This Agency Veteran Wants to Turn the Carbon Conversation Upside Down

His organization focuses on regenerative agriculture

A hand holds a dying plant.
“All you have to do is start working with the soil the same way nature does,” Kopald said. The Carbon Underground
Headshot of Erik Oster

This story is part of a weeklong series on climate change and sustainability. It’s in partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative to cover climate change in the week leading up to the U.N. summit on climate change in New York on Sept. 23. Click here to learn more about the initiative and read all of Adweek’s coverage on how sustainability and marketing intersect.

Nearly every conversation around carbon’s role in climate change centers around reducing carbon emissions.

Larry Kopald, co-founder of The Carbon Underground, which focuses on regenerative agricultural practices, said that this misses a major point.

“Reducing emissions does nothing for climate change” without also focusing on drawing existing carbon into the soil through the natural processes being destroyed by industrial agriculture, he explained.

In 2004, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimated that, if current practices continued, soil degradation meant that there would be only 60 years of farming left.

The good news?

A transition to regenerative agriculture can reverse these changes, and it makes business sense for agricultural companies otherwise facing a food-security crisis in the near future.

“We know that if we bring carbon down from the atmosphere into the soil, we help the farmers, we help the food companies, we help the fiber companies [and] we help the planet,” Kopald said.

Earlier in his career, Kopald spent time as a creative director with Leo Burnett and as executive creative director with FCB and Ketchum, before going on to build and serve as president and CCO for Think New Ideas. He brings this experience to the approach he takes with The Carbon Underground, which partners with global companies and employs communications strategies to build support for regenerative agricultural practices.

The Carbon Underground focuses on connecting large companies with large growing areas, advising them on how to move toward regenerative agricultural practices and helping with communications.

Kopald said that once The Carbon Underground explains to large companies like McDonald’s, Unilever or Nike that their existing efforts to reduce emissions and move toward renewable energy won’t have much of an impact without adding an evolution in agricultural practices, these companies tend to see the benefits. It’s also something they can tout to shareholders and audiences.

“It resonates from a communication standpoint,” Kopald said, noting that the overhaul necessary to restore farmlands, ranch pastures or wetlands isn’t as complicated as you might expect.

“All you have to do is start working with the soil the same way nature does,” he said. This means moving away from monoculture crops and the use of pesticides and herbicides that inhibit the biodiversity present in the soil.

Once companies decide to make the shift to regenerative agricultural practices, they have to figure out what that means for their particular crops, Kopald explained. Some, like General Mills, are doing that on their own, while others, such as Unilever, are hiring The Carbon Underground to advise their farmers on regenerative agriculture techniques.

The transition does involve an investment on the parts of these companies in helping farmers cover the cost of transitioning. Kopald said Mars recently committed $1 billion to such a transition.

Companies’ reasons for investing in the transition are motivated in no small part by self-interest and necessity.

“They know their ingredients’ supply chain is collapsing. Because of climate change, they have no idea what the yields are going to be, what the price will be, because you have floods and you have droughts and all that,” Kopald said. “When you restore the soil, your food security goes way up. You grow during droughts; you grow during floods—because the soil can withstand those things.”

“There’s real hardcore business interests to do it,” he added. “If they don’t, they don’t know where the front end of their supply chain is gonna go. Most companies will tell you it’s starting to collapse.”

He asked: “How can you continue to be a food or fiber company as the thing that you depend on the most, which is the growing of your ingredients, is going to lose all of its capacity?”

He also cited a 13% increase in farmer bankruptcies in the U.S. last year, adding, “Suppliers are going bankrupt at a rate so fast, they’re worried about who’s going to be growing next year.”

Advancements of soil science and its effects on absorbing carbon from the atmosphere are relatively recent and continue to evolve. When The Carbon Underground launched, scientists were aware of 7 billion living organisms and 20,000 distinct species in a teaspoon of healthy soil. Since then, they have discovered that there are closer to 100,000 distinct species.

The largest impediments to progress, Kopald said, are human nature and financial restrictions.

“You’re more willing to take a risk when you’ve got a cushion,” he said. “Nobody has a cushion anymore. We don’t have a carbon cushion. Farmers don’t have a financial cushion.”

Making progress in regenerative agriculture requires defining and measuring it.

Among its initiatives, The Carbon Underground worked with California State University’s Institute for Sustainable Development and a series of partners to create a definition of regenerative agriculture, with over 250 companies signing on, including Ben & Jerry’s, Annie’s and Cascadian Farm.

More recently, The Carbon Underground introduced the Soil Carbon Initiative, an outcome-based, verifiable standard to improve soil health and increase carbon draw-down, developed with input from more than 150 stakeholders.

The next step involves scaling up regenerative practices.

“We’re at the very front end of understanding how to scale it, how to measure it,” Kopald said. The Carbon Underground is one of a number of organizations helping companies define and measure progress in regenerative agriculture. The upside is, unlike with organic certification, there isn’t a single point of return but a gradual increase in environmental and food security benefits as the soil is restored.

For now, demand of regeneratively farmed produce far exceeds supply. Kopald said that a large global food company recently found that if it bought all the regeneratively grown soybeans on earth it would cover only 0.2% of their supply.

More recently, The Carbon Underground has also started working with governments on such transitions.

“We have an opportunity right now with a country that’s asking us to transition 35 million farmers over to regenerative,” Kopald said. “If we brought together every expert in the world today who’s working on this and teaching and training, we couldn’t handle it. The scale situation is the biggest issue facing all of us. And as more and more companies jump on the bandwagon, that will start to take care of itself. It will transform the system.”

Of course, with the most drastic impacts of climate change on the horizon, there is a sense of urgency.

“The demand is there, and, as we bring the supply up, the industry is going to start to change,” Kopald said.

“If we had 50 years with it like we’ve had with renewable energy, there’s no question that this will be how the agriculture industry works,” he added. “The problem is we have maybe 11 years, according to all the climate scientists [before catastrophic effects of climate change]. So we have to speed this up. And we are.”


@ErikDOster erik.oster@adweek.com Erik Oster is an agencies reporter for Adweek.
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