Digging into soil health is good business

With its important role in sequestering carbon, soil is gaining recognition as a tool for mitigating the growing threat of climate change. As a result, agriculture-based industries, such as food, textiles and to some extent cosmetics, are digging into the health of soil — the key to sequestration. These industries are engaging with sustainable agricultural practices designed to regenerate and enhance this critical natural resource.

Of course, carbon sequestration is only one small piece of a much larger, more complex puzzle — one that has stirred up a lot of debate: Scientists and life cycle assessment (LCA) experts regularly butt heads over just how much carbon can be sequestered in the soil. With more than 19,000 known soil types in the United States alone and a wide range of farming practices in use, it’s not hard to see why. There is one thing, however, that most people can agree on: There are benefits to improving soil health beyond carbon sequestration and there are opportunities for diverse actors across the value chain to tap into them now.

Soil health

Soil health is essential not only for regulating climate, promoting biodiversity, and filtering and storing water, but also securing our food system

Why Good Soil is Good Business

At its core, healthy soil is the cornerstone of a thriving environment and society. It is essential not only for regulating climate, promoting biodiversity, and filtering and storing water, but also securing our food system (99% of our food comes from soil).

It’s also good business.

For many businesses, their bottom lines rely on soil for maintaining productivity and product quality. Changes in soil nutrition, stability and structure can have serious implications for the supply of raw materials as well as profits. According to a study by the USDA Soil Conservation Service, soil erosion from agriculture is estimated to cost the US economy around $44 billion per year. That’s $247 annually for every hectare of cropland and pasture.

Healthy soil is rich in organic matter and exhibits enhanced water retention, which can help reduce erosion and nutrient loss to the environment. Resilient soil helps minimize the need for inputs like fertilizers and pesticides, which are expense for farmers to use and can lead to costly outcomes in our landscapes and communities. In fact, it’s estimated that addressing the effects of pesticide-contaminated groundwater in the U.S. costs $2 billion annually, and losses from agricultural soil erosion up to $44 billion annually.  

The business case for soil health is further amplified by the added reputational value and potential competitive advantage regenerative soil management approaches bring to the table. Improving soil quality through better management is, therefore, a smart investment.

As such, Annie’s Homegrown, an organic food brand and a division of global food company General Mills, is building on its longstanding commitment to organic by amplifying its focus on soil health. Earlier this year, Annie’s released Version 1.0 of the General Mills Regenerative Agriculture Scorecard, a user-friendly tool to verify implementation of on-farm management practices as they relate to three core regenerative agriculture outcomes of interest: improved soil health, increased biodiversity, and economic resilience in farming communities.

The company is also building out a protocol to record and analyze on-farm soil health measurements to analyze outcomes such as soil organic carbon and aggregate stability, with an understanding that measuring outcomes is critical to ensure that regenerative agriculture practices are leading to positive impacts.

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Planting Seeds of Resilience

Before digging into the benefits, companies need to get their hands dirty. Soil health is a complex concept measured by numerous chemical, physical and biological metrics, such as pH, water holding capacity and organic carbon. A solid understanding of the importance of soil health and how to meaningfully measure it is essential for companies to confer for real impact. Leveraging the expertise of scientists, agronomists, and other stakeholders in the field, companies can partner with farmers to advance conservation management practices that enable them to regenerate soils and grow food, fuel and fiber more sustainably.

The good news is that a number of methodologies to quantify soil health are currently in use, which could lead to a more widely-accepted framework to guide businesses in choosing the soil management practices with the greatest regenerative or carbon sequestration potential. One example is the Soil Health Institute’s (SHI) 19 measurements of soil health, which aim to establish a shared understanding of how to measure soil health and help define management strategies to improve soil function. Another is the multi-stakeholder soil health roadmap being developed by The Nature Conservancy through its reThink Soil program with the support of General Mills.

While these efforts mark significant progress, we need to develop a better understanding of the contribution of individual practices to overall soil health and sequestration. To achieve long-term change, there is a need to identify levers for improvement and provide effective, data-backed support to farmers. This will require greater investment as well as collaboration between companies, farmers, scientists and experts.  

As part of an ongoing effort to understand the biggest levers for impact in its supply chain, Annie’s turned to the sustainability experts at Quantis to perform an update to its product life cycle assessment (LCA). The results of the multi-indicator assessment, which included greenhouse gases, water consumption, biodiversity and toxic chemicals, confirmed that the company’s major impacts and opportunities for improvement lie at the farm level of the supply chain. It also resurfaced previous questions about the way soil health and organic and regenerative production methods in general are portrayed in LCA, and reaffirmed that there is still more work to be done.

The benefits of organic and regenerative agricultural practices are well understood, but quantifying the magnitude of these benefits is where things get tricky. Currently, there is very little data representing organic and regenerative agricultural practices and the data that we do have isn’t yet integrated into LCA databases. Agricultural practices, climates, soil parent types, and other factors vary significantly across systems, and averages are hard to come by. Additionally, soil health indicators such as carbon sequestration, measured by using soil organic matter as a proxy, are just beginning to be integrated into LCA. There is, however, still uncertainty about how long that carbon will stay in the soil. Bridging these gaps and accelerating the aggregation of data will require a collective effort. Players throughout crop-based industries and scientists will need to work together to gather data and develop tools and solutions, ones that have the potential to push the entire industry forward.

Annie’s is already rising to the challenge, moving ahead with what it knows are vital sourcing strategies for bringing its consumers more sustainable food products. The company is going all in and building on its commitment to organic with strategies and campaigns focused on soil regeneration.

Paving the Way for Progress with Metrics

Soil organic matter (SOM) is emerging as a promising proxy for measuring soil health in LCA, but more primary data on measuring changes in SOM, as well as consensus on how to estimate this information in the absence of primary data, is needed.

To meet this need, Quantis is committing resources to explore the issue of soil health in depth and develop solutions to better measure changes in soil carbon stocks. Quantis recently convened a group of 40+ companies, NGOs, scientists, governments and diverse sustainability stakeholders to create a robust, credible approach for the sustainable management of land use, which includes considerations for soil. The result of this joint effort — the Land Use Change Guidance (LUC) — offers a step-by-step approach for companies to measure and track their progress towards reducing or eliminating GHG emissions from land-based supply chains.

In addition to participating in the LUC Guidance pilot, General Mills has connected Quantis with White Oak Pastures, a Bluffton, Georgia based supplier to General Mills’ EPIC brand using regenerative grazing practices to rehabilitate heavily degraded soil. Quantis will perform a full farm LCA to help understand the impacts of regenerative soil management practices. Soil testing will examine soil carbon sequestration and overall soil health as defined by indicators included in Cornell’s Comprehensive Assessment of Soil Health.

We need you!

Soil health is a critical component of safeguarding the future of our supply chains. But without the right data, we’re approaching the problem with only half of our tool set. Integrating soil health into business strategy is an important first step, but to generate the data we need to create effective, far-reaching solutions, we need to work together.

With your ambition and our expertise, together we can unlock new opportunities.

Connect with Mariko Thorbecke to learn about how Quantis can help you start on the path towards sustainable agriculture and tap into the benefits of soil health.