Soil. We have a lot of it here in Canada, with the 12th largest agricultural land holding in the world. Our vast land presents a large opportunity to help combat climate change with sequestering carbon, as well as helping farmers’ bottom lines. Traditionally, agriculture has been all about yield: the more bushels, the better. But there’s a growing push to pay farmers for what they produce and what they preserve.
Canada’s soil can help grow food for an increasingly hungry world, but is also a powerful tool in the fight against climate change, because it has an incredible ability to store carbon. But it’s going to take technology and investment from Canada’s farming community to realize this full potential.
On this episode of Disruptors, an RBC Podcast, host John Stackhouse explores how soil carbon can help generate The Next Green Revolution. Guests include Mohamad Yaghi, RBC’s Climate & Agriculture Policy Lead, Dr. Angela Bedard-Haughn, Dean and Professor, College of Agriculture and Bioresources at the University of Saskatchewan and Marty Seymour, CEO & COO of Regina-based CarbonRX.
- Check out RBC Thought Leadership’s The Next Green Revolution Project hub here.
- For more information about the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources, click here.
- Click here to learn more about CarbonRX.
Speaker 1 [00:00:01] Hi, it’s John here. Today, we’re taking on a slightly different topic for us here on disruptors. We’re talking dirt, but let’s be respectful and call it soil. We have a lot of soil here in Canada. In fact, our farmers have the 12th largest agricultural landholding on the planet. It’s a huge opportunity, both when it comes to growing food for an increasingly hungry world and also fighting against climate change because soil has an incredible ability to store carbon and it’s going to take technology and investment from a whole range of people to help generate what we’re calling the next green revolution. It starts with soil. And to help break it down for us, I’m joined by a special guest, my colleague, Mohamad Yaghi. Mohamad, welcome to Disruptors.
Thanks, John. It’s great to be here with you.
It’s great to have you on the team as our agriculture and climate policy lead here at RBC. I should point out, you’re also a farmer on the side, so you know a thing or two about soil. And I’m hoping you can walk us through some of the basic elements of soil and what’s called carbon sequestration in soil. When you’re looking at soil, the four most fundamental properties that you have to observe are MP K’s plus organic seed. What does that mean? And stands for nitrogen. And that’s largely responsible for the growth of the leaves on plants. Phosphorous, which is largely responsible for root growth. Potassium which is a nutrient that helps the overall functions of a plant. But then lastly, you have our organic carbon, which is fundamental to the overall growth of a plant. And you can find this organic seed everywhere around the world. One of the great opportunities in all of this for Canada is that big land mass so we can capture more greenhouse gases with the soil right across the country. If we reward farmers, particularly for protecting that land and preserving it while they also produce from it. What sort of things can farmers do to enhance the ability of their soil to capture greenhouse gases? Farmers have a wide variety of functions on what they can do on their farm to increase carbon sequestration their soil, and this carbon ultimately helps plant development. Certain practices like notes help, for instance, cover crops. The application of bio char all contributes to the increase in carbon sequestration. And this carbon sequestration not only helps to grow, but also keeps our planet cool. So all of this revolves around nature, and listeners may be wondering, what are you doing talking about nature on a technology podcast? So help connect those for us, technology and nature which do come together in this field. Absolutely. So I’m really excited about this because technology has a huge promise in helping us better understand not only our world but the dirt in it. In the past, we used to try to measure carbon in soil. Let’s say I take my farm, for instance. I would go to eight different places across the farm, collect six inches of soil, go to a laboratory, put all that soil on a tray, mix it together, and then put it in the oven to measure carbon. But what we can do today is so much more that we can start using satellite imaging data to use different light spectrums to measure carpet in soil today. So the farm of the past, they use a sensor to the lab doesn’t necessarily need to do so anymore with the promise of technologies such as satellite imaging. So on farm sensors, they can measure carbon in real time. Well, sequestering carbon in soil is a huge opportunity, both economically and environmentally. But much like farming itself, you just can’t plant the seed. The idea needs to be nurtured if it’s really going to blossom and make Canada an example that the rest of the world can look up to. This is Disruptors, an RBC podcast. I’m John Stackhouse. As I mentioned earlier, Canadian farmers manage the 12th largest agricultural land holding on the planet. It’s more than 150 million acres, and that land has the potential to sequester almost 40 metric tons of carbon every year. It’s a huge opportunity, but taking advantage will require a combination of incentives, education and technology. So to help us think through that challenge, I’m excited to speak today with two experts on the topic. In the second half, we’ll meet a Regina based carbon credit company that’s helping farmers keep their soil healthy and their farms profitable. But first, I’d like to introduce one of Canada’s leading thinkers on soil science. Dr. Angela Bedard-Haughn is a professor and dean of the College of Agriculture and Bio Resources at the University of Saskatchewan. Angela, welcome to Disruptors.
Speaker 2 [00:05:06] Hi, John. Thanks for having me here today.
Speaker 1 [00:05:08] Oh, it’s great to be chatting with you again. I want to start with a bit of your own background because I’ve heard you refer to yourself as a soil nerd. How did you first get interested in soil?
Speaker 2 [00:05:19] Well, I grew up on a farm here in Saskatchewan, about an hour and a half northeast of Saskatoon, and it was central to our livelihood, obviously. But I must confess, I didn’t give it a whole lot of thought until I was well into my university career. Took my first soil science class. And I just I was completely smitten with the whole concept because it allowed me to bring together my scientific training in terms of geomorphology and understanding how landscapes had developed and formed and the agricultural landscapes of my youth. And so from there, full steam ahead, just really trying to understand the drivers of the variability of soils across the landscape and how they function. And that’s been the path I’ve been on for the last 25 years or so.
Speaker 1 [00:06:00] A child of the soil, as they say, I don’t want to date you, but when you think back to your studies, was carbon sequestration a big part of the soil conversation?
Speaker 2 [00:06:12] It wasn’t a big part of the soil conversation, certainly not the way it is now. I think, you know, there was certainly an awareness of the importance of soil organic matter. Conservation tillage was already something that was pretty widely adopted here in the prairies, and so we understood some of those benefits. But in terms of all of the additional potential as a major offset for greenhouse gas emissions, those conversations, I think, were happening, but they were much more fringe.
Speaker 1 [00:06:39] Well, you mentioned conservation tillage. Some people like to refer to zero tillage, and it’s been widely heralded for many years as a victory in soil management. I’m curious how you’ve seen the evolution of attitudes towards conservation tillage or zero tillage from the seventies to where we are today.
Speaker 2 [00:06:57] I think some of the big pieces with that, I mean, first of all, it came about as more of a risk management tool, right? So when we think about the timelines for adoption, it was coming out of some of the really rough years in the eighties and looking at ways to allow farmers to mitigate their risk for erosion. For example, there are photos from the eighties that you would swear were taken in the thirties in terms of the clouds of dust blowing across the prairies. And so conservation tillage was one mechanism whereby by reducing that physical disturbance of the soil, we were able to allow the soil to essentially hold together better to aggregate, better to form these more stable chunks of soil in the field. And that, combined with the residues left on the field, made it much more resistant to both wind and water erosion. But as an added bonus, it also allowed the soils to basically accumulate more organic matter, which allowed them to retain more water and retain more nutrients. And so the more we understood what those additional benefits were and farmers started to see that value proposition, it really started to pay for itself in terms of a beneficial management practice here in the more semi-arid to subhuman parts of the prairies for sure.
Speaker 1 [00:08:07] One of the risks we think about a lot is the question of false precision in climate science, particularly on the mitigation and abatement side. We have a tremendous understanding of how certain technologies and processes work in terms of how they reduce emissions and capture emissions, but sometimes not as precise as all of us might like to believe. I wonder if you can give us a bit of a high level sense as a soil scientist of what we know and what we don’t know in terms of the power of soil to capture and sequester carbon.
Speaker 2 [00:08:42] Well, I know we don’t have a whole day, so I’ll just try and give you those really high level points. So when we think about how soils are storing carbon, I want to just step right back and think about it. First of all, in the context of this is a fundamental part of life on earth, right? So plants are undergoing photosynthesis. They’re capturing that carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and it’s through the return of those plant residues to the soil, the decomposition of that material that we end up with carbon in our soil. And. A form of soil organic matter. So when you think about all of the variables that would be associated with plant growth across a field, and you add to that the variables that are driving soil development and formation across a field, you very quickly start to appreciate why we have these questions about precision. So if we think about spatial variability first, so when we look at soils just taking a few steps across the field, there can be a really high degree of variability depending on whether you’re on a slightly higher or slightly lower position in the landscape, depending what the management practices. All of these things are influences in terms of the spatial variability of carbon. And then we add to that the temporal variability, because carbon is not just a one and done thing, it’s part of the global carbon cycle. What we’re seeing in the soil is a picture in time. So every time we’re measuring soil carbon, some of it is stored longer term, but a lot of that is cycling annually. So to borrow from the banking analogy, at any given point in time, what we’re seeing is the net balance. We’re not seeing the gross amount of carbon that’s gone into and out of the soil. And so if we have a number of really wet years where productivity is really high, you’re going to tend to see more carbon going into the soil. We have dry years, you might have crop failure or less vegetation growth and that in turn is going to mean there’s less gross inputs in that particular year.
Speaker 1 [00:11:04] Well, I want to ask you about how we can organize ourselves better for this. But first, let me ask you about the challenge here for farmers. Are they going to have to go around their farms and Saskatchewan? Some of them run into tens of thousands of hectares, so they are massive farms scooping soil samples from each different type of field, Or are there other technologies available to make this more efficient?
Speaker 2 [00:11:26] There are a lot of technologies in development right now, and so we’ll get more into that when we talk about that organized piece. But as an example, there are proximal sensors that allow us to essentially, you know, stick a probe into the soil and not have to collect quite so many samples to have an indication of how much carbon is in in a particular location at a given point in time.
Speaker 1 [00:12:13] It sounds like the climate smart farmer is going to need to be as much technologist and data scientist as agronomist and farmer. Is that what you’re teaching in the school?
Speaker 2 [00:12:23] We are really getting to that point now where we have to be thinking about all of those pieces. And I think we’ve gotten to the stage where, you know, not everybody can know everything, but we’re trying to build more and more of that team mentality where at least we have enough common vocabulary. So our new precision ag cert is really aimed at trying to bring together engineers and computer scientists and agronomists and soil scientists to say, okay, you know, what’s the common language that we need? And then we’ll all go and work on our components of this particular problem. But no matter what, we’ll all be able to sit down together in a room and brainstorm on collective solutions.
Speaker 1 [00:12:57] Let’s turn to this question of organizing. All this sounds incredibly interesting and important at the farm level, but someone’s going to have to pull all this together in a broader market, but also ecosystem for farmers, the entire food supply chain. What do we need to better organize all the different people involved in this?
Speaker 2 [00:13:18] Couple of pieces, I think that are going to be really important. One is getting a better sense of who’s collecting what information, right? So understanding what data is being stored, where is there somebody who is collecting widespread data that can be used as a broader net to bring disparate datasets together to link those pieces? I think at the core, we’re going to need somebody taking that responsibility and saying, okay, this is important. We need to find a way to synthesize these data and we need that collective social buy in where people are saying, Yeah, will, I’m willing to share my data because I understand that this is part of that enhanced precision that’s greater benefit in terms of being able to quantify what’s happening out here.
Speaker 1 [00:14:36] Well, that’s one of the reasons we’ve been advocating this idea of a national soil strategy. In the research we’ve done in our Next Screen Revolution project, that collaboration with BCG and the Arrell Food Institute at the University of Guelph. We tried to explore the climate transition in agriculture and how the economy can support farmers and reward them for preserving soil, not just for what they produce. I wonder in your mind, Angela, whether it’s called a national soil strategy or something else? What it would need to include or address?
Speaker 2 [00:15:07] I think the key things that it would need to include or address really is getting that that solid baseline data in place. So understanding that there’s not going to be a perfect solution. I would worry that if we said, Oh, we got to wait until we’re in just the absolute perfect space to or start from scratch with a complete new national soil sampling strategy that we might lose out on an opportunity to build that momentum. So right now there is a lot of interest. There’s an understanding of the importance of soil. It’s central city to some of the major challenges that we’re facing climate, water, food security. All of those pieces are linked so intimately with the soil. And so that national soil strategy is, I think, one of the key things is timeliness. Right. Let’s not wait. Let’s get started on it. I think that’s the key thing.
Speaker 1 [00:16:01] Well, that’s a great note to wrap up this segment. Thanks so much, Andrew Luck, for being on disruptors.
Speaker 2 [00:16:05] Great. Thanks a lot.
Speaker 1 [00:16:07] Angela Bedard-Haughn is a dean and professor at the University of Saskatchewan. Please stay with us. We’ll be right back with the CEO of a company that’s been helping Canadian farmers manage carbon for more than 15 years.
Speaker 1 [00:17:02] Welcome back. Today we’re talking about soil and how we need to dramatically change the way we manage, view and value it. Our next guest is Marty Seymour. He’s the CEO of Carbon Rocks, which is based in Regina and specializes in the origination, digitization and streaming of carbon credits. Marty, welcome to Disruptors. Yeah, it’s great to be here, John. It’s great to have you on the podcast. Thanks for being part of it. I’d love to begin by hearing about your company’s background. What’s the CarbonRX origin story? We have an interesting one in the carbon spaces. My founders were part of the first generation of carbon credits back in all five or six, and they were operating under a trade name called C Green at the time. And why I love the story is they were, I would say, the pioneers in carbon when you think of Western Canadian farmers engaging in the system. And they ran that program until the financial crisis of 2008, and all of a sudden carbon fell out of favor. And so it made founder and chairman of my board often jokes. He says, I think I was 15 years ahead of my time. And so we brought carbon our ax to life a year ago in April to really take advantage of the tailwinds around the carbon conversation that was happening. And every event I go to, every conference I go to and to the point of your podcast, it’s a conversation that everyone wants to participate in.
At the same time, I find wealth farmers tend to be skeptical about pretty much everything, but they are skeptical. Whenever I raise the idea of carbon offsets and the trading market. When you think back to 2006 and the beginnings of carbon regs, how do you think farmers attitudes towards soil management and sequestration and then more broadly, carbon credits have changed? Well, I can actually speak to it firsthand because as we brought carbon credits back in 2022, I started to meet those original first generation farmers and I keep expecting to get blasted from these guys like, Oh, carbon was a rip off, didn’t work for me. I think the first users of carbon offsets and protocols at the farming level were innovators. They knew they were ahead of their time. The other I would say that the next part of the bell curve coming in to participate in carbon is what I call carbon. Curious is they actually don’t know. I’m finding as we engage in carbon credit trading is we’re building the industry in the language at the same time that we’re trying to build our companies. But most of the expertise in the space are three years old, two or three years old. You know, the epicenter of carbon was Alberta because of the oil and gas industry. But outside of that, carbon is pretty new in every remote corner of this country. There are many different kinds of credits as well and different kinds of carbon capture systems. You play in both the industrial and nature based systems. Give our listeners a sense of the difference. Yeah, I actually hold an office up the hallway from a group of engineers. They work for a company called Delta Clean Tech, and they’ve been at carbon capture for 17 years and I’ve learned a lot from them. In hydrocarbons, you can measure how much CO2 is in oil and gas before it goes through a process of refining. And you can measure how much is emitted into the atmosphere thereafter. And so that team puts meters on things to actually measure stuff. So I think the hydrocarbon industry is very sophisticated in knowing what they have at the beginning, in what they have at the end. I’m actually jealous because I spend a lot more of my time on what’s called nature based carbon, which is what our farmers do, what our force trees do. It’s nature’s way of harvesting carbon under the atmosphere. It’s a biological system, it’s highly variable, it’s highly dependent on a lot of different things. So it becomes a complicated measure, unlike my friends in oil and gas that I wouldn’t say it’s easy. It just feels easier. After you’ve been trying to chase plants around the field, trying to figure out how much carbon they’re capturing. You’re touching Marty, on one of the great challenges and opportunities in the space, which is known as MRV, the measurement, reporting and verification of what the soil is doing to capture carbon and other greenhouse gases. It’s still pretty nascent and there’s a lot of variability in measurement systems. How do you help people through that uncertainty or ambiguity, especially in markets where people like certainty? Yeah, I would say that’s the tension that exists in the carbon credit ecosystem right now is the difference between what a grower’s capable of measuring and managing to what a buyer’s expectation is. We need to move to a system where we’re using a lot more remote sensing and data as historically we drove around in trucks testing soil to measure carbon, and it was the most sophisticated, probably still defined as the most accurate. But it strikes me as ironic that we’re using carbon to drive around and measure carbon, let alone the cost implications and the lack of efficiency. And so we’re at, I’d say, ground zero on the application of remote sensing in agriculture, which I think allows us to scale. So this next generation of technology will drive the economics. And so there’s money left for the landowner, which will drive behavior changes, which will attract more money and drive more behavior changes. And like a flywheel on a car, it will gain momentum. And that’s the opportunity inside of carbon as it matures at the farm level. Walk us through, Marty, how you think this is. Going to work. When I try to simplify this in my mind, I can imagine the day where if I want to invest in a carbon credit, I go to someone like you, give you $100 and say, Marty, give me a certificate for this, and you’re going to go give that hundred dollars to a farmer, let’s say, to protect his or her land and demonstrate that they’re capturing Ph.Ds. Is it going to work that simply. No, it’s not going to work that simple, because if it would, we’d already have that in play. It’s why people are still carbon curious. There’s a whole bunch of complexities that I’m learning as I grow in this business too. But you take forestry, carbon and avoided deforestation. So not cutting down trees, there’s a value of that carbon to the buyers. Some people love that. There’s others that only want to buy carbon that comes from planting trees. In agriculture’s version, there’s zero tail farming practices, which Western Canada would be a pioneer in that. And you get into the cover crops conversation in southern Ontario and what you end up with is varying attributes of the carbon credits based on the system they come from. And there’s open carbon trading platforms because price discovery is a problem. Is a credit worth $5 or $10 each Carbon credit, based on where it comes from, has a story attached to it. My advice to growers is make sure your story is attached to your credit because it’s the best way for you to find a premium in your pricing. Tell us a bit more about what you mean by story. Is it simply the type of crop or the farming techniques that are farmers using? I think technique for me, John, allows more for a story. So regenerative agriculture is a term that that’s used widely if a practice is for generating soil carbon. That is a practice that a buyer sees value in more than reduction. Reduction is what the oil industry is doing is reducing the intensity, the carbon emissions. Farmers need to do that too, and how they operate. Removal is the Holy Grail. And so if you could actually say I’m taking CO2 out of the air and parking it in the soil for 100 years, those credits should be and will be worth more over time, because that’s what we’re really trying to do here as a carbon economy is true removal. So reduction is necessary. That’s companies reducing their footprint. But removal puts all the power in the landholder because there’s only a few places we can park carbon. The number one is in the land, in the soil. That’s where it came from. That’s where it’s going back to. I’m intrigued that you use the word story because that sort of connects with marketing and some of those is indeed about marketing. We’re all familiar with the hamburger ads that show cattle roaming open pastures, and that’s a farming technique and cattle farmers are rewarded for that. And the hamburger chain gets to maybe charge a bit more or at least market it differently, a sustainable beef. So there’s the value of storytelling through through a supply chain that’s a little different from what I might describe as an asset model where what the farmers doing becomes more of a financial asset through the soil, or they can convert the soil into a financial asset that they can then sell to anyone. How far off is it from the marketing version, supply chain version of this model to something more open ended? That would be soil as an asset. Well, in agriculture, we’re headed down that path where farmers can and should be rewarded for the good practices they do. They’re accumulating wealth in their soil as carbon. At the same time, being recognized for those contributions to the betterment of society in some sort of lending product or lending term. I think we’re in the earlier days where we’re really still marketing carbon on its attributes. So where did it come from? How much effort was put into capturing that carbon? And then and that alone appeals to buyers because it’s important differentiation that the voluntary carbon market is different than the compliance carbon market, voluntary market. Yeah, I really enjoy it because it’s really capitalism at its finest often described voluntary carbon as the kijiji of carbon. The buyer and the seller agree on the terms, and so as a result, it allows the buyer to create a story that allows the seller to create an expectation of how much rigor went into the credit. Was it derived from no till? Was it derived from the reduced emissions and build that compliment out. Over time we will get to where we start to see carbon as an asset in terms of the soil value, You know, I still self celebrate as a farm kid, John, and at its core the farmers I talk to aren’t necessarily interested in carbon as an asset. The revenue stream is really a byproduct of what they really want to do, which is improve soil health. Simply speak to a grower. When you talk carbon, they kind of glaze over because it’s new. They know they need to do something. But if you reframe it to say, do things that improve your soil health, farmers are up for that already. This is an exciting tech race and we always need to remind ourselves that it’s a global race and there’s lots of incredible things going on and high tech all over the world as we move towards close. Marty, I wonder if you can give us a sense of where Canada is positioned in the great high tech race and specifically in the technologies that are required to create these sorts of markets? Yeah, I have many thoughts on this one, John. In my past life, I used to help market beef internationally in other countries, and I learned quickly that the Canadian brand stood for something. It’s why we market our country as clean water, lots of trees, mountains and a very environmentally friendly place to live relative to others. So there’s a pent up demand to buy a Canadian based carbon credit simply because the Canadian brand stands for something. Overlay that to your question about technology and where it is Canada set. I actually think because we have such big broad acre farms in Canada, we’re the most likely place to pioneer remote sensing, our most likely place to pioneer robots where we’re trying to scale big acres, big volume, using technology to try to address labor time and certainly drive efficiency into the system. I’m in central Canada in Regina, and we’ve got a hub of ag tech going on right here where companies are innovating all the time, and it’s because they moved to Regina to scale these businesses, because our farms are 5000, 10,000, 20,000 acres big, and you can test your stuff on more acres. So can you be a front runner in this? Probably more of us is always next, bigger than us. But if you look at application of carbon technology, I’m feeling more lift in Canada. They in any other place I go Europeans they’re heavy on the regulatory the measuring side is through the validation really good at that. I think Canada is winning the race on tech. If there’s one thing we could do better to secure that race, what would it be? Well, I think we have to be prepared to experiment a little bit. John and I, I actually look to Canadian companies in this space. So the compliance market, the government, one that’s managed, is trading. It’s all based on emissions reduction and measured and supported by government. The voluntary market requires leaders is kind of a contrary opinion, John, as we often think at the grower level and getting them to use these things. I actually think big blue chip companies in Canada set the weather so companies that need to buy offsets need to look to Canadian sources first. And so to me, what Canada could do better is start by buying local because it’ll set the weather on how important carbon is and carbon management is. And more importantly, the two clients have a set of trust that allows them to build a story around the quality of credits so the both parties can feel good about the trade. Those are great messages to wrap up with Marty. Let’s set the weather and let’s experiment. Farmers experiment every season no matter what the weather is, and that’s not a bad model for all businesses across the country to think about as we get deeper into the carbon economy. Marty, thanks for being on disrupters. Thanks, John. It was my pleasure. That was Marty Seymour, the CEO and CEO of Carbon Racks. My thanks also to Mohamed Yagi from RBC and Dr. Angela Bedard Hohn from the University of Saskatchewan, who joined us earlier in the episode. It’s inspiring to hear people speak so passionately about something most of us probably take for granted. The ground under our feet. But it’s clear from these conversations today that Canada has a remarkable opportunity to lead the world in harnessing the carbon storing capabilities of soil. I was really struck by Angela’s comments about perfection being the enemy of progress. Every farmer knows this. None waits for the perfect weather or perfect precipitation to make the perfect tomato. They deal with the imperfections every day and every season. And as we develop these new models, not just of farming, but of preservation and conservation, we’ll need to be more comfortable with embracing a little bit of imperfection. And if we get the right mix of investment and technology and, yes, mindset, we’ll get to a place where every farmer can be a carbon farmer. They’ll need the right support from government, from private companies and investors to make it happen. But the opportunity is before them. And yes, underneath the fertile ground indeed. I’m John Stackhouse and this is Disruptors, an RBC podcast. Talk to you soon.
Speaker 3 [00:31:21] Disruptors, an RBC podcast is created by the RBC Thought Leadership Group and does not constitute a recommendation for any organization, product or service. It’s produced and recorded by our audio for more disruptors content like or subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and visit our BBC.com disruptors.
Jennifer Marron produces "Disruptors, an RBC podcast". Prior to joining RBC, Jennifer spent five years as Community Manager at MaRS Discovery District and cultivated a large network of industry leaders, entrepreneurs and partners to support the Canadian startup ecosystem. Her writing has appeared in The National Post, Financial Post, Techvibes, IT Business, CWTA Magazine and Procter & Gamble’s magazine, Rouge. Follow her on Twitter @J_Marron.
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