💨Carbon Negative Foods: The Next Frontier For Regenerative Agriculture?
Innovation: As regenerative food products proliferate, so too will scrutiny on their claims for the environment. While these can be well documented at a macro-level, particularly as scientists collect and review studies from food systems over the past century, innovative food approaches do not fit neatly into these models. Each brand’s own supply chain should be analyzed when it comes to its impacts on the environment. One particular term, a “carbon negative” food, is on the rise, as we actually need to remove emissions from the atmosphere to slow down climate change and the risk of extreme weather events. VC firm S2G Ventures threw down the gauntlet to all private investors to allocate $10 Billion to the carbon-negative food space.
Carbon negative food claims can come from two quite different processes:
Carbon Removal Credit Purchases: The first, which follows the “carbon negative” pursuits of companies outside the food value chain, is to buy carbon removal credits that go beyond a company’s footprint. In the world of carbon credits, this requires the purchase of particular credits that remove carbon (through soil carbon sequestration, improved forestry management, direct air capture, and so forth) instead of avoiding further emissions into the atmosphere. These credits tend to cost a premium price, which incentivizes companies to reduce their own emissions as much as possible if they want to make a carbon-negative claim.
Value Chain Carbon Sequestration: Some companies claim carbon negativity directly from the practices used to make their product. In particular, we are starting to see more of this with regenerative agriculture products given recent life cycle assessments (LCAs) in the space that point to regenerative grazing being carbon negative on the farm. However, this term is not limited to natural solutions: another example is Air Company’s carbon-negative Vodka from a CO2 conversion technology to make ethanol. Value chain carbon sequestration is more interesting than purchasing credits, as it is unique to food and agriculture outside of the carbon removal industry.
How the sausage is made for these claims is pivotal and often quite opaque to consumers, hiding behind a wall of certifications and large numbers. Leaders in the space, who often have the capital and scale for such an expenditure, do life cycle assessments on their supply chains to understand where carbon emissions and carbon sequestration occur. However, these systems tend to use often inaccurate empirical models for specific greenhouse gas emissions and should not be generalizable. In a macro-study conducted this year, researchers found that soil carbon storage and agricultural life cycle analyses had far from uniform and settled approaches - meaning that comparing “carbon labels” could be apples to oranges.
Let’s use the regenerative grazing spacing as an example of how more nuance in measurement is driving carbon accounting. In 2018, a peer-reviewed study comparing beef CAFO finishing to adaptive multi-paddock grazing in the midwest found that emissions from AMP grazing were offset completely by soil C sequestration in this specific system. This ushered a sea-change because previous LCAs in beef “assumed steady-state soil carbon (C)" to model how AMP grazing stored carbon and previous studies used the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change method to generalize enteric methane emissions, while their on-farm measured data was significantly lower (See chart below from said article to understand the scale of error). Thus, when making claims on food systems, on-field data always provides the highest quality insight when compared to generalized models.
Furthermore, a recent peer-reviewed LCA study on White Oaks Pastures found that WOP has managed to reduce its grazing system’s net GHG emissions by 80 percent. The result was a carbon footprint 66 percent lower than conventional commodity beef production. A previous study focused on their cattle found that WOP offsets at least 100% of grass-fed beef carbon emissions. Combined, this LCA included everything on-farm to the point of processing for their chickens, goats, and cattle. Though this is not “necessarily” carbon-negative (and WOP was by no means claiming they were at an operational scale), it does provide hard facts as to the environmental footprint of what’s being consumed. We are seeing more of these studies across the globe (UK, Texas, and more), and companies, most recently Belcampo Meats, are conducting thorough LCAs to establish their carbon accounting. The best part is that consumers care! Some companies even publish this “carbon footprint” data on their packaging as carbon labels or in apps.
The key risk here is not about getting the numbers right: we will optimize our data collection and reporting, and 3rd party watchdogs and certifiers will unearth bad actors who obfuscate data as consumers look for transparent, honest brands who drawdown carbon. Rather, the risk of carbon reductionism at the neglect of all other important ecosystem services our food system should be top of mind with the rise of synthetic meats and equipment like biodigesters that replicate the maladies of industrial agriculture. Carbon is not just a technical problem to be solved, but an important part of the biological cycles occurring in our oceans, forests, and soils. Drawing down carbon to soils will help restore degraded soils and bring that back to previous levels of symbiotic productivity. Such soils in healthy grasslands also have a global cooling effect and myriad benefits to ecosystems beyond mere carbon that can tackle climate change and build resiliency in the face of extreme weather events. In focusing our efforts on the carbon hurdle in front of us, we shouldn’t lose sight of a holistic approach to creating a truly regenerative food system.
Shop: While the products we have featured in the Regeneration Weekly are carbon-negative in some capacity and regenerate ecosystems, I wanted to point y’all to a great resource of carbon-negative foods compiled by entrepreneur and thinker Paul Lightfoot. While I’m writing this while munching on Alter Eco’s carbon-neutral chocolate, Lightfoot has put a lot of care into curating a list of explicit carbon-negative foods - please send him and/or me some ideas if you have any to add!
Attend: Check out the in-person 2021 Regenerative Food Systems Investment Forum in Oakland on September 28-29! The RFSI Forum is a great opportunity to meet investors, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders in the regenerative space. It’s a community of stakeholders who are committed to transforming the food system through investment, innovation, and collaboration. While I will not be attending this year, I’ll definitely keep my twitter-eye open for the “Bringing Institutional Capital to Regenerative” panel and the case study on “Case Study: How Carbon Markets Drive Regenerative.” RFSI also has a stellar team so be sure to reach out to them with any questions. For a taste of the quality of these events, check out these recordings of past webinars.
Disclaimer: The Regeneration Weekly receives no compensation or kickbacks for brand features - we are simply showcasing great new regenerative products.
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