Farm plan tar­gets carbon emis­sions

The Prince George Citizen - - Science -

Last month carbon diox­ide lev­els in the at­mos­phere sur­passed 415 parts per mil­lion, the high­est in hu­man his­tory. En­vi­ron­men­tal ex­perts say the world is in­creas­ingly on a path to­ward a cli­mate cri­sis.

The most prom­i­nent ef­forts to pre­vent that cri­sis in­volve re­duc­ing carbon emis­sions. But an­other idea is also start­ing to gain trac­tion – suck­ing all that carbon out of the at­mos­phere and stor­ing it un­der­ground.

It sounds like an idea plucked from sci­ence fic­tion, but the re­al­ity is that trees and plants al­ready do it, breath­ing carbon diox­ide and then de­posit­ing it via roots and de­cay into the soil. That’s why con­sumers and companies of­ten “off­set” their carbon emis­sions by plant­ing carbon-suck­ing trees elsewhere in the world.

But an up­start com­pany, Bos­ton-based Indigo AG, now wants to trans­form farm­ing prac­tices so that agri­cul­ture be­comes quite the op­po­site of what it is to­day – a ma­jor source of green­house gas emis­sions.

By pro­mot­ing tech­niques that in­crease the po­ten­tial of agri­cul­tural land to suck in carbon, the back­ers of Indigo AG be­lieve they can set the foundation for a ma­jor ef­fort to stem cli­mate change. On Wed­nes­day, the com­pany an­nounced a new ini­tia­tive with the very am­bi­tious goal of re­mov­ing one tril­lion tons of carbon diox­ide from the at­mos­phere by pay­ing farm­ers to mod­ify their prac­tices.

Called the Ter­ra­ton Ini­tia­tive (a “ter­a­ton” is a tril­lion tons), the com­pany fore­casts that the ini­tia­tive to sign up 3,000 farm­ers glob­ally with more than one mil­lion acres in 2019.

David Perry, the com­pany’s chief ex­ec­u­tive, says he has lined up a group of buy­ers who will pur­chase carbon cred­its, from non­prof­its to con­sumer-focused food companies who could claim their prod­ucts are not merely carbon neu­tral, but carbon neg­a­tive. Farm­ers will be given train­ing and tools to in­sti­tute what are known as “re­gen­er­a­tive” prac­tices. Indigo sci­en­tists will test soil sam­ples for carbon con­tent and farm­ers will be paid ac­cord­ingly.

“It’s com­pletely out­come-based. We don’t re­ally care how you get there. There’s no re­quire­ment to be big or small, or­ganic or con­ven­tional.”

At the core is the idea that plants breathe, and through the process of pho­to­syn­the­sis turn carbon diox­ide from the at­mos­phere into sug­ars that be­come leaves, stems and roots. When a plant dies, de­cay brings or­ganic ma­te­rial, a com­po­nent of which is large carbon-based mol­e­cules called hu­mic acids, into the soil and binds them to the soil’s mol­e­cules. Thus the carbon is “cap­tured” un­der­ground. The health­ier and more fer­tile the soil, the more carbon it can store.

The Ro­dale In­sti­tute, a ma­jor agri­cul­tural think tank, pre­dicts that more than 100 per cent of cur­rent an­nual global carbon emis­sions could be cap­tured with a switch to widely avail­able and in­ex­pen­sive farm­ing prac­tices – such as not turn­ing the soil over through till­ing or plow­ing; re­plant­ing with cover crops af­ter a main crop has been har­vested; and ro­tat­ing through dif­fer­ent crops to put a range of nu­tri­ents back in the ground.

Merely plant­ing trees won’t get the world very far. Large and slower-grow­ing trees can se­quester more carbon than smaller plants, but the world faces dra­matic de­for­esta­tion and has enor­mous agri­cul­tural needs. Farm­ing seems like a prac­ti­cal fo­cus for how to mit­i­gate grow­ing atmospheri­c carbon.

Whether they can get to one tril­lion tons of carbon is un­known, Perry says, but this rep­re­sents one of the largest agri­cul­tural ex­per­i­ments lately, with soft­ware and satel­lite tools avail­able to every farmer who signs up. The goal is to find out which crops, prac­tices and geo­graphic lo­ca­tions have the abil­ity to drive more carbon into the soil.

To start, Indigo will pay farm­ers $15 per ton of carbon, us­ing ven­ture cap­i­tal raised by the com­pany.

Some farm­ers have al­ready em­braced the tech­niques. Russell Hedrick, a re­gen­er­a­tive grower who farms non-GMO and heir­loom corn, soy, bar­ley, oats and trit­i­cale in Hick­ory, N.C. has been mea­sur­ing the carbon in his 1,000 acres and the best he’s ever done is 1.5 tons per acre.

He says the Indigo in­cen­tives could prove strong, es­pe­cially at a time when farm bank­rupt­cies are high and crop prices are sag­ging.

Hedrick says that in 2018, the av­er­age Amer­i­can farmer lost about $60 per acre be­fore sub­si­dies, and made just $20 per acre af­ter fed­eral sub­si­dies. So, if a farmer can put a ton and a half of carbon in each acre of soil and get paid by Indigo, they could dou­ble their prof­its.

“For me that would be $22 per acre, and we farm close to 1,000 acres,” he said. “This is $22,000 for doing what I’m al­ready doing. That’s pretty huge to me as a farmer.”

Hedrick, a first-gen­er­a­tion farmer, learned these prac­tices from books and on­line videos from re­gen­er­a­tive farm­ers. He doesn’t till or plow, and he plants a cover crop within 10 days of har­vest­ing a cash crop like corn or soy, mostly small grains with roots that can go down six feet and re­duce soil com­paction and help re­tain mois­ture.

Indigo is not the first or­ga­ni­za­tion to en­cour­age farm­ers to pri­or­i­tize putting carbon back in the soil. Iowa farm­ers tried it in the 1990s and the Cal­i­for­nia Healthy Soils Ini­tia­tive has an in­cen­tives pro­gram that funds farm­ers who use prac­tices like com­post ap­pli­ca­tion, mulching, no-till and cover crop­ping.

What makes Indigo’s ini­tia­tive dif­fer­ent is the scale of the project and its mul­ti­pronged ap­proach, ac­cord­ing to Mark Brad­ford, an ex­pert in soil and ecosys­tem sci­ence at the Yale School of Forestry & En­vi­ron­men­tal Stud­ies.

“In soil sci­ence, there are all these ini­tia­tives to re­build carbon in soil. The prob­lem is mea­sure­ment and ver­i­fi­ca­tion – how do we make this eco­nom­i­cally and lo­gis­ti­cally fea­si­ble?” he said. “What I’m im­pressed by is (Indigo) has data sci­ence PhDs and they’re try­ing to do peer-re­view­able, cred­i­ble sci­ence.”

That said, Brad­ford says the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity has far from a con­sen­sus on whether this is the right ap­proach. Some won­der if it is fea­si­ble to change farmer prac­tices to such an ex­tent and whether her­culean ef­forts will re­sult in mean­ing­ful atmospheri­c carbon re­duc­tions. Other sci­en­tists worry that a fo­cus on carbon in soil will re­di­rect at­ten­tion away from min­i­miz­ing green­house gas emis­sions. And still others think that build­ing up carbon could pro­duce more ni­trous ox­ide gas, which is even more warm­ing than carbon diox­ide.

“No one has the mod­els or the data to de­ter­mine who is right yet,” Brad­ford said. “We have a lack of mea­sure­ments. (Indigo is) doing the work on the ground to ask if this is fea­si­ble.”

Perry says that while most farm­ers are sus­tain­abil­ity-minded, it’s hard to ask them to make sac­ri­fices to se­quester carbon for the good of the planet, es­pe­cially in the face of so many other fi­nan­cial and cli­matic chal­lenges. Pay­ing them to make this a pri­or­ity, he says, is the an­swer.

“It is the only ac­tion we can take to­day whose im­pact matches the scale of the prob­lem,” he said. “In­stead of re­duc­ing the speed at which we ap­proach the cli­mate cliff... this en­ables us to start back­ing away from the cli­mate cliff en­tirely.”


A crop farmer plants corn for the first time of the sea­son in 2011.

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