Modern agriculture releases carbon into the air. But a new generation of startups is paying farmers to put it back into the ground.
Simply cutting CO2 emissions is not enough, says the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. To slow global warming, we need to actually remove carbon from the sky. But how?
But as companies turn to the latest carbon-capture technologies, one low-tech solution has been gaining ground: Carbon farming, or regenerative agriculture, an approach rooted in millennia-old techniques that can pull carbon from the air and put it back into the soil. A new generation of startups is connecting carbon-emitting companies with farmers willing to use regenerative techniques to offset it.
Paying back the carbon debt
Plants are natural carbon sponges, absorbing CO2 during photosynthesis. But plowing and tilling oxidizes the soil, in turn releasing more CO2 than crops can naturally consume, causing what scientists call this imbalance “soil carbon debt.” A study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that 12,000 years of agriculture has stripped away 8% of the earth’s carbon. Scientists estimate that adds up to a soil carbon debt of 133 billion tons.
Carbon farming relies on methods that allow crops to absorb more CO2 than is being released. These include no-till cultivation, in which the residue of previous harvests is left behind rather than being tilled away; cover cropping, in which a carpet of vegetation protects the soil; and rotational grazing, in which livestock only graze in one section of pasture at a time, allowing the rest of the field to regenerate.
These techniques have been around for thousands of years, but using them to fight global climate change is a relatively new phenomenon, and governments and nonprofits are beginning to incentivize farmers to adopt them. Montana-based nonprofit Western Sustainability Exchange runs a carbon payment program for ranchers in the state, and this year the state of California will award more than $22 million in grants to aspiring carbon farmers.
As in so many other areas of the environment, innovation has yielded a promising strategy. Creative investors are creating a new industry that connects carbon-emitting companies with farmers willing to capture it.
Creative investors are creating a new industry that connects carbon-emitting companies with farmers willing to capture it.
One standout is the Boston-based Indigo Ag, which has developed a marketplace in which companies seeking to reduce their carbon footprint can purchase offsets from farmers. At launch, farmers will earn $15 per ton sequestered. Indigo Ag’s Terraton Initiative aims to fund enough regenerative agriculture to soak up one trillion tons of atmospheric carbon—roughly the same amount humans have emitted since the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Indigo Ag vice president Ed Smith says the Terraton Initiative already involves thousands of growers working more than 18 million acres of farmland. “Using farmlands to capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide is the only solution I know of that already exists, is affordable, and can be rolled out on a global scale,” he says.
Seattle-based social enterprise Nori is another startup investing in agriculture-based carbon offsets. Christophe Jospe, the company’s chief development officer, says it plans to use a blockchain-backed platform where carbon-emitters seeking to reduce emissions can pay farmers directly for the carbon they sequester. Nori won’t charge listing fees; farmers will get 100% of the value of the carbon removal, about $15 per ton. Initial outcomes are promising. During a pre-sale earlier this year, a Maryland farmer earned $115,000 for offsetting roughly 8,000 tons of carbon. More than 150 farmers working 500,000 acres are involved in the program, and Nori is planning another sale for later this year.
Another market backed by a consortium of food and agriculture giants that includes General Mills, McDonald’s, and Cargill, is currently running a pilot program that is scheduled to expand across the United States in 2022. Beyond the U.S., Australia, Canada, the U.K, and France have existing or planned markets for agricultural-based carbon offsets.
Unknowns and challenges
Yet as millions of dollars flow into regenerative agriculture markets and initiatives, there remain doubts about whether the approach will actually deliver meaningful emissions reductions and slow climate change.
Global farmlands have the capacity to absorb and store billions of tons of carbon in the soil annually.
According to a report published last by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, global farmlands do have the capacity to absorb and store billions of tons of carbon in the soil annually. But getting there is a complicated process that depends on what happens on hundreds of millions of farms working with varying types of soil, climatic conditions, and a range of other variables, not all of which are clearly understood by scientists.
Gauging soil carbon variations is another issue. Recent technological advancements have helped bolster the credibility of soil carbon measurement, yet existing methods cannot accurately establish whether one particular farm is actually decreasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
These uncertainties compound the well-documented challenges in establishing reliable carbon offset programs. Studies have shown that such schemes, like cap-and-trade programs adopted by the E.U. and California, can vastly overestimate reductions, paying participants vast sums for carbon cuts that may never occur. Critics also argue these programs can provide large polluters with a massive loophole for emitters, allowing them to claim declining emissions while refraining from taking serious action to transition away from fossil fuels.
Environmental groups, investors and scientists are enthusiastic about innovative carbon capture processes in agriculture.
Environmental groups, investors, and scientists are enthusiastic about innovative carbon capture processes in agriculture, and the best way to sustain these new programs, says Gilles Dufrasne, a policy officer at Brussels-based Carbon Markets Watch, is to involve and connect local and national policymakers in a global effort that includes rigorous regulation, communication and transparency. “We need our policymakers and legislators to resist wishful thinking and establish rigorous rules and processes that deliver actual greenhouse gas reductions rather than shifting pollution around,” she argues. “But it takes cooperation and political will to do so, and I see very little of both today.”
The sad question: When will governments and political leaders embrace the imperative of cooperation in cooling the planet?