April 2023 ESMC Newsletter
ED Column: Transparency and Credibility in Ecosystem Services Markets (It’s in the Data!)
We sell real, but intangible, impacts in ecosystem services markets. Transparent, credible, science-based data is the currency to show these impacts exist. It is necessary currency in markets – standards require the data. But consumers and stakeholders demand verification and transparency as well, particularly given the growing focus on credibility in these markets, integrity, and accusations of green washing, green wishing – and most recently, green hushing.
But data and transparency and verification are and should be important to buyers, too – first and foremost. Buyers need the data to know they are buying something of value; and third parties are generally asked to verify the data meets market standards and requirements, and that underlying protocols document the process for gathering the data, and how and what quantification methodologies are utilized, ensuring proper scientific basis for those methods, whether measured or monitored. Buyers need to ensure what they buy is verified by an independent third party.
Regarding the media coverage of green washing and green wishing as well as new global bodies investigating the credibility and integrity of carbon markets – that is all good, and necessary, and shows continued maturity of these markets. There are valid concerns raised in the media and by both proponents and skeptics of carbon and ecosystem services markets. But I fear we may throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the uncomfortable saying goes, if we paint all efforts with the same brush.
ESMC and our members have gone to pain-staking lengths to develop science-based and standards-based protocols – now validated and posted since they were approved by SustainCERT – and to utilize our entire agricultural supply chain to test and refine our work via research pilots. All this work over the past four years resulted in the launch of Eco-Harvest, our market program in May 2022, based on those validated protocols and verified outcomes by independent third party SustainCERT.
I worry that the work we have been doing with our members across the supply chain and value chain is being swept in with the bathwater – inappropriately. Our scope 3 agricultural supply chain market program is tried and tested – and underpinned the launch of Eco-Harvest. Eco-Harvest was designed through a shared vision and shared investments to cost-effectively and sustainably address how we scale solutions to reduce agriculture’s greenhouse gas and environmental footprint while also increasing agricultural resilience and regenerative agricultural system outcomes. We founded ESMC because we need to ensure that any agriculture-based ecosystem services credits are scientifically rigorous and demonstrate actual emissions reductions/removals. Our credit buyers demand that level of confidence, but more importantly, our society demands it.
To ensure the highest scientific credibility, we invest in technologically advanced tools to track the outcomes of regenerative agricultural practices, including tools to reduce burden on producers’ participation in markets, but also tools that can boost producer participation and adoption of conservation practices by allowing them to utilize these practices on their farms and ranches. Our investments in emerging soil carbon testing tools and methodologies include not just assessments of their rigor, accuracy, and precision, but also their commercialization potential – in order to reflect the need to scale data collection cost-effectively.
One of the most important program tools is scientifically validated models to quantify the different ecosystem services recognized in our market. We combine the model outputs with direct measurements (soil sampling for example) to determine the impact of practice changes at the farm-level. This type of data collection, although a large investment of time and resources for producers and ESMC, is imperative to add to models to ensure accurate results. As we have more direct measurements that factor in soil type, region of the country, conservation practice change, and crop type, we can better calibrate and validate models to provide these accurate results. Those results take the place of expensive and time intensive soil carbon (and other onsite testing). With reduced expenses, producers earn more money for their efforts.
However, to be accurate, models require data. The more precise the data is – location, practice, crop type, etc. – the more accurate the models and therefore the results. A high level of accuracy is essential to provide confidence that any ecosystem service credit represents what it claims to. These efforts are all part of our longer-term goal of reducing or ultimately eliminating the need for soil testing for market purposes. We cannot create a transparent ecosystem services market program that both corporations and society can depend on without this scientific rigor and transparency around how those credits were created. Collaborative efforts to improve these tools and corresponding results through sharing anonymized data, allowing for open-source models, and sharing findings will help not only our program, but all those working in and with ecosystem services markets, improve the overall scientific rigor of the sector.
These thoughts are echoed by others. As described in a recent report led by David Hayes of Stanford, Data Progress Needed for Climate-Smart Agriculture, “the U.S. agricultural sector is poised to reduce its carbon footprint and make major contributions to combating climate change. However, critical improvements in carbon, methane, and nitrous oxide measurement and monitoring protocols and data sharing are needed to realize the full potential of climate-smart agriculture.” The report highlights that current publicly available models and soil sampling protocols are often “imprecise, impractical and/or do not take advantage of newly available technologies”; the report also highlights that “publicly-financed agricultural measurement and monitoring data are not readily available to researchers, and an increasing number of proprietary software products are limiting the availability of data that have industry-wide importance.”
To accomplish our goals of agriculture playing a key role in reducing emissions and ensuring that we are actually moving the needle in the right direction – and as quickly as possible – through transparently measured impacts, we must ensure that all ecosystem service programs, researchers, producers, and others have access to the highest quality data, tools, and models. Without this access, we continue to work in a piecemeal and patchwork manner, not fully sure that our investments are making the impacts we claim. To reiterate what I said up front, we need continued investment and participation in transparent, credible, science-based programs to prove the impacts of our work. Thanks for your time – please let us know if you have comments or questions on these or other topics in these important discussions.
ESMC Welcomes Doug Adams, Manager for Diversity and Inclusion
We are pleased to welcome Doug Adams to ESMC/ESMRC. Doug will lead initiatives to achieve ESMC’s commitment to inclusion and racial justice (IRJ) across all operational and organizational functions. Doug will lead ESMC/ESRMC’s IRJ Working Group. A key focus of that WG is capacity building with under-served & under-represented agricultural producers and communities via strategic outreach and engagement efforts. A milestone of these efforts is to create market program opportunities for under-served and under-represented producers and communities tailored to their unique attributes, including production and management systems.
Doug is a program management professional and sustainability enthusiast, with 15 years of experience spanning marketing, ag-tech, and social media. In 2017, he founded New Brooklyn Farms – an urban farm and green event space network based in the Washington DC area. Doug is an active member of the Fair Farms Farmer Advisory Council, former Vice Chair of the MD Organic Food and Farming Association, and published speaker. He holds a B.A. in Communications from Temple University, and a Master Composter certificate from the NYC Compost Project at Brooklyn Botanical Garden.
Join the ESMC/ESMRC Team: ESMC/ESMRC is hiring four positions – a Chief Scientist, a Research Program Project Manager, a Project Manager and a Policy and Engagement Manager. These are excellent opportunities to join our dynamic and growing team. Read more on the positions and apply.
Look for ESMC At…
AIM for Climate Summit, May 8 – 10, Washington DC
The United States will host the AIM for Climate Summit at the JW Marriott on May 8-10, 2023, in Washington, D.C. The Summit, supported by Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), an ESMC funder, aims to bring together partners to increase and accelerate investment in and support for agriculture and food systems innovation for climate action. ESMC’s Debbie Reed will attend. Read more on the event.
2023 S2G Summit: The Anthropology of Market Change, May 10 – 11, Chicago, IL
At this invite-only program, participants will hear from executives of incumbents whose businesses were radically changed, innovators who altered massive industries, regulators or legislators who blocked or unlocked innovation, financiers who accelerated market change, and more. ESMC’s Debbie Reed will attend.
Member and Funder News
Agroforestry is the Regenerative Technique Getting Overlooked in the US
GreenBiz (April 27)
Propagate is one of the only startups in the U.S. working to combine agriculture and forestry to create productive and sustainable land use practices. This article highlights a number of agroforestry projects that are getting up and running; many include ESMC members, including The Nature Conservancy and General Mills, ESMC funders and Founding Circle members. Read the full article.
General Mills Sees Regenerative Agriculture as a Key to Reaching Climate Goals
Tasting Table (April 23)
Sustainable branding has emerged as a major market trend in recent years — so much so that the term “greenwashing” arose to name its pitfalls. But, judging by General Mills’ newly-released 2023 Global Responsibility Report, the food giant is walking the walk. Per the report, General Mills is focusing its attention on regenerative farming as the future of the company, prioritizing farmers and valuing their knowledge of the land. This newfound focus comes as part of General Mills’ initiative to reduce its net carbon emissions by 30% by 2030. General Mills is an ESMC Founding Circle member and funder; ESMC and our Eco-Harvest program are highlighted in the report. Read the full article.
FFAR and The Organic Center Announce $2.4 Million in Funding for Organic Outreach and Research
FFAR (April 18)
The Organic Center and the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), an ESMC funder, are pleased to announce the provision of $2.4 million in matching funds for outreach and research programs in 2023 and 2024 that support organic farming and its impact on productivity and climate change mitigation. These funds – half to be awarded this year and half in 2024 – support several projects through two distinct initiatives, the Organic Training for Agricultural Professionals Prize and the Research Grants Program award, over the next three years. Read the full article.
USDA Announces Grassland Conservation Reserve Program Signup for 2023
USDA (April 17)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), an ESMC funder, announced that agricultural producers and private landowners can begin signing up for the Grassland Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) through May 26, 2023. Among CRP enrollment opportunities, Grassland CRP is a unique working lands program, allowing producers and landowners to continue grazing and haying practices while conserving grasslands and promoting plant and animal biodiversity as well as healthier soil. Read the full article.
Other News of Note
Meet the Climate Hackers of Malawi
New York Times (April 27)
When it comes to growing food, some of the smallest farmers in the world are becoming some of the most creative farmers in the world. Like Judith Harry and her neighbors, they are sowing pigeon peas to shade their soils from a hotter, more scorching sun. They are planting vetiver grass to keep floodwaters at bay. It’s not just Ms. Harry and her neighbors in Malawi, a largely agrarian nation of 19 million on the front lines of climate hazards. Their scrappy, throw-everything-at-the-wall array of innovations is multiplied by small subsistence farmers elsewhere in the world. Read the full article.
Climate Change Is Walloping US Farms. Can this Farm Bill Create Real Solutions?
Civil Eats (April 26)
Although it seems like everyone in D.C. is buzzing about a “climate farm bill,” some of the most impactful changes, including crop diversification and shifting diets from meat toward plants, are barely on the negotiating table. Read the full article.
Western Minnesota Farmers Engaged in ‘Regenerative Agriculture’ Say it Grows the Bottom Line
AgWeek (April 22)
A Renville County farmer who jumped into regenerative agriculture headfirst says “there’s no turning back” after seeing the benefits it offers. Phil Smith, 62, will be starting his 44th crop year this spring. “I’m more excited about our farming operation and agriculture than I have been in my lifetime.” Read the full article.
Can Regenerative Agriculture Alleviate California’s Almond Problem?
GreenBiz (April 20)
KIND is the latest to start pilots with almond producers to figure out how to keep the cash crop from becoming another drain on California’s water supply. Read the full article.
The Rise of Regenerative Agriculture: How Food Companies are Catalyzing Regenerative Farming Practices
Conservation Finance Network (April 18)
Food companies have started to incorporate regenerative agriculture into their sustainability strategies and supply chains – it’s an important buzzword today for companies, but how are they defining it? And what are they doing to support farmers in the transition? Read the full article.
Food & Ag Corporates Prefer to Engage with Academia, Research Over Startups, According to Open Innovation Report
AgFunderNews (April 17)
Open innovation at large agrifood corporations is on the rise but companies are more interested in engaging with academic and research institutions than startups and entrepreneurs, according to a new report from Spanish innovation platform Eatable Adventures. Read the full article and report.
Microsoft, Apple, Frontier Extend Support for ‘High-Quality’ Carbon Removal
GreenBiz (April 13)
Slowly but surely, corporate support centered on removing excess carbon from the atmosphere is becoming more explicit, as several high-profile announcements showed. Apple expanded the focus of its Restore Fund to scale up nature-based carbon removal projects, doubling the amount of money it’s putting toward those approaches. Meanwhile, Microsoft disclosed its latest carbon removal contract — supporting enhanced rock weathering — and the Frontier carbon removal buyers collaboration gained $100 million more and its first non-tech corporate members. Read the full article.
New MSU Research Helps Better Quantify Soil Carbon Stock Changes
Michigan State University (April 11)
Newly published research from Michigan State University demonstrates how to evaluate soil carbon stock changes more accurately. This calculation has significant implications on measuring the actual environmental benefits of regenerative agriculture practices and economic consequences through emerging carbon markets. Read the full article.
Government Intervention in Support of Quality Carbon Credits
Bipartisan Policy Center and Carbon Direct (April 2023)
This report highlights five scenarios for federal action that could increase carbon credit quality. These interventions have the potential to ensure that the generated credits are more likely to be durable, additional, and real. Read the full report.
Buyers’ Guide Bids to Build Trust in VCMs
ESG Investor (March 31)
Current climate pledges by governments are falling short, with the latest analysis by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) putting the world on track for a temperature rise of between 2.4°C and 2.6°C by 2100. To address the emissions gap and keep the 1.5°C pathway alive, investors, companies and financial institutions must use every tool available to secure a liveable future, with voluntary carbon markets (VCMs) an important, albeit controversial one. “Currently, the market is opaque, pretty fragmented, and often criticized,” says Lydia Sheldrake, Director of Policy and Partnerships at the Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative (VCMI). “We need to build a foundation of transparency and trust to unlock a high-value, purposeful voluntary carbon market, which is fit for purpose to operate alongside and complement a suite of other financing instruments.” Read the full article and download the report.