There is no easy way to know if management practices are putting carbon back into the soil, or how much.
But Alberta growers may soon have an app that measures soil carbon, shows what management practices work best in their area, and lets them trade carbon credits with big emitters.
“Theoretically, the app would help inform the farmer which management practices would get the most carbon credits,” said lead researcher Derek MacKenzie, associate professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Agriculture.
“The app might come back and say, ‘If you’re using this much compost on this land and maybe this much synthetic fertilizer, you should be sequestering this much carbon.'”
The app developers also want it to have a carbon credit trading portal.
“We’re trying to develop a carbon economy in the province,” MacKenzie said. “In an ideal world, the app will come back and say ‘if you apply these practices, you’ll sequester so much carbon, which is worth so much money in the market today’.”
Maximizing soil health is a big motivation behind the project.
Although the province is home to an abundance of healthy, fertile soil, the key is to keep it that way – preferably by using less synthetic fertiliser, the soil scientist said. By outsourcing successful management practices to the app, farmers will essentially learn how to do this.
“The literature shows pretty clearly that if you pound agricultural soils for hundreds of years with synthetic fertilizers, you decrease soil health, you lose fertility, you lose function. But we gave up tillage in the 90s, so if we can get away from the synthetics, we’ll probably do well.
The app could also be used to measure fertility. It will be anchored in a centralized soil database bringing together big data – including soil health attributes – from across the province. This journey began when MacKenzie discovered a soil sampling campaign that ran from 1997 to 2007.
“They examined soil quality parameters at 42 reference sites and archived soil samples from across the province. There are about 4,000 500 milliliter pots of soil from this collection period,” he said.
“It really caught my interest because you can still get a lot of data from archived soils.”
With funding from Research Driven Agricultural Research (RDAR) and Alberta Innovates, MacKenzie and his team resampled these sites to see how their health and quality changed.
Soil and data scientists work together to interpret the results, studying soil health parameters such as soil stability, carbon sequestration potential, and organic diversity (for example, the presence of beneficial microbes). MacKenzie also hopes to see climate projection data added to the parameter mix.
Neighbors helping their neighbors
MacKenzie wants to include an agricultural data entry portal that would allow farmers to share their soil test results if they choose. It would be uploaded to regional data collections and searchable by postal code, not producer name or specific farm location.
“Their neighbors will be able to learn anonymously from the database which practices sequester the most carbon (in their area),” he said. “They will be neighbors, in a way, helping their neighbors use the most efficient and sustainable farm management practices available at the time.”
But since farmers pay for and own this soil test data, they will need encouragement to share it.
“I think the incentive is going to be that the more data we can generate, the more knowledge we will have about practices that sequester carbon and can be translated into carbon credits,” MacKenzie said.
“Or it can help growers apply for government funding to show that their nitrogen management practices reduce emissions, use less nitrogen and store more carbon.”
The goal is to start beta testing the app by December 2024. That’s where producers will start to play a role – and the more the merrier.
“I’m trying to spread the word that if producers want to be involved in beta testing, they can email me and eventually I’ll send them an email newsletter to give them updates. about it,” said MacKenzie, who can be reached at [email protected]
Work similar to this is happening across Canada and around the world, he added.
“In Canada, there are basically different satellite labs in every province of the country working on this kind of information. We’re trying to develop high-level leadership to help coordinate these efforts so that… we all work together.
There is a global need to create a large database of soil information, just “like what has been done in health, medicine and pharmacy”, he said. .
“This comes from a need to better inform management practices that can affect soil health and quality, and it can also help us mitigate climate change given that soil has the ability to sequester and store large amounts of carbon.”