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Water is essence of carbon sequestration

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Irrigation Insight: Carbon sequestration and sustainability don't happen without water. Carbon A List founders discuss water's role and the increased pressure on agriculture to be sustainable and transparent.

Carbon sequestration garners a lot of attention from those interested in climate change and sustainable agriculture. The piece that should be added to much of the conversation, however, is the relationship of water and carbon.

“We should be considering that carbon sequestration and plant growth doesn't happen without water,” says  Nick Goeser, Principal and co-founder of Carbon A List, a company offering strategic consulting, methodology development and design, and project development. The company was founded in 2016.

“We should be placing more emphasis on water and agronomic systems— water quantity, water use efficiency, and water markets — to help farmers innovate in the ways they know best.”

Goeser, who co-founded Carbon A List with Christophe Jospe, adds that raising public awareness that carbon sequestration and sustainability don't happen without water is important. “I think we need to consider agronomic systems as a whole - water is critical to this,” he says. “We need to figure out that water piece before we think about much else.”

Goeser’s background is agronomic; Jospe’s is carbon marketing. “We looked at our skill sets and found that we are complimentary.”

He says with his science background and Jospe’s marketing chops, “we’re trying to make sense of all this stuff. We work with and partner with various clients to help them understand and navigate the ag climate landscape.”

Often, that means trying to “offer insights into where science, technology and markets are going. We do a lot of analyses as well as market development, writing grants, and supporting on-the-ground projects. We have several project areas with the main thrusts being grant development and strategic management consulting. We're a team of ten counting Christophe, myself, and the employees and contractors with whom we work.”

Core team members include Blake Atkerson, who specializes in water, legal, policy, and regulatory issues; Rick Whitney who specializes in marketing, operations and project management; and Hope Sims, regulatory and market analysis.

It’s all about water

Water, Goeser says, is a key to sustainability.  “We see the focus on carbon right now. It’s all over the news related to climate change. As a scientist, as an agriculturalist, I know we can't have carbon sequestration without water in agricultural soils.”

Water is the basis of photosynthesis — reliance on light and water, light cleaving oxygen off water to make the carbon dioxide and sugars, which go into the plant.

“I see a lot of coverage on carbon, not as much on the enablers that mitigate the climate issues people focus on. That's exactly where water fits in. We can't grow crops, we can't eat, we can't live without water. We need to see carbon, water and other agronomic factors in the headlines.”
He says the Carbon A List mission is to balance carbon, water and agronomic systems. “Our staff includes a water rights expert (Atkerson), whose background is legal work in California along with being the first employee of Aquaoso, a successful lending ag-based lending start-up using water to determine risk. He’s trying to figure out not only the science but also the market mechanisms to enable and support farmers in decision-making processes.”

He concedes that the carbon market remains an obstacle. It’s not a mature market, he says. Atkerson is looking at different types of water banking mechanisms, state-to-state, even interstate banking and leasing mechanisms.

Complex issues

“Water trading or leasing markets are incredibly complex with the number of players involved, including state offices of water technology, private players, public/private partnerships, and farmers,” Goeser says.

Irrigation Insight:

The engineering firms required to monitor and certify transactions add to the complexity. “The key is to get these different pieces to work in concert. I think it's inefficient, not enough strong value or market signals to take farmers to the next steps, above what they are already doing for their business.”

Market issues

Goeser says carbon does not have a commodity market similar to grains or cotton. But as is the case with those crops, farmers are selling water. “That's what we're looking at. We’ve had conversations with John Duff  and the National Sorghum Producers and some others in the Southwest on how we can do this better. How can we be more effective, more efficient?”

He says the USDA offers programs like the Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities that will help. “We're asking ourselves if we can create derivatives on the existing commodity markets. Can we include derivative products sold with sorghum, corn, soybeans, wheat or other commodities on the open market where you'd have a water quantity derivative based on water use efficiency or other water quantity factors?
“If you're selling commodities, you're selling water, so how do you retain water within the systems? Does that work within the markets or not?”

He says some banking schemes track water losses from the system through marketed grain. Discounts based on the water movement might offer efficient ways to reward farmers, provide business incentives, and safeguard resources such as the Ogallala aquifer or  surface water reserves.

Increased pressure on ag

Goeser says agriculture faces increased pressure from the public, end users, and industry to be more sustainable and more transparent.

Companies such as Walmart, Levi-Straus, the Gap, and others are focusing on sustainable and transparent production.

Agriculture is responding. “The U.S. Cotton Trust Protocol and Field-to-Market were put together for exactly this reason,” Goeser says, “along with some  nutrient and pesticide issues that companies like Walmart, Levi, and The Gap have taken up. This was a way to leverage some pre-competitive initiatives in sustainability and bring standardization, harmonization, and practicality to the process,” he says.

Farmer participation, he adds, is crucial.

“Bringing farmers into the conversation shifts the dynamics dramatically by bringing awareness and recognition to opportunities and pathways for innovation.”

He adds that innovation can occur rapidly in agriculture but barriers with financial markets and reluctance to change on farms can be obstacles.

He foresees other challenges.

“I see significant market pressures. Commodity prices have not changed significantly since the ‘80s. We have ups and downs, but markets  remain consistently similar to what we've seen over the last 40 years.”

Input prices, Goeser adds, are rising. “We’ve seen nitrogen prices skyrocket, and we're not seeing commodity prices rise at the same rate.”

He adds that inflation, including interest rates, affects farm innovation decisions. “Those are big issues, definitely challenges.”

It’s a trying time to make changes,  Goeser says. He hopes Carbon A List can ease the process, help agriculture find some answers, or at least ask the best questions.

“Are there initiatives agriculture should join? Are there investments farmers should make? We hope to guide some of those decisions. That  involves a lot of desktop research, but also talking to people and summarizing data to help make sense of this rapidly changing and somewhat confusing space we call sustainability.”

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