Get your own copy by subscribing here [[link removed]], and to share this story click here. [[link removed]]
Photo courtesy of iStock
Private Carbon Payment Programs Funnel Farm Data to Big Ag
Alexandra Spring contributed research and editing to this story.
Grain trader and food processor Cargill is the latest agribusiness giant to join the carbon credit rush. Earlier this month the corporation publicly launched [[link removed]] “Cargill RegenConnect,” which will pay farmers for adopting techniques, such as reduced tillage and cover cropping, that aim to sequester carbon in agricultural soil. Cargill is partnering with software firm Regrow to measure farmers’ total tons of sequestered carbon and generate carbon offset credits to sell on larger exchanges. Polluting corporations buy these credits to help meet voluntary “net-zero” emissions pledges. One- fifth of the world’s largest corporations [[link removed]] have made such commitments.
Nonprofits, corporations, and lawmakers across the political spectrum think carbon credit programs can leverage demand for offsets to fund farmer-made carbon sinks and help mitigate climate change. But some environmentalists doubt their efficacy [[link removed]], pointing to issues in [[link removed]] soil carbon measurements [[link removed]], uncertainties in long-term sequestration [[link removed]], barriers to entry for smaller farms [[link removed]], and environmental injustices [[link removed]], to name a few.
Programs like Cargill’s highlight another concern with budding carbon programs: their ability to consolidate access to valuable agricultural data among dominant agribusiness firms. Estimating and verifying carbon sequestration requires monitoring and collecting large amounts of farm-level data, which industry leaders can use to build market power. Access to superior data can expand the competitive advantage of vertically integrated seed and ag software companies over upstarts or improve the advanced market intel of powerful commodity traders. As it stands, farmer data privacy and usage are largely determined by voluntary corporate pledges and contracts.
“It’s impossible to reconcile the desire for closely verified carbon offsets with not giving more power to these agribusiness giants who have been consolidating at rapid rates,” says Jason Davidson, senior agriculture campaigner at Friends of the Earth. “That’s one of the scariest things about data in this equation.”
Leading firms such as Cargill, Bayer [[link removed]], Nutrien [[link removed]], and Corteva [[link removed]] have all launched programs to pay farmers for adopting carbon sequestering techniques. Revenue to pay farmers comes from generating and selling carbon offset credits on independent exchanges. Sometimes these programs take ownership of farmer-generated credits and pay farmers a fixed rate per practice per acre [[link removed]]. Others promise farmers a portion of their carbon credit sales with a guaranteed minimum payment per credit.
To verify carbon credits, carbon tech firms collect detailed information from farmers, farm equipment, and satellite technology about what they’re planting and how they’re planting it. Beyond assessing the carbon cycle, all this data provides valuable information on farmers’ production practices and yield that can benefit agribusinesses’ larger enterprises.
Many private carbon programs, such as Bayer’s and Corteva’s, require that farmers upload information to verify carbon sequestration through in-house digital platforms, ensuring their access to this data and expanding their platform’s user base. Cargill directs farmers to upload their data to a third-party carbon tracker, Regrow, but requires a Cargill customer account to participate [[link removed]], linking the systems. And because just one change in practices can release years of stored carbon, some carbon credit contracts sign farmers up for five-, ten-, even twenty-year commitments [[link removed]]. This gives carbon payment platforms long-term, near-exclusive access to this farm data.
Farm data consolidation among the largest firms creates competitive barriers, especially in the market for digital agriculture software. Corporations such as Bayer sell farmers digital agriculture programs that generate personalized recommendations of products to use or techniques to adopt. Companies need large and diverse datasets to create and fine-tune this software. “To develop a smart farming solution product, startups need datasets to train their algorithms,” explained Tilburg University Ph.D. candidate Can Atik, who has been studying competition in digital agriculture [[link removed]]. “If these first movers hold the critical amount of data, newcomers may face some significant problems [and] entry barriers.”
Integrating digital agriculture platforms, carbon credit programs, and crop input manufacturing also creates clear conflicts of interest. For instance, many no-till systems rely on using more glyphosate, or RoundUp, to kill weeds previously put under by the plow. Bayer, the maker of RoundUp, has a profit motive to recommend glyphosate-heavy no-till methods to farmers in its carbon program.
For commodity traders, such as Cargill, access to more farmer data gives them a competitive edge in futures trading. With more than 100 staff data analysts, Cargill extols [[link removed]] their superior, non-public datasets as an essential part of their business and a revenue stream. “Data is king in markets and that includes commodity markets where access to as much data as possible can significantly inform and benefit a commodity traders’ positions,” says Tyson Slocum, director of Public Citizen’s energy program. “If Cargill is obtaining thousands of farmers’ crop yield data or other information like that, that could be extremely useful.”
Carbon platforms have already proven that their data can generate advanced and accurate insights. In 2017, leading agriculture carbon credit start-up Indigo predicted the US corn crop yield months before the USDA [[link removed]] with greater than 99% accuracy.
Farmers have long feared [[link removed]] that increased data collection could give commodity buyers too much information to further squeeze them. “The potential risk for a farmer is you have a large trader that could be on the other side of a transaction … knowing everything you know,” says Slocum.
Atik is studying how government regulations granting farmer privacy and data portability rights could improve competition by allowing farmers to switch digital ag platforms more seamlessly and break data hegemonies. Others, such as the World Bank [[link removed]], promote more open and publicly accessible data sources to encourage innovation.
A popular bill with bipartisan support, the Growing Climate Solutions Act, would direct the USDA to connect farmers with private, federally certified carbon traders, which could dramatically expand these programs’ reach and data advantage. Given the controversies surrounding private carbon trading, opponents contend that there are more effective ways for the government to support climate-smart farming. This includes increasing funding for existing USDA environmental improvement programs such as the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program, which have more interested applicants than they can fund [[link removed]].
“[Our] position has been you get a lot more soil health bang for your buck by investing especially in conservation stewardship programs and climate hubs,” says Steve Suppan, a senior policy analyst for the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “There are a lot of different policy issues at play and alternatives outside the carbon market project.”
Find and share this story originally published on [[link removed]] Food & Power [[link removed]] . [[link removed]]
What We're Reading
A coalition of smallholder farmers from around the world recently protested [[link removed]] the first United Nations Food Systems Summit over critiques of corporate influence. Advocates and scholars want the international agency to adopt more policies rooted in agroecology [[link removed]] and traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples instead of tech-heavy corporate-driven interventions. ( The Counter [[link removed]] / Scientific American [[link removed]])
Experts fear that the pandemic is exacerbating issues of human trafficking and forced labor in agriculture. ( Investigate Midwest [[link removed]])
Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta addressed the National Farmers Union on the Justice Department’s efforts to invigorate antitrust enforcement in agriculture, preceding the farmer organization’s launch of a new antitrust policy campaign. ( U.S. Department of Justice [[link removed]] / Reuters [[link removed]])
Bonus: “What We’re Watching” – Food & Power reporter, Claire Kelloway, spoke with Vox [[link removed]] about historic changes in antitrust policy and consolidation in the beef industry.
About the Open Markets Institute
The Open Markets Institute promotes political, industrial, economic, and environmental resilience. We do so by documenting and clarifying the dangers of extreme consolidation, and by fostering discussions of ways to reestablish America’s political economy on a more stable and fair foundation.
Follow F&P on Twitter [[link removed]] | Subscribe [[link removed]] to this Newsletter | F&P Website [[link removed]] | Contact Us [[link removed]]