Airly crackers recently landed on shelves at Wal-Mart stores across the U.S.—a big move for the world’s first carbon-negative cracker. Being “carbon negative” or “climate positive” means that the entire lifecycle of the snack results in reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
We sat down with Chris Malone, Senior Director of Emerging Opportunities, to talk about Indigo and Airly’s collaboration to capture, measure, and verify sustainability data for the cracker company’s carbon-negative snacks. With new guidance for tackling Scope 3 emissions from the Greenhouse Gas Protocol Land Sector & Removals guidance and Science-Based Target initiative (SBTi), more brands are seeking efficient, credible ways to achieve and substantiate their sustainability claims. Indigo works with many household-name brands to achieve their Scope 3 targets through our Market+ Source program, which helps brands source their raw materials, such as wheat, rice, corn, and cotton, with sustainability attributes. Airly was launched by Bright Future Foods, a wholly owned subsidiary of St. Louis-based Post Holdings that is charged with accelerating new disruptive innovation. Airly prints the carbon impact of their crackers on each box, showing it’s possible for brands to trace their environmental footprint—efficiently and at scale.
What makes Airly's product unique?
Chris Malone: With Airly, it's about the product itself. We're tracking the raw material, measuring the carbon intensity, and using a very high quality view of the soil carbon. We sought to build a product for Airly that had full traceability of a grain all the way back to the field to know the full carbon footprint of that box of crackers. Additionally, we sought to ensure that the fields that produce the oats and wheat for Airly crackers were producing those grains with a carbon-negative footprint. In other words, these fields are producing oats and wheat in a very efficient way so that there are fewer emissions associated with them, and they're highly regenerative fields that are sequestering a significant amount of carbon each year. Every year the carbon soil stock of the field grows in such a way that any emissions that do result from oats or wheat coming off that acre are overcome by the amount of carbon sequestered on that same acre. Those carbon-negative grains are sold into Bright Future Foods’ supply chain and are identity preserved from the farm to the Airly bakery.
How does Indigo help Airly achieve the goal of being a carbon negative product?
C.M.: We work with their suppliers, the mills that produce wheat flour and oat flour for them (based in the Midwest and Michigan), to help them determine the growers in their region who are likely to have carbon negative scoring on their acres (based on their soil type and farming practices). Once they've found those growers and commit to purchase grain from them at a premium for the quality of their product, we work with the grower to collect all of their farming information and run it through Indigo's technology to 1) understand the footprint of the farming practices, and 2) model the carbon sequestration on the year, i.e., how much carbon was sequestered in the soil during that crop season. From there, we report the carbon scores to Airly.
How does Indigo use science and technology to bring transparency to how farmers grow their crops and measure reduced emissions and sequestration, so that brands can make meaningful sustainability claims?
C.M.: We have a number of technology assets to help us do this. We've acquired and built a stack of capabilities needed to conduct field-level measurement, reporting, and verification (MRV) at scale. At the foundation of the stack, we have tools to help capture and verify farming practice data, like easy-to-use software for growers. We acquired remote sensing and satellite capabilities for field identification and practice identification. We have integrations with major tractor and farm management systems to bring in data farmers already have. Our goal is to make capturing that data efficient, but also credible.
The next layer of our MRV stack is then tracking all of that information and processing it, getting it into the right formats, running checks on it, bringing in additional data sets that you can overlay with it. We prep that data to run through our proprietary soil modeling technologies, which produce numbers for natural cycles for the carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, and the methane cycle (if relevant), as well as field-level emissions outside of these cycles – fertilizer emissions, tractor emissions, irrigation pump emissions. Once the data has gone through our entire MRV system, we have a really thorough understanding of a field's full carbon footprint.
What sets Indigo apart in our ability to source sustainable crops and measure the sustainability of a crop?
C.M.: Indigo's MRV tech stack is what sets us apart. With new Land Sector and Removals guidance from the GreenHouse Gas Protocol (GHGP) and Forest, Land, and Agriculture from Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), brands need new capabilities for capturing, quantifying, measuring – and most importantly, verifying – field-level data if they want to meet their de-carbonization goals in their ag supply chains. It requires deep integrations within the agriculture industry and high scientific standards, and the ability to do it at scale. We've invested resources, time, and development into a system that is efficient at collecting information, efficient at processing it, and uses a really high-caliber modeling of soils that then standardizes outputs that, again, let us do this at a million-acre scale for these brands who would never able to achieve this on their own.
If you look not just at our sustainable crop program but our Carbon by Indigo program, which develops offset credits registered by CAR using CAR's Soil Enrichment Protocol (SEP), we are the first and only company to successfully issue two crops of verified, registry-issued carbon credits, and are well on our way to issuing a third. Our system is able to meet all of those criteria from CAR and produce an enormous amount of official reporting. It just demonstrates the quality and scale of our sustainability programs.
Why is field data an important part of creating transparency around how grain is produced?
C.M.: A significant component of the total footprint of food is from the agricultural production process. In many cases it is larger than the rest of the supply chain combined. It's also unique in that the way crops are grown can remove carbon from the atmosphere (into soils) if done correctly – acting as a natural carbon sink within the supply chain. Aside from the downstream emissions of a product, the grain itself has to be measured for carbon intensity. Understanding what's happening at the field level helps us score the grain itself before it ever gets turned into a cracker, packaged, and shipped to a store. It gives brands like Airly a big-picture view of the full lifecycle of their products and the ability to report accurately in their lifecycle reports.
What are the farming practices that are most effective for reducing carbon emissions and sequestering carbon?
C.M.: Increasing biomass is really important to sequestering carbon, so more roots in the ground through cover crops. We like mature no-till environments where there is interaction with soils and decaying crops so that lifecycle and soil health are locked in.
And then efficient farming is also important: being able to produce strong yields with fewer inputs or tractor runs. Pulling a till through a field is a lot more energy intensive than other farming methods, for example, and negatively impacts a product's carbon score. Today, I always say we're in the sticks and stones era of this stuff. Better genetics, better products, new ways of farming – there's a whole innovation cycle that can go into this now that this is becoming a market. We're excited to see microbes or basalt rock dust or other things that potentially could be added to these fields in the future to make them even better or make more fields be able to score this way. People are starting to understand that agricultural soils have massive potential to become a carbon sink. I was recently at World Agri-Tech and met with a number of companies with new ideas for advancing plant genetics, microbes, and other technology that would improve soil carbon.
What environmental benefits are Indigo's sustainable source programs able to track, not just for Airly but for other consumer brands?
C.M.: Every brand and crop is different, but for some products like Airly's crackers, the carbon sequestration has a lot of co-benefits for the soil: it can increase nutrient density and improve water filtration. For other crops like rice, we focus on water because rice traditionally grows in a paddy and the water management is highly tied to methane emissions, which is a greenhouse gas. When we address water efficiency, it can both reduce water usage and reduce methane emissions.
What's the outlook for enrolling farmers into these programs so that they can produce their sustainable crops for a premium?
C.M.: Now that the market has been around for a few years, growers are seeing that it's worth their while. And the more programs we have, and the more brands that are seeking crops with a low carbon footprint, that creates the right incentives for growers who are focused on maximizing the value of their production to go after them.
Looking for ways to reduce your Scope 3 emissions? Learn more about Indigo’s Market+ Source program here.
Agronomic practice information provided for general informational purposes only. Actual results of adopting regenerative or any other agricultural practices will differ among growers and farms based on a large number of variables. Indigo does not make any representations, warranties or guarantees as to the results or outcomes of any farming practices.