farmer can get to that level but 1% that's ,of course, that's the elite, let's put it that way.

Rob Ward:

So okay, so 1% is a lot from what I've heard and realistically even with a fairly progressive no till farm that's using regenerative thinking what would you say is the normal amount?

Daniel Baertschi:

Yeah, it's 0.2 0.1 0.2, it varies a lot, if you have poor soil in an area like Eastern Europe with a pig farm and you start with manure, with compost, or biochar, and, of course, any other huge increase in a short time, but in our soils in Switzerland, where we have about two to 3%, on average, of course, it's a harder thing to go to 5% or 6%. But still, I mean, it's possible to have good progress and research, just leave it behind, in my opinion, research tells us whether it's only 0.6 or 600 kilogrammes per year, which is way out. Well, it's something but if nothing.

Rob Ward:

Yes, I appreciate that. So so let's just get the math right, then on a good average system, we're looking at a, call it point 2% increase in organic matter, and at $20 a tonne, just do the math for me here.

Daniel Baertschi:

Let's say it's $52 to $80 per hectare per year you can generate in a normal system. If you have this, this amount of $20, which is paid by some US based organisations in Switzerland, we have a price of 100 Swiss francs for one tonne. And of course, then, of course, that's more interesting. If you have 200-300 francs, just an add on without any effort, let's say it's just something you can just get paid if you just do it better.

Rob Ward:

What you've talked about, which is I agree with, is the total benefit of all of this type of farming to the crop, yields, costs, and actually the environment, but a corporate business that is offsetting their carbon to a farmer and paying out roughly $50 a year per hectare, because of the increase in organic matter, which is, we're accepting is on average, pretty small, but in totality, it's a huge benefit. I'm not arguing with that. What happens in a year where there is an extreme weather scenario. And we certainly had that in the UK. In the last two years, we've had the wettest winter, I believe in history, and we're in pretty a pretty historically dry summer or spring definitely what happens in those situations, because from what I understand organic matter can diminish just purely by the the weather pattern, not necessarily by the farming practices, what happens then to the farm when the farm's being paid to increase organic matter. But in fact, in that year, or years, it doesn't or even arguably it decreases. Is the farm then fined or does the farm have to pay back that carbon credit if, in essence, that carbon has been released back into the atmosphere?

Daniel Baertschi:

Well, you know, we are still in a voluntary market where it's not regulated by governments and they're at I haven't seen yet kind of have a punishment system, it's just upfront will only be paid a certain amount. And most contexts are over five or even 10 years. And if you have a longer period, then it's just the trend, which is important. If you have one year where we have a problem with sequestering carbon, then it goes back to the old state, that can be a temporary problem. But if you have a good system in place, that's only one or two years, and then we come back. And most schemes, they just pay the farm, let's say 80%, upfront or 60% upfront, and the rest will just be paid if measurement after five years is really at the level where we have protected it. And it's also important that consultants protect, make projections based on reality and not on the best hope. And also to include some, let's say setbacks because of weather, of drought and things like that. But overall, if you have a longer period of time that we always equal out. The most important is not to have kind of a bonus model system but to have a system that is motivating farmers to do it long term, not only short term and to get back to half the money after five years. And then to get back to the old state. That's not the goal. So more important than just paying farmers is also supporting farmers that they really adapt their system to a new stage. And they don't have the motivation to go back. And that's usually if you have better soil health, but soil fertility, you have less input costs. And at some point in time after some years you have a higher yield than before, which of course then is the game changer. You don't have to pay farmers anymore for carbon sequestration, you will just benefit from a better return.

Rob Ward:

So much like the woodland schemes for carbon offsetting. There are buffers and leakages calculations. Okay, that's that's good to hear. What happens if we roll this forward 10 years and a farm that's been paid to sequester carbon and this has been calculated accurately and they've been shown to improve their organic matter. And in 10 years time they've gone from 1.8 to 2.7 or whatever in it's increase and they've had all the other additional benefits that you've just described that are to the farm by thinking in this way around the farming benefits regards productivity and cost savings, that then that farmer sells the farm or retires, or whatever else it is, and then the farmer that comes on board next to take that land doesn't believe in any of those systems, and then farms it, frankly, in a way that it's about taking out of the soil in the way that people have done for 70 years, pretty much around the planet. Developed countries have done that for 1000s of 1000 years of soil being created. We've spent the piggy bank of organic matter in the last 70 years, just imagine this in exactly the same situation that a farm has been, in 10 years time, has been doing that and somebody comes, it's great, rubs their hands and starts to milk, the preferably the soil and and the organic matter starts to go backwards. And of course, in essence, it's releasing carbon back into the atmosphere. I mean, I guess it's a similar question to climate, extreme weather. But in that situation, that's more of a deliberate act of sabotage, it's almost in on this whole system. What do you think about that? And what is the answer there? Because quite honestly, this is very likely to happen.

Daniel Baertschi:

Yes, of course. And and there is no simple answer to that. Because it has to do with with, let's say, mentality of people and the value system of people. And I always tell people that if you don't have the right value system in place, then there is no guarantee that you will keep it this way for a long period and get paid. I mean, money is one important motivation. But I think it's important that we we have a system that supports farmers long term, it's not consulting, it's more coaching, it's just working with them. In the end, if they transition to another one, just helping them to find the right people just to continue. Then of course, there's a certain room for government regulations. To be honest, I don't really like too much regulation. I was in the organic sector and there is a lot of regulation which doesn't make sense. But I think that's it needs to be a certain consensus from the society or from government that, well, if we have better soil organic matter content, it's an overall benefit to society. So there should be kind of a system that links direct payments to farmers to soil organic matter content. And if you decrease your content, you will be punished by subsidies system, and by the market. The second one is the market. We should work with retailers and with processes and traders, that source more material from regenerative farms. And then of course, if you a decrease in soil organic matter, then you will have a problem with your supply chain because the value of the food will be less. I think ultimately, if we have better soil, we have better food. And if companies like Nestle, like Danone will pay back farmers better for food from healthy soils, there is no motivation to go back to a lower organic matter content. And of course, you can't just put a policeman everywhere. But I think it should be a system that motivates good stewardship with land and and I think there's one part for the government and another part for the whole value chain and traders and processes to whether you're to value it.

Rob Ward:

I guess, but I'm still gonna stick on this one. Because when you've got a corporate, large corporate that I've talked about, that they're now carbon neutral, or zero carbon, whatever words they want to use, because of this offsetting. And, in fact, it is a volatile material that can be briefly offset and then released quite easily by malpractice of our system is not consistent with your beliefs. The only way that this is seen as it is generally seen as almost like a blockchain or a digital ledger, where carbon in can be carbon out, and the farm would then have to pay or have a penalty of some sort to use it It may be the farmer might seek might see that cost benefit. Growing as a farmer myself for 30 years, there are times when you you know that you're going to grow a crop, it's going to take something out of the soil, but the goal is to rebalance that afterwards. Hence, the reason why we use farming up manure into soils and other ways that you already talked about to put the energy back into the soil because you've taken it out. So it is a piggy bank of or a credit debit account. But my greatest concern is as it is at the moment, we've got companies that are offsetting our carbon into this market, but actually no way whatsoever of tracing that beyond fairly loose levels of aspirations. And I totally believe your determination to get it right and and the values that you are referring to if everybody was like you, Daniel, this would be a problem the first place and so we have to understand or even prepare ourselves for for significant abuse. And I'll add to this if I was a consumer of say there's a famous beer brand in the UK called brewdog. They are now saying they're carbon neutral or zero-carbon and that's because they've invested in woodland particularly. So if a consumer starts to switch buying one beer to their beer, because they believe that they're doing the right thing for the environment. And yet, the system that is there is vulnerable to being abused. I'm not saying the woodland scheme in that particular example. But if, for instance, they'd use carbon trading into farming, as an alternative to woodland schemes, then the consumer has been deceived there. And I think, actually, the UK's farming industry has made a public statement to be carbon zero, by 2050, I believe, so there's going to be an awful lot of work to be done there. But my point is still this that I, it feels very, it almost feels like it's um, call it the bank, but instead of dollars, it's tonnes of carbon, but we're not leaving the door locked, we're leaving the door open, almost. And we're saying we're going to put all this money that essentially, all these assets or this currency of carbon into this bank, but we're not going to bother locking it up, but we're not going to bother making it secure. And actually, anybody in the middle of the night could walk in there and stuff their pockets and rucksacks with it and walk out with it. Now, that's not a very good bank. And so fundamentally, this has to change in a way that that is going otherwise, actually could undermine the whole of this, because it could make us be very vulnerable to the current to the investor markets, that actually this is the famous story of Emperor's clothes, that it's simply not a beautiful thing, it actually doesn't exist at all. So I call back to you, the practitioners, the people that are making this happen. Are my concerns valid and what is the answer?

Daniel Baertschi:

Oh, certainly, that your concerns are very valid and you know, from human behaviour that humans don't always choose the best option, they choose the most convenient option to do something. And it only works if we have this whole system change, to be honest. It doesn't work if we just pay farmers to sequester carbon, and then we hope well, the whole system will change. You have to find the whole system of approach not only from farm to fork, but from soil to gut. And I think it's really important that we combine a culture policy with nutrition policy, and that we have, let's say this feedback from the consumer side on the farmers, what do we really want to buy from you, what is really the need, and the need is much more vegetables and fruits, for example, and less cereals, for example. So we have to adjust the production pattern to the, let's say, healthy diets pattern, and then we have a much better production system. It will be kind of a, let's say, also economical, the best way to produce foods and all other options should be less than interesting. So the more ecosystem services based production system should be rewarded by the market. And only if we have a reward system directly from the market, then it will really be a transition that is stable and not reversible. But you know, human behaviour, not always is easy to predict. But my hope, let's put it that way. My hope is that the US that is now protesting for climate will just also understand that they can make a better choice with their food that they buy and with the with the choices they make just to buy fruit from regenerative farms. And then we also will have a need for a certification system. It's not only about carbon, it's about let's say labelling food that is produced in a regenerative way. And that will replace organic in 10 years, for sure. Because we will get rid of chemicals in the agricultural sector, for sure, because we have better alternatives and there's too much regulation. And we will have alternatives that are better than the chemicals. And then I think it's just a matter of time that we will have the understanding that well organic is fine but it's just the system that tells us what has not been done in a system. But regenerative will just be a system where you have all in and including nutrient dense food. And that's a long term view, of course, but I feel that humans will survive somehow only with better soil. And that would be an understanding that is growing and governments will just be also, let's say in a way, controlling how people manage land at some point in time, I think there needs to be kind of consensus that we can't just manage land independently. We have a certain, ,let's say, obligation if we own land to treat it properly, and to be good stewards, and there could be government regulations in place to make just making sure to keep away the black sheep. And often, it's only 5% that don't adjust to a new system and only for the 5% we don't have a regulation system in place.

Rob Ward:

Thank you, Daniel. We call them the 'bad apples'. So as long as we've got them, looks like we're gonna have to have regulation here, otherwise we can have a lot more bad apples and we'd like. Daniel, your inspiration and a leading force in this, good luck. It's a really brilliant thing to be doing, you can change, sounds like you've got lots of fingers in many pies in many different countries. So good luck to you! Thank you so much for your time today.

Daniel Baertschi:

Pleasure!

Rob Ward:

This is a very worthy thing, but it sounds like we're gonna have to have regulation the carbon trading market, otherwise we're gonna have problems. Yeah, yeah, but thank you for your time and all the best, thank you Daniel!

Daniel Baertschi:

It's good to be here! Thanks. Bye.

Iliyana Dimitrova:

Thanks very much for listening, and we hope you stay healthy in the midst of this global pandemic. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe. Give us a five star review and share the podcast with your friends and colleagues. For more information and takeaways from this episode, please visit Forward Food.Tech. See you next time.