Originally published on Washington Monthly

The grain trader and food processor Cargill is the latest agribusiness giant to join the carbon credit rush. Last month, the corporation publicly launched “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 the 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 have made such commitments.

That’s because 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. Some environmentalists, however, doubt their efficacy, pointing to issues in soil carbon measurements, uncertainties in long-term sequestration, barriers to entry for smaller farms, and environmental injustices, 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, Nutrien, and Corteva 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. Other programs 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.

Read the story here: washingtonmonthly.com/2021/10/05/the-tricky-new-way-that-big-ag-is-getting-farm-data/