The carbon offset market is inching its way onto the farm. Selling carbon credits to fund regenerative agriculture practices that sequester more soil while producing food has captured the imaginations of climate activists, corporations and farmers. And while selling carbon credits for agricultural practices has started on a few farms (usually backed by big consumer-packaged goods companies such as General Mills, Danone and Kellogg) an entire sector of farming has been left out of the conversation — produce.
"If you want to launch a carbon credit program, it makes sense to apply it on corn, soybean and wheat because those are millions of hectares [farmers] have," said Guillermo Carvajal, vice president of sustainability at ProducePay, a platform that connects produce farmers with retailers. "When you go to produce you have more disseminated growers and crops, and that's challenging [for carbon crediting], but it’s also a huge opportunity for the industry."
Hence why ProducePay, together with Allcot, a carbon credit project developer, is launching a carbon offset program specifically for fruit and vegetable growers. Creating a financial incentive for growers to decarbonize their processes will help ProducePay tackle its own Scope 3 emissions by spinning down the emissions from its suppliers' crops.
Creating carbon credits for produce growers requires a more nuanced approach than for the big grain, corn and soy crops. According to Carvajal, one farm can potentially grow different types of crops such as grapes, berries and asparagus, all in the same season, unlike the monocultural farms focusing on one of the big crops. The increased variety of fruits and vegetables on produce farms inhibits straightforward sequestration plans and requires crop-specific regenerative practices, creating further barriers for the farms to increase scale with carbon credits.
When you go to produce you have more disseminated growers and crops, and that's challenging [for carbon crediting], but it’s also a huge opportunity for the industry.
To solve this, ProducePay is leveraging its communication with its farmers, using weekly check-ins to help farmers design their fields deliberately. Allcot has also created the carbon crediting program, verification and methodologies with these more frequent crop rotations in mind.
"The program, across the further commercialization of the carbon credits, is intended to finance some stunning improvements within cultivation and irrigation techniques, such as best practices in nursery procedures and selection of seed; efficiency on irrigation procedures; improvement across fertilization (i.e. selection of nature-friendly fertilizers)," wrote Natalia Rodrigo Vega, chief business development officer of Alcott, in an email.
She outlined soil management techniques such as mulch and padding for cultivation that contribute to carbon storage, plastics recycling for the packaging processes on the farm and agriculture waste management solutions such as biomass and biofertilizers, which would also shift farmers away from carbon-intensive synthetic fertilizers.
Right now ProducePay is focusing on fruit and vegetable growers in Mexico and the United States that sell to U.S. retailers for the start of this project. The company and Allcot have connections in the voluntary market to sell the credits but do not have buyers on the record yet.
One reason ProducePay has faith a carbon crediting system for produce growers will succeed is a feasibility study that identified that many growers were already implementing many sustainable agricultural practices. But this raises questions of additionality — the entire point of carbon credits is to fund transitions that would not have taken place otherwise. So if produce farmers are already making the switch then a carbon credit is a monetary reward without any impact on the planet.
However, Carvajal argued that establishing the crediting program will get farmers to actually start tracking the impacts the changes are making.
"They are doing it without any type of measurement," he said. "We need to show them scientific-based targets, show them what their baseline is, and what can be done to create those deltas."