Competition promotes the huge climate mitigation potential of soil

Competition promotes the huge climate mitigation potential of soil

An American company which backs the ability of agriculture to sequester carbon is offering millions of dollars for innovative solutions, in its Terraton Challenge.

The word Terraton means one trillion tons, and that is how much atmospheric carbon dioxide the Terraton Challenge aims to draw down into agricultural soils.

It is a bid by Indigo Agriculture to focus global innovators on agriculture as a climate mitigation solution.

Thousands of years of vegetation, leaving behind a thick layer of carbon-rich organic matter, was a big part of the formation of the world’s soils.

But the organic matter is gone from many soils, after centuries of intensive crop growing.

Indigo Agriculture has worked with entrepreneurial growers who pioneered regenerative farming, which, according to Indigo, includes five core practices to develop carbon-enriched soils: keep the soil covered, minimise soil disturbance, keep roots in the ground, increase plant diversity, and integrate animals into the farming.

These recommended practices can reverse the damage done by intensive agriculture, deforestation, industrial activity, erosion, compaction, nutrient imbalance, pollution, acidification, water-logging, loss of soil biodiversity, and increasing salinity.

Paying farmers for increasing the carbon content of their soil, and thus reducing atmospheric carbon, is the day job at Indigo Agriculture, a Boston-based ag-tech company which raised over $600 million from investors since it was founded in 2016.

It offers farmers $15 per metric tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent which they sequester in their soils.

But the quid pro quo is that farmers buy Indigo’s seed coatings, which the company says increase carbon sequestration, by improving soil fertility and reducing the need for nitrogen and phosphorous fertiliser.

It deals mainly with American farmers, who have had mixed experiences of carbon sequestration over the past 13 years, since the Chicago Climate Exchange first put a carbon market in place.

That allowed farmers be paid for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and for sequestering carbon.

Unfortunately, the exchange collapsed in 2010, because the market was swamped with offset credits from willing farmers, but it didn’t have enough buyers.

Since then, several American states created carbon markets. This helped farmers in California installing dairy digesters, for example.

A spokesperson for Indigo Agriculture says the response to its Terraton initiative has been overwhelming, with farmers signing up millions of acres in the US and overseas.

The company also says carbon credit buyers are knocking on their door, wanting to purchase the carbon credits generated by farmers.

The amount of carbon in the world’s soil is over twice the amount of carbon found in trees and other biomass; hence there is huge climate mitigation potential.

This potential is recognised internationally, with the “4 per 1000” initiative launched by France at the COP 21 climate talks, to demonstrate the crucial role that agriculture, and in particular agricultural soils, play in food security and climate change.

The “4 per 1000” refers to annual growth in soil carbon, which would significantly reduce the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, which is the main cause of global warming.

“Many types of soil degradation are invisible,” says Ronald Vargas, secretary of the global soil partnership at the FAO in Rome.

“You just don’t see the loss of organic carbon from soils, or pollution building up in it, until you try to plant crops there.”

According to some estimates, between one billion and six billion hectares of land are now considered to be degraded.

For its inaugural year, Indigo Agriculture’s Terraton Challenge will focus on three critical areas: technologies that accelerate soil carbon sequestration, methods to quantify soil carbon, and innovative financial offerings that reward growers for capturing and maintaining soil carbon.

Applications are open until October 1 next for innovators and entrepreneurs to take part.

Semi-finalists will be in the running for up to $3 million in contracts with Indigo, $20,000 in grant funding, and participation in an incubation programme.

“We want all of the world’s innovators to see that agriculture is the biggest lever we all have to address climate change,” said Geoffrey von Maltzahn, chief innovation officer at Indigo.

Relative to its promise, the whole fields of soil health and regenerative systems have only received a small fraction of the innovation and scientific attention they deserve.

The aim of the Terraton Challenge is to rapidly scale and deploy technologies and solutions that advance agriculture’s potential to remove and store carbon from the atmosphere, and to make these technologies and solutions available to farmers working with the Indigo Carbon marketplace.

The challenge winners in the sequestration category could be technologies leveraging plant breeding and genetics to produce new crop varieties, new soil amendments or microbes, or ways to convert biomass into stable soil carbon.

Indigo is partnering with the Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard to develop an enduring challenge framework that engages innovators from across the globe.

Semi-finalists will be announced on October 22 next.

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