Multiple perspectives on advancing soil carbon sequestration in Finland and Sweden
The first-ever international session at the Finnish Agricultural Science Days, organized by the Baltic Sea Action Group, offered multiple perspectives on what is needed to advance soil carbon sequestration and reflected upon all the different levels and actors that must be involved in the work. The session brought together several organizations and projects. In this blog, Laura Höijer and Elisa Vainio from BSAG sum up the key messages from the international session. Find the recording of the session further down.
The session offered a lot of new information and ideas on soil-improving cropping systems and verification of carbon sequestration in Finland and Sweden. A few take-home messages follow.
Good condition of the field is a prerequisite for carbon sequestration. In mineral soils, organic matter is important in supporting soil structure and functions. Carbon farming aiming at soil carbon sequestration can be a tool for improving soil health and productivity. However, potential problems with soil compaction and water management must be fixed first. Carbon farming is part of regenerative agriculture. In regenerative agriculture, the basic rehabilitation of the field is a necessary first step. To put it simply, the basic idea of regenerative agriculture: first fix the field, and then you can start increasing soil carbon, with adaptive carbon farming methods.
Different kinds of incentives are needed to motivate farmers. Nudging farmers towards climate friendly choices is not easy and the real effect of nudges tends to be weaker than expected. To create meaningful change, we also need financial incentives, both public (policies) and private (carbon credits). For this, we need better ways of analysing soil carbon sequestration. Developing Carbon Action verification system that can serve as a base for steering mechanisms is thus of foremost importance.
Co-operation and co-learning are the way to go. We need to share knowledge and work together – farmers, advisors, scientists, companies, and decision-makers. We must enable concrete co-operation and co-learning between the different actors and projects – and between Finland and Sweden.
Highlights from the speakers
The international session was opened with a presentation of our Swedish collaborator, Svensk Kolinlagring (SK). Gusten Brodin from Miljömatematik told the audience that Svensk kolinlagring is an initiative which gathers several stakeholders from the food industry, academia, private companies, and NGOs and of course, farmers, around the mutual goal of promoting soil carbon sequestration in agricultural soils in Sweden.
Through a pilot program, different agricultural management methods are tested on real farms, while different methods for quantifying sequestered carbon are evaluated and developed together with researchers. The goal of the pilot is to launch a platform, connecting the food industry, farmers, and researchers, and providing verified carbon sequestration.
One of Gusten Brodin’s key message was that we must be able to create movement on several levels at once – to foster and enable both deeper and wider change together with different stakeholders. Gusten also concluded that we need better ways of analysing soil carbon sequestration.
Verifying carbon sequestration
Jari Liski from the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI) spoke about the basic ideas behind the ambitious Carbon Action verification system. 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 the 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 the intensive study sites, 20 Carbon Action farms, some Valio farms and even a Swedish farm in collaboration with SK. The observatory also shows the world’s first carbon sequestration forecast on grassland.
Organic matter is highly important in supporting soil functions
Helena Soinne from Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) emphasized that in mineral soils, organic matter is highly important in supporting soil functions like aggregation, nitrogen mineralization, and water and nutrient retention. The relative importance of organic matter in supporting these functions may vary depending on soil texture and the quality of organic matter.
Helena pointed out that advancing sequestration of organic carbon in mineral agricultural soils serves the climate change mitigation and importantly, the resilience of cultivated soils in changing climate conditions.
As a summary Helena stated that fields with highest soil organic carbon (SOC) sequestration potential can be found in southwestern Finland. Due to high clay/SOC ratio there is possibly a need for external organic matter inputs.
Carbon farming can be a tool for improving soil health and productivity
Tuomas Mattila from the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) asked the audience if there was somebody who did not know what carbon farming is. No hands were raised. That’s progress!
Tuomas mentioned that as carbon cycling is a central process of soil health and ecosystem functioning, carbon farming is likely to influence soil health in multiple ways. How does this play out in practice, on the Carbon Action farms? Tuomas pointed out that many agricultural soils have conditions that limit both food production and carbon sequestration. Based on the preliminary results, some carbon farming practices, especially improved grazing, can have considerable positive effects on soil health. On the other hand, many of the soil health problems in the fields, such as compaction and poor drainage, are not directly related to carbon farming and are influenced only slightly by carbon farming practices.
Overall, carbon farming can be a tool for improving soil health and productivity. However, soil improvement should start with an overview of the actual soil condition, and identification of soil health problems and their causes. The experiments on Carbon Action farms will go on for 5 years, so these were preliminary halfway results.
Carbon Action supports farmers
Eija Hagelberg from BSAG told the audience about Carbon Action work co-ordinated by BSAG. She reminded us that by “carbon farming” we mean increasing the soil carbon stock alongside food production, in the same fields. Carbon farming is part of ‘regenerative agriculture’, which secures food production and revitalizes ecosystems.
Eija emphasized that regenerative agriculture is not a set of individual cultivation practices but a holistic production system. In regenerative agriculture, the basic rehabilitation of the field is a necessary first step, after which the annual measures not only maintain the condition of the soil, but also further improve it.
Good condition of the field is a prerequisite for carbon sequestration. She concluded that you must first fix the possible problems with water management and soil structure, and only then can you start sequestering carbon to soil.
In Carbon Action scientists, farmers, and companies work together to enhance carbon-storing regenerative agriculture, Eija said. She emphasized that BSAG wants to help farmers make their work more profitable, interesting, and valued. Carbon Action works with the farmers and supports them in the transition towards regenerative agriculture. Change is not easy, and it is important to face new farming methods as a heterogenic group of farmers, advisors, and researchers.
Adaptive farming methods are important, so that the farmers can adjust the carbon farming methods to the conditions on their own farms and fields – and to varying climate conditions. Eija concluded that we need peer-to-peer learning between farmers and scientists, adaptative farming methods and sharing of knowledge to all stakeholders. This was an important message for the Agricultural Science Days!
Real effect of nudges tends to be weaker than expected
Towards the end of the session, Olli-Pekka Ruuskanen from Pellervo Economic Research (PTT) told the audience about nudging farmers to climate-friendly choices. He emphasized that behavioural nudges have become a possible alternative policy instrument to taxes and regulation.
A climate nudge can be defined as any intentional modification of the choice architecture that aims to alter citizen behaviour towards climate-friendly actions while maintaining their earlier alternatives. He concluded that the real effect of nudges tends to be weaker than expected. Thus, nudging may be better in some cases than others.
Book of abstracts of the Finnish Agricultural Science Days
Twitter discussion #MTP2022
Text: Laura Höijer and Elisa Vainio
The session was financially enabled by the projects FIN SOIL ACTION (‘Catch the Carbon’ -Programme by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry), stn MULTA (Strategic Research Council at the Academy of Finland) and Carbon Farming Scheme (European Union’s LIFE programme). All the projects are on the Carbon Action platform.