22 May 2023

Canadian researchers start a soil carbon measurement project


An annual project in the state of Saskatchewan will collect data on soil carbon occurrence. The goal is to assess soil effects and generate measurable and verifiable emission credits

by Matteo Cavallito


Assessing precisely how much carbon is stored in the soil and how it changes over time. That’s the goal of a project launched in Canada by a group of researchers from the Universities of Saskatchewan and Guelph and other institutions and companies, including Hebert Grain Ventures, that will take place on a 32,000-acre plot near Moosomin in south-central Canada.

The initiative is supported by CANZA (Canadian Alliance for Net-Zero Agri-Food) recently founded by Royal Bank of Canada, in partnership with a number of companies such as Maple Leaf Foods, Nutrien and Loblaws to support farmers in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The research, The Western Producer website reported, will last 12 months. And it will involve survey techniques such as remote sensing and spectroscopy, a tool which is known to have interesting applications in soil analysis.

The study

According to Kristjan Hebert, president of Hebert Group, quoted by the RealAgriculture website, the development of soil element measurement techniques is the first step in developing the market for emission credits from best agricultural practices. “The pilot project ask how can we work together to make agriculture one of the first net-zero industries,” he explains.

In addition, he adds, the survey is an opportunity to test the different technologies that are currently available to conduct this kind of analysis.

Researchers’ goal is to develop a low-cost measurement, reporting and control system to measure and model the impact of carbon farming practices on soil health and element sequestration. The list includes reduced tillage, diversified rotation, and perennial crops. This will make it possible to generate credits that are measurable and verifiable. The system will be used to test production through a pilot program during the 2024 cropping season.

The importance of reliable measurements

Measurement systems and their reliability are key elements in the development of the market for credits generated by agricultural activities. In this sense, experts have long stressed, it is necessary to establish certain rules and shared indicators with the aim of generating environmental benefits by stimulating investment in agriculture. The idea, for example, is the basis for the drafting of so-called “Minimum Requirements” for projects in the sector developed by a consortium of researchers, NGOs and British companies in recent months.

The guidance is contained in a report by the Sustainable Soil Association, a U.K.-based organization.

To date, the organization explained in a press release, “the fledgling market for soil carbon – whereby farmers are paid for a combination of carbon storage and reduced GHG emissions through improved soil management – is up and running but largely unregulated, with businesses using a variety of techniques for measuring and estimating change over time, and different contractual mechanisms for managing the inherent risk and uncertainty.”

Canada bets on carbon

Measuring soil carbon, The Western Producer says, is always complex. In fact, researchers must take into account several variables starting with depth. Losses recorded in the surface layer of the soil, for example, are typically greater than those detected in the lower elevations. Research, in short, takes time and attention. But the results can provide particularly useful insights.

This is not the first time, after all, that Canada has experimented with this kind of analysis. Last year, researchers at the University of Alberta launched the largest-ever survey to map the element’s distribution.

The study, conducted in the grasslands of the state of Saskatchewan, will provide a better understanding of what dynamics influence soil sequestration capacity by quantifying, for example, the contribution of regenerative grazing. The results can be integrated with the protocol already developed in the country for carbon farming practices. Which contains guidelines for quantifying, monitoring, reporting and verifying greenhouse gas emission reductions associated with not converting grassland to cropland.