Accounting for soil impacts in carbon footprints
Quantis and General Mills tackle climate change impacts through natural climate solutions such as regenerative agriculture and pioneer the integration of soil carbon stock into LCA.
“When you visit White Oak Pastures, you can clearly see results from beneficial practices in place — from lush grasslands to abundant biodiversity. We were looking to better understand the results, so we literally dug into the soil and leveraged our partner Quantis. Together we were able to assess the carbon footprint of the farm including the accumulation of carbon in the soils and it was evident that managing the land with an eye on carbon can provide great results.”
Jeff Hanratty, Applied Sustainability Manager,
General Mills, a leading global food company that generates more than $17 billion in annual sales, has set ambitious 2025 science-based targets: 28% absolute carbon reduction across its entire value chain (from a 2010 baseline). One pathway General Mills is using to meet its climate targets is through regenerative agriculture — a set of farming practices that improve soil health and sequesters carbon in the process.
A major supplier of General Mills’ EPIC Provisions brand, White Oak Pastures (WOP) restores degraded cropland to perennial pastures and uses multi-species regenerative farming practices to produce beef and other animal products. General Mills wanted to compare the GHG footprint of WOP’s beef to that of conventionally-raised beef and understand the magnitude of soil carbon sequestration impacts on its carbon footprint.
It worked with Quantis to measure and compare these impacts.
Natural climate solutions such as soil carbon sequestration have been recognized as key levers in mitigating the negative impacts of climate change. Until now, soil carbon sequestration hasn’t been included in Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) because calculations seldom use primary soil-derived data, and results can vary widely according to different modeling methods. Moreover, it is often unclear how long carbon remains in the soil.
Yet carbon impacts from soil can be very significant and omitting them from an agricultural carbon footprint can leave an incomplete picture. Collaborating with WOP on this project allowed Quantis to draw on its carbon accounting and natural climate solutions expertise to address these challenges and pioneer the integration of soil carbon stocks into LCA.
Quantis visited WOP’s farm in Bluffton, Georgia, USA, to understand the farm’s operations in order to represent the production system accurately in the LCA. Soil samples were taken to ensure primary data included in the LCA was credible and precise. Then, Quantis conducted a carbon footprint of the entire WOP farm operation and a product-specific LCA for WOP beef. Finally, WOP beef was compared with conventional US beef and other benchmarks (using pre-existing references).
The product LCA results demonstrated that WOP-produced beef could have up to 111% fewer emissions per kilogram of beef compared to conventional US beef. At measured rates, White Oak Pastures sequesters enough carbon in soil to offset as much as 85% of the farm’s overall GHG footprint.
These results demonstrate the importance and value of including soil carbon stock changes in GHG assessments. While conventional beef production has a massive carbon footprint, in a regeneratively-focused production system, beef’s carbon footprint can be significantly lower.
Omitting soil carbon leaves out key impacts in a carbon footprint. Promoting practices that accumulate carbon in farm soil will produce meaningful impacts on climate change.
5+ Next steps
General Mills is moving forward with its regenerative agriculture strategy, committing to advance regenerative agricultural practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030.
Quantis continues to work with leading companies to explore ways of integrating soil considerations in LCAs. While this study was focused on carbon, Quantis will explore regenerative agriculture’s other benefits beyond carbon, such as land use, biodiversity, water use and water pollution.