Why old apple orchards are at the forefront of carbon capture

Carbon offsetting is sometimes seen as a distraction, but one approach tested on French apple orchards uses blockchain to ensure farmers take more CO2 out of the atmosphere than they emit.

The apple orchards of Normandy Calvados country would normally be surrounded by vibrant green meadows, punctuated with splashes of wildflowers. This year the fruit fell early from the parched trees, landing on parched pastures to a dull ocher.

“It was all brown,” says beverage entrepreneur Tim Etherington-Judge, recalling the recent summer visit to one of his partner orchards – a moment that highlighted his climate ambitions.

A former Greenpeace volunteer, Etherington-Judge set out three years ago to create what he hoped would be the world’s most sustainable spirits brand, after becoming disillusioned with what he saw as a culture of greenwashing in the beverage industry.

Looking for a long-lasting sip this fall?
Order the world’s most planetary positive spirit – Avallen, made with nothing but apples, water and time
Order here

Incorporating more than two decades of experience in the beverage industry into his mission, he teamed up with Stephanie Jordan – the daughter of a Burgundy winemaker – to launch the spirits brand Avallen, which makes the eau-de- apple life known as calvados.

The appeal of traditional French apple orchards is no coincidence: while regenerative agriculture is rapidly becoming a buzzword, it is entrenched in the production of calvados, where strict rules imposed by the French government controlled designation of origin (AOC) prohibits monoculture, pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation.

Last year, Avallen’s sustainability drive was vindicated by an environmental impact assessment which found that the production of its eau-de-vie actually removes CO2 from the atmosphere.

Regenerative agriculture is rooted in Calvados production. Image: Skylar Zilka

Still restless, the company now combines the carbon-capturing potential of its orchards with cutting-edge technology to sell carbon credits, with the aim of funding more tree plantings, more regenerative agriculture and ultimately better soil health.

“Apple growing isn’t the most profitable business in the world,” says Etherington-Judge. “There are no billionaire apple producers. Many of them are struggling and there is pressure to switch to more profitable crops like maize. We wanted to encourage them to continue growing apples, to maintain their good practices and even to improve them. »

Avallen’s foray into carbon offsets is through voluntary carbon markets (VCMs), where credits are traded by companies and individuals acting on their own backs, outside of the mandatory cap-and-trade systems used by governments to balance their carbon budgets. Whether you are a traveler buying carbon credits for a fight or a business using offsets to achieve net zero goals, you are trading on a VCM.

Apple growing is not the most profitable business. There are no apple-growing billionaires

At the moment, VCMs are not regulated. So while Avallen’s calvados comes with the assurance of Etherington-Judge beverage industry pedigree and AOC certification – and pours a clear, pale amber – carbon offsetting has been blamed for occupy much murkier waters.

The need for “additionality” has been a key stumbling block – put simply, a company’s sequestration project should capture additional carbon than it would have anyway. A study found that Indian wind farms developed with money from carbon offset credits would have been built anyway, nullifying any savings.

Similarly, carbon offsets want to be sure that projects will provide a quality solution – improper tree planting, for example, can disturb carbon-rich soils and disrupt the sequestration potential of natural grasslands.

Carbon offsetting is a murky business, but some brands are looking to clear it up. Image: Guy Bowden

Without regulation, VCMs rely on good faith and transparency. To that end, Avallen has partnered with pioneering trading platform Dovu Earth to manage its carbon credit sales and to host the data, which is verified by an independent third party.

Dovu is headquartered in the small town of Llanwrtyd Wells in mid Wales, where founder Irfon Watkins grew up in a farming family. In an unusual move, Watkins has introduced blockchain-like technology — an innovation typically associated with cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin — to trading carbon credits.

Blockchain, which is a decentralized digital ledger used to facilitate transactions on a peer-to-peer network, is notoriously power-hungry. Bitcoin consumes as much energy annually as Argentina. Thus, Watkins uses an alternative known as the “hedera hashgraph”, a ledger and associated currency believed to be 250,000 times more energy efficient than bitcoin. On the platform, digital carbon credits are timestamped at the time of creation and then again when redeemed, which avoids duplication and double counting.

While Watkins says engineered solutions such as direct air capture technology have a role to play in the race to net zero, he believes nature-based projects – particularly around the natural capacity of the soil to sequester carbon – will prevail.

“It’s mixing trees with animals in the same fields, having a no-till policy in order to have continuous vegetation cover, which retains carbon in the soil,” he explains. “When you pick up this earth in your hand, it is clumped together like the earth of old. There are worms and other crawling creatures – this increases biodiversity.

Dovu’s partner farms are expected to use funds from carbon credit sales to implement improvements or sustainability projects that they could not otherwise afford, thus addressing the sticking point of “the additionality”. They also face rigorous audits and must sign a contract stating that the money can be recovered in the event of non-delivery.

You just need to give nature-based projects the tools and frameworks to build trust and then get out of the way.

After a successful trial with their partner distillery – which will use funds from carbon credit sales to plant new apple trees – Avallen plans to expand the concept to other orchards across Normandy.

“You just need to give nature-based projects the tools and frameworks to build trust and then step aside,” says Watkins. “That’s really the key to reaching global scale.”

Main illustration: Lauren Hall

Comments are closed.