The Soil Carbon Initiative (SCI) is an outcomes-based, scientific agricultural standard designed to help farmers and supply chains measure improvements in soil health and soil carbon. SCI creates a framework that calls all who touch the soil to address the climate crisis by building soil health and increasing soil carbon sequestration through better soil health. SCI does not dictate practices, so no matter the underlying agricultural system, SCI can measure soil health and soil carbon outcomes. The standard can be adopted by producers in any production system – conventional, Non-GMO, Organic, Biodynamic. In addition, the outcomes focus allows supply chains to use SCI to measure the results of customized soil health programs.
SCI is a points-based standard that is organized around three stages:
- Enrollment (signing up, and all are welcome)
- Demonstration of Commitment (annual evidence of plans and activities that demonstrate commitment to soil health and carbon sequestration)
- Outcomes Based Testing of Performance Areas (within one year of enrollment and then every three years).
Farmers can earn a “Stamp of Participation” after completing the Enrollment and Commitment stages and conducting their baseline Performance Area tests. This Stamp of Participation is an early win for producers who are just beginning their soil health journey. It allows these producers to signal to their supply chain that they are on the SCI path, improving soil health and carbon sequestration.
Farmers who start with a high level of soil health can earn SCI verification by completing the Enrollment, Commitments and the baseline Performance Area tests. Otherwise, farmers can earn SCI verification by demonstrating improvements in the performance areas at the next testing cycle (performance areas are tested every three years). In this way, SCI both rewards achievement and improvement. Farmers must continue to demonstrate improvement until they reach a high level of soil health performance relative to their region
The foundation of the standard is tests of four performance areas:
- Soil organic carbon,
- Soil Water dynamics (water infiltration or water holding capacity),
- Aggregate stability
- Microbial biomass.
These performance areas were selected by a committee of leading farmers and soil scientists as the key indicators of soil health and the soil’s ability to sequester carbon. Farmers test these performance areas through in-lab, in-field or proxy tests depending on the needs of their supply chain.
Performance area points are a function of:
- The scientific rigor of the tests (third-party review; test replicability; test insight). Higher rigor leads to more points, motivating the use of more rigorous and robust tests
- The absolute performance on the tests (farmer’s test scores compared to norms for the region/soil type)
- Improvement in the performance area tests since the prior testing cycle (performance areas are tested every three years).
SCI suggests tests (in field, in-lab, and proxy tests) for each performance area. The tests for these performance areas are flexible, and in many cases farmers who are already doing soil testing may not need any new tests. In this way, SCI requires minimal farmer resources. Producers who are using other tests to assess these performance areas can petition SCI to accept their test. Testing technology, particularly around sensors and block chain technology is evolving rapidly. SCI is designed to adjust to and incorporate changes in testing and measurement technology.
To provide flexibility for various supply chains (different geographies, access to labs, and need for third party validation), SCI offers two tracks for measuring Performance Areas:
- “SCI-Reported” relies on farmers self-reporting their performance area scores. SCI will implement processes to audit these results. SCI -Reported enables producers around the world with minimal lab access to participate in SCI.
- “SCI-Verified” requires that the performance area tests be lab tests as much as possible. SCI will certify “Verifiers” who will review lab test results, combine results from in-field and in-lab tests, and provide an assessment of soil health and soil health improvement. As new tests and technologies are available, SCI will adapt the points framework.
SCI aims to drive carbon sequestration in the soil. However, current testing protocols make demonstrating soil carbon improvements expensive and challenging and require a long time (often 5+ years). Therefore, SCI does not currently require producers to measure changes in carbon stocks to be SCI verified but it does offer significant points for producers who use a validated program to demonstrate improvements in carbon stocks.
In addition to demonstrating performance area improvement and/or achievement, farmers must demonstrate their commitment to soil health and carbon sequestration. Every year, producers must submit evidence of learning, planning and action that are aligned with the four SCI commitments:
- Store Carbon in the Soil
- Steward Water Resources
- Enhance on-farm Biodiversity
- Advance Knowledge of Soil Health
These four commitments reflect the holistic mindset required to build soil health. Farmers are required to either engage in learning or teaching about soil health. In addition, SCI will be able to advance the collective knowledge of what leads to soil health and carbon sequestration outcomes by analyzing enrollment, commitment and performance area data.
SCI is flexible and modular and uniformly applicable. We believe that actors across the supply chain will be motivated to implement SCI.
- Farmers will have a standardized tool to quantify their soil health and carbon sequestration, enabling them to market themselves to brands. Participation in SCI readies these producers to access ecosystem service markets and/or carbon credit markets as these markets become more robust.
- Brands can use SCI as a flexible tool to monitor and measure soil health programs in their supply chain, or they can use SCI as a sourcing screen.
- Coops can use SCI to measure the soil health outcomes of many farms, adopting whatever verification protocol they deem useful. Coops with significant producers enrolled may find themselves in a competitive market position as demand for verification of soil health impact increases.
- Investors can use SCI to assess the outcomes of projects. SCI can provide a tool to measure the outcomes of ecosystem projects, unlocking investments in such programs.
- Policy makers can use SCI enrollments at the landscape or regional level to gauge climate change resiliency, watershed impact improvements and other ecosystem measures increasingly relevant at the state and national level.