Long-term readers of REVITALIZATION are by now very familiar with the regenerative agriculture trend. When I first documented it in my 2002 book, The Restoration Economy, the primary goals of regenerative agriculture were primarily to:
- rebuild the quantity and quality of topsoil;
- to reduce the use of pesticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizers;
- to eliminate costly, counter-productive, energy-intensive tilling;
- to restore local biodiversity (especially native pollinators); and
- to help restore watersheds (such as via riparian buffers).
About half a dozen years ago, carbon sequestration was added to regenerative agriculture’s many benefits: it can sequester three of four times as much carbon as can reforestation. That kicked the trend into high gear.
Now, on June 12, 2019, Indigo Agriculture—a company dedicated to harnessing nature to help farmers sustainably feed the planet—announced the launch of The Terraton Initiative to accelerate carbon sequestration at an unprecedented scale.
For the first time in human history, atmospheric carbon dioxide has exceeded 415ppm, representing an increase of one trillion tons – or, a teraton – of atmospheric carbon dioxide since pre-industrial levels of 280ppm. Using the potential of agricultural soils, The Terraton Initiative seeks to remove one trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
With Indigo’s integrated approach to agriculture, and partnerships with representatives from across the value chain, The Terraton Initiative will unlock the most scalable, immediate, and affordable opportunity to address climate change that exists today.
Regenerative farming practices, currently implemented by a small percentage of growers, are management techniques that sequester carbon, while restoring soil health and resiliency. Minimal tillage, cover cropping, crop rotations, and perennial cropping, among other practices, increase soil’s carbon content, water permeability, and water retention, which also increase a crop’s ability to withstand drought and flooding.
If implemented on the 3.6 billion acres of farmland across the globe, regenerative farming practices, combined with increased scientific understanding and new technologies, have the potential to return the carbon levels in agricultural soils from an average of ~1% back to ~3%. This shift is enough to account for the sequestration of one trillion tons of carbon dioxide.
“The potential for agricultural soils to capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide is the most hopeful potential solution that I know of to address climate change,” said David Perry, Indigo’s CEO. “It is the only action we can take today that has an impact, potentially one trillion tons, that matches the scale of the problem. Instead of just reducing the speed at which we approach the climate cliff, leveraging agricultural soils, combined with emissions reductions, enables us to start backing away from the cliff entirely.”
To catalyze The Terraton Initiative, Indigo is creating Indigo Carbon, a market providing growers with the financial incentive to implement regenerative farming practices and remove carbon from the atmosphere. In partnership with the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium (ESMC) and other organizations, Indigo will use its digital agronomy capabilities and satellite imagery analysis to measure and verify soil carbon sequestration and on-farm emission levels.
The other side of the market will be made up of food companies looking to offer products that are climate positive, businesses seeking to be carbon neutral, not-for-profit organizations seeking to maximize the impact of their sustainability investments, investors and insurance companies seeking to hedge climate risks, and individuals that want to contribute to climate change solutions. Growers who join Indigo Carbon within the first twelve months are eligible to receive a minimum of $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide sequestered. The market price will ultimately be set by supply and demand, but at $15 – $20 per metric ton, Indigo Carbon offers the most economical price to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while providing substantial incentives to farmers.
Ed Smith, Head of Indigo Carbon, says, “Transformational change requires more than just commitment. We have to align incentives across the entire system. Doing that will require engagement from within and outside of agriculture. This includes AgTech companies, input providers, non-profits, government agencies, consumer packaged goods companies, retailers, and each of us as consumers.”
Partnering initially with the Soil Health Institute, The Rodale Institute, and a network of grower partners, Indigo is launching The Terraton Experiment, the world’s largest atmospheric carbon sequestration experiment. The goal of the experiment, which will include tens of thousands of farms followed for a decade or more, is to quantify farming practices that maximize soil carbon sequestration and understand the impact of these practices on farm profitability and crop nutrition. The results of this experiment will form the blueprint for maximizing soil carbon sequestration. Indigo will make the data from this study available to other research institutions.
“Through the process of photosynthesis, agricultural plants have the ability to economically pull more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than any other technology,” said Geoffrey von Maltzahn, PhD, Indigo’s Chief Innovation Officer and Co-Founder. “The Terraton Experiment will represent the world’s largest atmospheric carbon sequestration experiment, bringing together growers and partners from across the scientific community in an open-source platform. Through our combined efforts, we expect to unlock ways to accelerate the drawdown of a teraton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while enriching our soils and improving the health of our food system.”
Sequestering one trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into the world’s agricultural soils will require effort from stakeholders around the world and across industries, from technologists and investors to consumers and growers. To encourage innovation and participation in the effort, Indigo is launching several open calls to action. This includes The Carbon Cup, a nation-wide sequestration competition to spark on-farm innovation. Broken down on a region-by-region basis, first place growers competing in The Carbon Cup will receive recognition and a monetary prize for their efforts.
Additionally, Indigo is launching The Terraton Challenge, calling on innovators and entrepreneurs to develop technologies for maximizing soil carbon sequestration rates, improving soil carbon measurements, and reducing the need for chemical and fertilizer inputs.
“Working with Indigo, I hope to get more farmers to grow with a regenerative approach and improve the health of our global agricultural soils,” said Rick Clark, a grower based out of Indiana (who is profiled in another article in this issue of REVITALIZATION). “If you are a conservationist, and a good steward of the land, then you are building soil health and will be better off financially. Soil health, to me, is the main driver for our farm and its success.”
In 2019, Indigo was ranked #1 on CNBC’s Disruptor 50 list and #35 on Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies list. The company is headquartered in Boston, but has additional offices in Memphis, TN; Research Triangle Park, NC; Sydney, Australia; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and São Paulo, Brazil.
Featured photo via Adobe Stock.