A leap forward in measuring soil carbon enables carbon farming

Published on
March 9, 2023

Agricultural soils hold great potential for climate change mitigation by removing atmospheric CO2 and storing it in the soil. Enhancing soil carbon has many other co-benefits such as enhanced water retention and a stronger base for biodiversity. Enhancing the carbon content of soil by farmers purposely is also known as carbon farming. Up to now, a major hurdle for carbon farming was that methods that are scientifically robust, scalable and affordable that could also valorise soil carbon into carbon credits were rarely available.

The team

A team led by Dr. Gerard H. Ros, senior researcher in the Environmental System Analysis Group of Wageningen University & Research has closed this research gap in his recent publication on enabling carbon farming in the journal Agronomy for Sustainable Development. In this contribution, his team makes a leap forward in enabling soil carbon assessment for a wide range of farmlands in a robust and cost-effective way.

With this research we make a leap forward in enabling soil carbon assessment for a wide range of farmlands
Gerard Ros, senior researcher Wageningen University & Research

The innovative research

The developed protocol takes in an innovative approach, combining the strength of multiple statistical methods, sensor technology, and also takes a multidisciplinary viewpoint. There are three key steps to the approach published in this paper, the Wageningen Soil Carbon STOck pRotocol (SoilCASTOR). Firstly, optimal sampling locations are selected and initial estimates of carbon stocks are made by leveraging open-source satellite data as well as other available data sources. This approach minimizes the amount of samples that need to be taken, further lowering time-investment and therefore the threshold to carbon farming. Secondly, field-based data is collected by a field analyst using the emerging technology of an AgroCares NearInfra-Red (NIR) Scanner being trained on more than 20.000 global soil samples analysed using deep learning technologies. With the NIR-scanner fieldwork is rapid, covering up to 20 hectares per hour and yielding immediate estimates of soil carbon. The NIR-scanner is simple in use, and precludes the need for expensive wet-chemistry samples, thus further lowering the thresholds to carbon farming. Last but not least, statistically robust results that are compatible with carbon credit schemes are attained. This opens up the way for farmers to be rewarded for their efforts to increase carbon, thus providing a direct monetary incentive. This paper was based on tests in the United States.

“This multifaceted approach tackles and solves key challenges carbon farming face: cost, scalability and ease-of-use” - Gerard Ros, senior researcher Wageningen University & Research

Problems solved by unique approach

This research tackles three key challenges that currently face structural soil carbon stock assessment: cost, scalability and connection to carbon credits. This approach greatly reduces the cost because it replaces classical costly laboratory measurements with a combination of Near-InfraRed measurement based measurements ( and data from satellites and pre-existing databases. Cost is further reduced by the selection of the optimal sampling location. Scalability is also enhanced because instead of being limited to areas with nearby lab facilities, this research relies on a pretrained global model and the only constraint is the possibility of physical fieldwork. Last but not least, it also reduces the barriers to valorize the data, because it automatically generates data needed for carbon credit programs.

Impact and future plans

This research has already made waves in the international field of carbon farming, winning the Bayer Grants4Tech Carbon Challenge with the companies NMI and AgroCares. Furthermore, additional soil carbon projects are ongoing, for instance in the Netherlands with the ZLTO but also internationally with other companies and multinationals in Africa and the United States. The research is being transformed into an application which can easily be used by farmers across the globe as the AgroCares Carbon Monitor. This will allow partners all around the globe to invest in sustainable soil management strategies improving soil health and enhancing carbon sequestration. In this way, Wageningen-powered research contributes to climate mitigation, and resilient and sustainable agriculture. Not just locally, but world-wide.