The Acorn Program is a new carbon removal system where farmers are rewarded for sequestering carbon with an agroforestry approach. The marketplace is being developed by Dutch bank Rabobank in partnership with Microsoft and Satelligence, a company using satellite data to monitor supply chains, deforestation and agricultural commodities.
We spoke with Satelligence CEO Niels Wielaard about the company’s role in Acorn and the project’s goals.
How did you come across carbon monitoring? Was that part of the plan for Satelligence?
Yes, I think it came on quite early, even before the existence of Satelligence. I have a forestry background and around 2000, I started working in tropical forests. And then I realized the tension between local economic development and the conservation of valuable ecosystems. Back then, there was forest certification, which was presented as one of the solutions for more sustainable forest management. But also, carbon forestry projects emerged as a new solution.
There were several different approaches to it. Conserving standing forests but also planting forests and having sequestration. Back in those days, the early 2000s, we were doing a lot of remote sensing work, defining where the forest is, what are the deforestation rates and using that for these carbon forestry projects, and also to measure the “carbon stock”, the carbon content in these forests.
Is Acorn the embodiment of this direction for Satelligence? It’s a project with Rabobank and with Microsoft, tell us a bit more about that.
Our core business for Satelligence is to help companies reduce risks in agricultural commodity production. You can say our clients are any stakeholders working in agricultural commodity production.
Anyone from the growers and plantation owners to the commodity traders, consumer goods brands, retailers and financial institutions like Rabobank.
With the satellites Satelligence measures all the dynamics, all the changes in the landscape. What kind of crop is growing there? What was the land use before the crop was growing there, was it a shrub, was it grassland? The approach is from land use, land cover and change, but also from carbon stock.
Our main focus is to help big companies with their Scope 3 emissions monitoring of their agricultural commodity production.
The other focus is on companies that want to reduce their carbon footprint. This is where we have a carbon project like Acorn. The idea here is basically to sequester carbon, to get it out of the atmosphere into new vegetation. And what is specific about Acorn is that it is focusing on agroforestry.
The Acorn program came about because Rabobank knew that Satelligence was working on monitoring anything related to agricultural commodities. And clients of ours are working with smallholder farmers. For example, the cocoa production is totally reliant on smallholder farmers. It’s the same for tea and to a large extent for palm oil.
So the relationships were already there with farmers and Acorn is a new service that allows them to make a profit from sustainable agriculture?
Yes, it’s a win-win-win for everyone. And that makes it very fascinating. I think the ideal mix for reducing emissions is for companies to reduce the burning of fossil fuels and also to sequester in their supply chains, making them greener and also making sure that the standing forest is not cut down. That is the ideal mix. And that is why Satelligence is so interested in the Acorn program.
If we take as an example a cocoa farmer in South America – can all cocoa farmers benefit from Acorn? Are there requirements they need to cover to take part in Acorn?
Yes, there are. For example a monoculture farmer, who doesn’t really have a good track record needs to be trained to have better agricultural practices. That is part of some of the work of some of the partners Acorn is working with.
You want to be able to work with farmers that can deliver, that are committed to converting monocultures and referrals, that can maintain them. So that is also why there is are partnerships with NGOs like Solidaridad, which can provide training about good agricultural practices to those farmers that don’t comply at the moment.
It can help them meet the requirements.
Exactly. And of course, one other requirement where our monitoring work comes in, is of course that you don’t want a farmer to cut forests and then ask for help from Rabobank and the Acorn program to divert area to agroforest. That’s why Satelligence also monitors whether recent deforestation has taken place.
What are good examples of areas where you think the project will work best?
In my opinion this works best in areas that are degraded, where you want to have a transition from a monoculture to agroforestry. And where the trees are growing fast. Big parts of Africa and also the wet tropical forest areas where the trees grow faster.
We work with farmers (through local partners) in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Burundi, Zambia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Colombia, Peru and Nicaragua.
Are there farmers with specific crops that will have a higher benefit if they participate in Acorn?
I think it’s not so much the farmer’s crops. It’s more about the forest that will grow. Because that is the additional value. And if you look at agroforestry there are several eligible crops. I mentioned cocoa, tea and especially coffee. But I also see farms with plantain and banana, the more traditional subsistence farming going on. It can be anything that is local and is already there.
Can farmer collectives, mid-sized or even corporate agricultural producers take part in Acorn?
Yes, I think that if you look at the agricultural commodity multi-value chain you will see that, of course farmers can be linked to cooperatives, which can be linked to traders, who can be corporate clients.
And then you have Solidaridad (or others) working to train farmers. At the end of the day it is all about the action that’s taking place at the farmer but that farmer can work with either corporate clients or with an NGO.
Can you tell us a bit more about how the roles are distributed between Rabobank, Microsoft and Satelligence in the Acorn program?
Rabobank is involved in the concept development and raising certification and relations. Microsoft is helping on the IT and infrastructure side. Satelligence is the service provider measuring the actual increase in the carbon stock.
Rabobank is taking a lot of care into certifying and providing assurance on the credibility of these credits, the removal units and making sure that it’s all certified. The Plan Vivo Foundation works together with them on that.
And finally the whole project is working together with local stakeholders, which can be organizations like Solidaridad and reNature who have local programs working with farmers.
Where is the Acorn program in the big picture of sustainable agriculture and climate change?
I think that if we look at areas where Acorn is working, it is natural vegetation. That’s the thing, making sure that in areas where there was once a forest there are at least more trees than there were before.
I’m really positive about it because the biggest risk of tree planting is that it happens without proper thought. Then a lot of money is wasted on planting trees in areas where they don’t belong. That would have a negative impact on mitigating climate change.
We understand that the data you use comes from sources like NASA and the European Space Agency. How far back does it go?
Satelligence does have information to check the carbon stock starting from the 1980s. But the information that’s available now has a much higher spatial resolution.
Overall, from the year 2015 onwards there is really good data, meaning that any of the forests that are planted now can benefit from the new technologies. If you want to sell carbon credits, you need credible data.
Right now, it’s still a challenge to monitor the growth rate for the smaller farmers. To do it Satelligence combines the height of the vegetation of the trees and other vegetation based on LiDAR, which is a laser technology.
Monitoring can be from an aircraft or from space. The space data is continuously improving. We use a NASA project called Jedi and in combination with European satellites and the Sentinel Program you get a 10-meter resolution. And from Planet.com it’s up to 3 meters right now.