These Innovators are Finding New Solutions to Progress Carbon Sequestration in Agricultural Soils

By: Kathryn Elmes, Senior Manager, Strategic Partnerships with Indigo Carbon

  • Indigo launched the first-of-its-kind Indigo Carbon Challenge in 2019 to find novel solutions for agricultural soil carbon sequestration and help draw the world's attention to the role agriculture can play in addressing climate change at scale. 
  • Today the Challenge’s three track winners were announced. Get to know them in a live conversation with Indigo co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer Geoffrey von Maltzahn and Jason Jacobs, founder of the My Climate Journey podcast.
  • Regenerative farming practices are part of a climate-smart strategy we call beneficial agriculture, which is a vision that agriculture can be more beneficial for people and the planet.

January 29, 2021 There is a scalable and immediate system for addressing climate change – and it could be deployed across 3.6 billion acres of the world’s farmland. Through the use of beneficial farming practices, such as cover crops, no-till, and livestock integration, farmers can enrich their soil with carbon. In turn, they have access to new income sources though carbon credits and carbon dioxide is pulled out of the atmosphere.

Today, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are higher than any point in the past 800,000 years, increasing from 280 parts per million (ppm) to more than 417 ppm since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Soils have been a natural carbon sink since the dawn of time, yet over time, soil carbon stores have declined. This begs the question: Can we replenish that sink and accelerate the drawdown of carbon dioxide into our soils? What tools can be used to accurately and quickly measure soil carbon levels? And how can the right systems be set up in agriculture to reward farmers for capturing and maintaining soil carbon? The challenge and opportunity are so great that this week Elon Musk announced a new prize to incentivize innovation.

These questions prompted us to launch the Carbon Challenge: a first-of-its-kind open call to innovators and entrepreneurs to unlock agriculture’s potential for addressing climate change through new technology and science. 

 

Agriculture is the world's most important and powerful technology. That was true when it was invented some 10,000 years ago, and it continues to be true today as trillions of seeds are planted each year. The opportunity to build and advance the technology of agriculture is at the core of the Carbon Challenge. If there is more carbon in the soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined, as Bill Gates writes, why wouldn’t we give this field the resources and study it deserves? 

This open call saw a resounding response. Across three categories – quantify, accelerate, and reward – The Carbon Challenge saw over 260 projects submitted from 44 countries and various industries in the summer of 2019, before a cohort of 36 semifinalists was announced in September of that year. Over the following year, semifinalists were part of a virtual cohort, which was given access to mentors, demonstration opportunities, and engagement with functional business experts, honing and validating products that ranged from autonomous soil sampling robots to predictive soil health mapping technology.

Today, the winners of each track category were announced during the Indigo Carbon Challenge Awards, an event introducing the finalists and diving into what draws them to develop agtech solutions. The event featured Indigo co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer Geoffrey von Maltzahn and Jason Jacobs, founder of the My Climate Journey podcast, who recorded a live episode of his show during the event. The winners, as assessed by external and internal experts, in each track include: 

Quantify

LaserAg has adapted laser induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) technology to analyze 15 soil parameters in less than 1 minute. The solution comes out of a decade of development by LogiAg, one of Canada’s largest agro-environmental organizations. LaserAg comes with a sampling support software and mobile app that allows easy determination of sampling patterns and geopositionning of each sample. Overall, LaserAg simplifies sampling, increases analysis turn around time, and reduces overall costs to get the soil information farmers need as they implement new regenerative practices. Currently, four units are operational, and calibrations are available for geographies in Canada and Africa.

Accelerate

Biogea produces a microbial soil amendment which stimulates increased root growth, phosphorus use, and nitrogen fixation in crops, leading to improvements in yield and root mass. The amendment’s effects on biomass may increase overall soil carbon sequestration over time. Their products have broad applicability across row and specialty crops and could decrease the use of chemical fertilizers, especially nitrogen.

The Biogea team is scrappy, and has demonstrated ability to scale up manufacturing and establish sales and distribution with limited resources. The product has a lean liquid form factor and can be easily applied. Biogea has numerous satisfied customers – their microbial product is commercially available in Chile and Mexico, and the team is working on expanding their reach in Latin America, and bringing the product to new markets, including the US, Spain, and Angola.

Reward

American Farmland Trust has developed training for female, non-operating landowners to learn how to encourage grower adoption of soil health practices. Their aim is to equip NOLs with the knowledge, tools, and resources that can compel farmers to rapidly adopt practices that facilitate carbon capture. Their work not only directly promotes regenerative practice adoption, but targets diverse and disadvantaged communities, and takes a holistic approach – ensuring that issues of access to information, technical, and financial resources are addressed. They harness the power of peer-to-peer networks, which are shown to be effective in catalyzing practice adoption, and engage in the policy space, encouraging diffusion of climate smart agricultural practices beyond those who they directly reach. AFT is a 40-year-old non-profit. They have been iterating on their methods for reaching women landowners for about eight years.

Technologies in the Quantify track were evaluated on accuracy, precision, scalability, calibration requirements, operability conditions, ease of use, and accessibility of data/results. We also considered if solutions were able to provide value-add on additional soil parameters, including nutrient and texture readings. Companies in the Accelerate track were evaluated on their ability to move the needle on soil carbon sequestration and soil health, and on user experience. When evaluating Semifinalists in the Reward track, we considered whether the product or service catalyzed adoption of regenerative practices. We also placed importance on reach, considering what communities and audiences the solution could influence, and the magnitude and scalability of that impact. Finally, we considered additional co-benefits the solution might yield, including supporting additional ecosystem services and/or socio-economic benefits.

It's critical to find solutions that not only work, but that will be accessible to and adopted by the market. Finalists were asked to demonstrate commercial viability - detailing their target market, the cost of their solutions, and go-to-market, sales, and distribution plans. Award impact was the final criteria - we sought winners that would not only put the cash prize to good use, but who had a strong likelihood of positively impacting growers, soil health, and carbon markets.

With growing recognition of our unprecedented climate crisis, an increasing number of the world’s most influential companies, organizations, and governments are seeking to finance and discover climate-smart strategies, especially ones that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Across gas companies, technology companies, and clothing brands, reducing or offsetting the emission of carbon dioxide has been explored and championed. Cities, states, and even countries have propped up carbon neutral benchmarks to hit in the near future.

To answer this demand, the Indigo Carbon program has been collaborating with farmers, agronomists, and the scientific community for more than a year to understand what it would take to scale adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices, measurement, and verification of soil carbon sequestration to produce the highest quality agricultural carbon credits available. Our efforts and those of a range of collaborators across the science and technology community produced two highly rigorous and innovative offset project protocols approved by the Climate Action Reserve and Verra. Both were subjected to extensive scrutiny by expert stakeholders, as well as multiple rounds of public comment and review. They are not exclusive to Indigo—others are able to use them to scale agricultural soil carbon sequestration domestically and internationally. We are currently developing a large-scale, aggregated project which has been listed by the Reserve and will be verified under their Soil Enrichment Protocol.

Indigo Carbon is poised to produce verified, high quality carbon credits, which in turn will reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere, give agency to corporate partners who want to be part of this transformation, and bring new revenue to farmers and rural communities.