A Morrisons Blueprint Farm soil organic carbon 2022

Source: Downforce

Morrisons is interrogating soil data on five of its supplier farms in a bid to increase stored carbon levels and meet its goal to be the first UK supermarket directly supplied by net zero British farms by 2030.

The supermarket is working with Downforce Technologies to measure and monitor the carbon stored within soil (soil organic carbon) at its so-called ‘blueprint farms’ in Northamptonshire, Wales, Cumbria, Scotland and Yorkshire.

Soil is the largest ‘greenhouse gas sink’, containing more carbon than the atmosphere and vegetation combined. Utilising more sustainable farming practices means the soil retains more carbon.

However, until recently it has been difficult to get a picture of how soil organic carbon responds to different farming methods, as levels can vary significantly even within a single field. Sampling can be expensive, laborious, and often inaccurate.

Downforce analyses and applies machine learning to data from multiple sources including publicly-available field surveys and satellite imagery. The company claims it can accurately quantify changes in soil carbon every 10 days, over the past six years at a resolution of 10 metres.

“One of our mantras for this project is ‘seeing is believing’ and Downforce Technologies will be crucial here by helping us measure carbon sinks and prove the success of our blueprint farms,” said Sophie Throup, technical and sustainability director at Morrisons.

The farms involved in the study are “unique in terms of land use” Downforce said, covering both arable and livestock, with different weather patterns and soil types.

The work will help Morrisons identify the best sustainable farming practice for each site, which might include changing tilling practices, adopting crop rotations, or promoting agroforestry.

Downforce co-founder and chief scientific officer Professor Jacqueline McGlade, former chief scientist of the UN Environmental Programme and executive director of the European Environment Agency, said interest in soil’s potential to help farms become carbon negative has risen sharply over the last six months.

“Farming had always been put on the back burner, because people always assumed it was negative – releasing carbon. But what’s happening is regenerative farming and good farming practices have been shown to store carbon even though you are taking yields out,” she told The Grocer.

“Some farms, at the end of the growing season, even with crops being taken out, there’s more carbon in the ground then there was at the beginning of the year. That’s an amazing thing,” McGlade said.

Morrisons in 2021 pledged to be the first supermarket to be completely supplied by net zero British farms by 2030, five years ahead of the market.

The supermarket said it was able to set such targets as it is British farming’s biggest supermarket customer, working directly with 3,000 farmers, and taking their meat, fruit and vegetables direct from farms to its 19 fruit, vegetable and meat preparation sites.

“Reaching net zero is an ambitious goal and one we need to deliver by working to improve soils, biodiversity and landscapes. By working alongside our farmers and experts like Downforce Technologies, we can help support the farmers supplying us on this important journey,” Throup added.

Downforce Technologies calculates that an average increase in soil organic carbon of just 1% globally on agricultural land has the potential to sequester 84.9 gigatonnes of carbon – an amount close to the 2030 global target reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Intensive farming, industrial and commercial pollution, urban expansion, and climatic changes have led to a rapid acceleration in soil degradation in recent years. The issue prompted the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to declare the worsening state of soils was at least as important as the climate crisis and the destruction of the natural world above ground.