CLIMATE - SOIL - BALTIC SEA - BIODIVERSITY

Carbon Action – towards regenerative agriculture

30 August, 2021


Laura Höijer, Pieta Jarva, Kaj Granholm, Eija Hagelberg, Elisa Vainio, Michaela Ramm-Schmidt / Baltic Sea Action Group

Jari Liski, Åsa Stam / Finnish Meteorological Institute


The goal of the Carbon Action platform is a systemic change towards regenerative agriculture. Regenerative agriculture enhances soil health as it restores the carbon content, which, in turn, improves productivity. It also increases biodiversity and ecosystem resilience and provides many other benefits like water infiltration and nutrient retention.

On the Carbon Action platform farmers, advisors, scientists, companies, and decision-makers work together. The platform contains several funders and projects. Carbon Action enables concrete co-operation and co-development between the different actors and projects. The holistic approach has evoked international interest.

Towards regenerative agriculture – where are we now?

Farmers and advisors: Carbon Action is farmer-based and constantly taking shape in interaction with the farmers. 100 Carbon Action Farms test practices, accumulate experiences and provide data for research. Farmers benefit directly from peer learning (1, 2). For Carbon Action farmers, collaboration with researchers has been valuable, and correspondingly, researchers have received practical insights from farmers.

New carbon farmers have been reached through business cooperation (see below) and through the Carbon Action Club (link in Finnish) – which is open for all farmers – and by expanding towards the Swedish-speaking farmers in Finland. The Carbon Action Club has now over 900 members. Carbon Action platform also trains 30 agricultural advisors to become top experts in soil health and carbon farming. In February 2021, free e-college for regenerative farming was launched. The course combines improving the productivity of farming with hands-on environmental work. The e-college is free and suitable for all kind of farms and circumstances, and it is provided in Finnish and Swedish. The target is to reach 10% of Finnish farmers with the e-college within the first 12 months. The college has now about 1 000 registered participants.

Based on the scientific work, Carbon Action platform also produces practical papers for farmers, as an example a publication on catch and cover crops (short version also in English) and paludiculture (in Finnish here).

Scientists: The Carbon Action platform brings together and conducts scientific research to e.g. enhance soil carbon sequestration. The platform contains multiple research projects and a multi-disciplinary network of researchers. Research is conducted and utilized at several levels from soil processes (3,4) to climate and agricultural policies (5). Soil and microbial analyses, plant diversity measurements (6), atmospheric measurements and modelling (7,8) are used to study fluxes and sequestration of carbon at study sites. Nutrient retention and nutritional quality of the agricultural products are also studied. Economical and policy analyses are carried out to develop feasible, effective and practical solutions of carbon farming.

The hundred Carbon Action Farms test carbon farming and provide research material. The first samples from the Carbon Action farms test and control plots have been analyzed and subsequent samples will be taken after five years to measure changes. Also, soil samples have been taken from 30 farms to a depth of one meter and the analysis of the samples is ongoing.

More detailed field experiments studying the impacts on carbon fluxes and sequestration have been established on 20 of these Carbon Action Farms. Farmers on these farms can monitor the effectiveness of carbon farming measures at the field level, and the results are published annually on a Zenodo server (keyword ‘Carbon Action’). The results show how different plots react to droughts and heavy rains and how plants grow in different plots. The results also help farmers find ways to develop plant and soil resilience in a changing climate.

At long term study sites, both changes in soil storage and nutrient emissions are studied. The work has started in summer 2020.

At the intensive study sites, soil analysis, microbiological analysis, atmospheric measurements, and modelling are used to study the fluxes and sequestration of carbon (9). Through the Carbon Action co-operation, existing study sites have been further developed (Qvidja, Viikki, Kilpiä, and Ruukki), and new ones have been established together with the University of Helsinki (Haltiala). In addition, long-term field experiment has been established in Viikki to study how biodiversity impacts the ability of fields to store carbon (10).

Carbon Action is developing a scientifically ambitious measurement and verification system (11). The verification system uses extensively collected data and can model and predict carbon sequestration even in areas where measurement data are scarce. The observations and findings from our research results are disseminated on a free-access online dashboard called Field Observatory. This website serves as a tool to monitor the impacts of carbon farming practices from our three intensive study sites and 20 Carbon Action farms. Data from field sensors, remote sensing and field survey is integrated on this dashboard (12). The observatory also shows the world’s first carbon sequestration forecasts on grasslands. To serve the research and other interested communities, the data in Field Observatory is publicly available and downloadable from the website. On a societal level, scientific verification provides a basis for agricultural and climate policy instruments and a possible carbon credit market.

Carbon Action science webinar on ‘’soil, carbon sequestration and water protection’’ on 9th of March 2021, brought out novel research results on managing soils for both increased carbon sequestration and reduced phosphorus losses. The recording and summary can be found here.

Companies: Businesses have great potential in driving the adoption of regenerative farming. There are currently nine companies in the Carbon Action company platform and new ones are coming aboard.

To make carbon sequestration mainstream, businesses are needed to bring about substantial changes and to embed them permanently in the food supply chain. Businesses also communicate the message to consumers. Cooperation between the scientific community and companies is important so that science can produce solutions that are necessary and can be implemented in practice. The results of the scientific community are of interest to participating companies, as companies need to be able to base their sustainability work on researched knowledge. In the project, the companies also learn about the farmers’ needs and farmers learn about the expectations of the companies.

On the business platform, the focus is on concrete changes in the way companies operate. For example, ValioAtria, and Altia are training their farmers in carbon farming. The sourcing of raw materials will change extensively as companies bring the principles of carbon farming into their sourcing criteria – as Altia, Apetit, and Fazer have committed to do. Nestlé Finland provides training in regenerative farming for farmers in their supply chain in Finland. Nestlé also trains its employees, uses learnings of regenerative farming in product development and spreads information from the Carbon Action platform within the Nestlé Group. The first carbon farmed product has been launched by Altia, and Sinebrychoff is preparing a carbon farmed beer. Gofore aims to support Carbon Action by harnessing digitalization for regenerative agriculture. Berner develops its product portfolio so that it supports farming methods that promote soil health and carbon sequestration. The S-group supports Carbon Action research, as scientific verification of soil carbon storage is one of the missing steps in advancing carbon offsets.

Decision-makers: The work of Carbon Action has influenced national decision-making on many levels. For example, the Finnish government program and its implementation emphasizes soil carbon sequestration. We have also been active in working groups that prepare the national CAP strategic plan. The issue was also well on the agenda during Finland’s EU presidency – both at various events and at the EU agriculture ministers‘ meeting. In the climate roadmap of agricultural interest groups (MTK and SLC), the focus is on the soil.

At the EU level, Carbon Action has had an impact on the EU’s Carbon Farming Roundtable. The roundtable discussions started during Finland’s EU presidency, and the meetings have continued to be held regularly. Carbon Action has been visible both as an example and to influence the debate. We have also organized discussions together with MEP’s, topics include CAP (see more: webinar with MEPs). In addition, voluntary carbon farming markets are piloted in collaboration with the Carbon Action platform (13). The pilot is conducted during 2021, and its results are used to developing guidelines for a future EU carbon market system.

International networks: Systemic change in the field of agriculture is in progress globally (read more on this recent blog post). Cooperation and co-development with international regenerative agriculture networks is important for Carbon Action. Carbon Action has been well noticed as part of the forerunner networks. For example, Carbon Action has been invited to speak at the Madrid Climate Conference (4 per 1000 initiative event). In addition, co-operation among countries with similar growing conditions is important, and we have started strong co-creation with Swedish ‘Svensk kolinlagring’. Carbon Action also won a Diploma of Recognition at Land and Soil Management Award competition in 2021, the Diploma was given during the Forum of the Future of Agriculture (FFA2021).

We put a lot of emphasis on nationally implementing the new 4 per 1000 Strategic Plan. For example, Carbon Action attended and presented the Field Observatory at the ’Fair of the 4 per 1000 Initiative’ during the EU Green Week in May 2021. In 2023, Carbon Action will organize a 4/1000 Northern Europe event in Finland together with the 4/1000.

Carbon Action also promotes soil to a wide audience – and brings it to all senses to turn knowledge into action. For example, in different events, in addition to high-quality science, food from the Carbon Action farms has been served, science-based soil art presented, pop down dinner organized underground (combining art, science, and carbon-farmed gourmet), and trips organized to the intensive study site in Qvidja – in order to dig the hands in the soil on the field. We also organize regular successful ’Save Our Soil’ SOS courses for various stakeholders (for example decision-makers such as key ministers): during spring an SOS breakfast with new research and practical knowledge fresh from the fields and in autumn a visit to the Intensive study site at Qvidja. This kind of concept has provoked a lot of interest and we have been able to also entice very busy people from high-level and media.

Soil is also promoted through social media campaigns (read more about the #SoilSelfie campaign) and at the international Soil at Risk -symposium, which was organized in June 2021. The symposium was a success, with very positive feedback and about 300 participants. A lot of different blogs and video material with different stakeholders were produced for the symposium – discussing the importance of soil with farmers, artists, decision-makers, a top chef, and company representatives.

Also, Carbon Action is expanding to urban green spaces. BSAG is involved in the City of Helsinki’s ‘Transforming lawns into flower fields and urban farms’ project, which was designed by citizens and voted on to be funded by the OmaStadi budgeting. The goal is to make this a model that can be replicated in other cities (read more in Finnish). In addition, CO-CARBON research project has recently joined the Carbon Action platform and will provide new research data on the carbon storage of green spaces at different urban scales.

The success of the Carbon Action work has proved to us that, as we work together and learn from each other, we have hope, and the change is possible, though not at all easy. We need farmers, science, politics, NGOs, business, and citizens all aboard. By now we know that the transformation of the food system can be done – in fact, it is already ongoing. What we need is to join efforts and accelerate the work.

Publications:

  1. Karttunen, K. et al. 2021. Soil as part of climate solution – agricultural policy reform to promote climate-smart agriculture. LUKE Policy Brief 4/2021.
  2. Söderlund, S. 2021. Timeout fot the soil and its farmer’s good future. Soil at Risk -blog 30.6.2021
  1. Soinne, H. et al. 2020. Soil organic carbon and clay content as deciding factors for net nitrogen mineralization and cereal yields in boreal mineral soils. European Journal of Soil Science. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/ejss.13003
  2. Heikkinen, J. et al. 2020. Estimation of carbon stocks in boreal cropland soils ‐ methodological considerations. European Journal of Soil Science. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/ejss.13033
  3. Ollikainen, M. et al. 2020. Climate change mitigation and agriculture: measures, costs and policies – A literature review. Agricultural and Food Science, 29(2), 110–129. https://doi.org/10.23986/afsci.85830
  4. Halliday, F.W. et al. 2020. Facilitative priority effects drive parasite assembly under coinfection. Nature Ecology & Evolution 4, 1510-1521. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-020-01289-9
  5. Viskari, T. et al. 2020. Improving Yasso15 soil carbon model estimates with ensemble adjustment Kalman filter state data assimilation, Geosci. Model Dev., 13, 5959–5971, https://doi.org/10.5194/gmd-13-5959-2020
  6. Farina, R. et al. 2020. Ensemble modelling, uncertainty and robust predictions of organic carbon in long‐term bare‐fallow soils https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/gcb.15441
  7. Heimsch, L. et al. 2021: Carbon dioxide fluxes and carbon balance of an agricultural grassland in southern Finland, Biogeosciences, 18, 3467–3483, 2021 https://bg.copernicus.org/articles/18/3467/2021/bg-18-3467-2021.pdf
  8. Liski, J. et al. 2020. Plant biodiversity for climate – the TWINWIN project. Poster 1.10.2020.
  9. Fer, I. et al. 2020. Beyond Ecosystem Modeling: A Roadmap to Community Cyberinfrastructure for Ecological Data‐Model Integration. Global Change Biology. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gcb.15409
  10. Nevalainen, O. et al 2021. Towards agricultural soil carbon monitoring, reporting and verification through field observatory network (fion). Geoscientific instrumentation, methods and data systems preprint: https://gi.copernicus.org/preprints/gi-2021-21/
  11. Kähkönen, J. 2020. LIFE CarbonFarmingScheme. Poster 1.10.2020.