In recent years, there has been a growing trend of "offsetting" carbon emissions - or other negative impacts on the environment or society - by essentially buying other things that compensate for those negative impacts. We've all been offered the chance to plant a few trees after booking our Air New Zealand flights for example. Flying bad. Planting trees good. Let's call it evens.

But is it time we rethought the whole concept of offsetting? As a thought, it’s predicated on a belief that you can cancel out the negative impact of one action by creating a positive impact elsewhere. On the idea that it all nets out at zero. That it creates neutrality. On the surface, this might seem like a good idea – after all, if we can balance out the negative impacts of our actions, then we can continue to do those things without causing harm, right?

Well no not quite. Here’s a very simple analogy. Take an empty room. Inject acidic gas into it from one side, and alkaline gas from the other in equal measure. You end up with a room at ph7 – completely neutral. Water. But now ask yourself, would you want to be in the room while that’s happening?

The problem with offsetting is that it doesn’t address the root cause of the problem. It’s like putting a band-aid on a wound without actually treating the underlying infection. In the case of carbon emissions, for example, investing in renewable energy projects might help to reduce emissions, but it doesn’t actually address the fact that the company is still emitting a lot of carbon in the first place. Similarly, buying carbon credits might help to offset the emissions from farming practices, but it doesn’t actually address the fact that those practices are harmful to the environment in the first place.

The idea of offsetting is also flawed because it assumes that all negative impacts can be quantified and balanced out. However, the reality is that many of the negative impacts of our actions are complex and difficult to quantify. For example, how do you offset the negative impact of deforestation on the loss of biodiversity or the displacement of indigenous communities? How do you offset the negative impact of overfishing on the health of ocean ecosystems?

Let’s leave carbon behind and talk about the workplace. If we take an offsetting mindset into how we manage our workplaces, we might be tempted to ignore substandard working environments, accept toxic cultures and set our people up to fail thinking that we can “offset” these by giving people overblown job titles and overinflated salaries. It all balances out right? There’s negative employee impact, compensated for by positive employee impact. That’s not how you build a sustainable workplace, and offsetting is not how we’ll build a sustainable world.

The concept of offsetting can lead to an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. If we think we can simply offset the negative impacts of our actions, we become less likely to actually change those actions. Offsetting is not just ineffective, it’s actually holding us back.

This is where the concept of insetting comes in. Insetting is about addressing the root cause of a problem rather than trying to compensate for it elsewhere. It’s about taking responsibility for the impact of our actions and working to minimize or eliminate that impact at the source. In the context of our sector insetting involves adopting more sustainable agriculture practices that increase precision and application efficiency with inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides, rather than simply buying carbon credits to offset the emissions from those practices. Similarly, in the context of running a business, insetting might involve investing in employee well-being and creating a positive work culture, rather than simply paying high salaries to “offset” a poor employee experience.

Here at Tracta we’re about setting up agri-brands for success in a changing world. The brands that will win in that changing world are those that take responsibility for the impact of their actions and work tirelessly to minimize or eliminate that impact at the source. Those that focus on insetting rather than offsetting. That’s how together we’ll create a stronger, more resilient sector and a more sustainable future for ourselves, our communities and for the planet.

Tracta | Champions of Agribusiness - Rural Specialist

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