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Terraton Initiative to Pay Farmers to Bank Carbon in the Soil

Amy Brown headshotWords by Amy Brown
Energy & Environment
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Start-up agtech company Indigo Agriculture has put the agriculture sector in the unusual position of climate savior with its recently announced Terraton Initiative: a global effort to remove one trillion metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use it to enrich agricultural soils.

Boston-based Indigo Ag, earning the top spot on CNBC’s 2019 Disruptor 50 List, is counting on farmers like Will Harris of White Oak Pastures in Georgia to unlock agriculture’s potential as part of the solution to climate change. The grass-fed cattle at Harris’ 3200-acre farm sequester more carbon than they produce, as TriplePundit reported last month.

The regenerative agriculture practices that Harris deploys helps to pull carbon from the air and store it in the soil as well as make the land more resilient to extreme weather events. Methods include no-till, cover cropping, crop diversity, integrating livestock and maintaining a living root year-round.

“The ability to sequester carbon in the soil is the only thing that can take place at the right scale to solve a one trillion-ton problem, and it’s executable today; it does not depend on moonshot technology, and it’s reasonably affordable. It just comes down to us; if as a society we make a decision, we can do this,” David Perry, Indigo CEO told AgFunder News.

The Terraton Initiative launches a carbon market for growers

The Terraton Initiative has a four-pronged strategy to reach its goal:

The Terraton Experiment, in which Indigo Ag will partner with the Soil Health Institute, The Rodale Institute, and a network of grower partners, is the world’s largest atmospheric carbon sequestration experiment, including tens of thousands of farms followed for a decade or more. Its aim 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.

The new market, Indigo Carbon, will pay farmers — initially $15 to $20 per ton of carbon — to implement regenerative practices such as "no till" that reduce or remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Welcome economic incentives for farmers

That is welcome news for U.S. farmers, who are reeling from an unprecedented number of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, face the highest amount of farm debt since 1980, and are receiving a smaller share of every dollar spent on food but paying more to produce it. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), farmers and ranchers get 7.8 cents out of every food dollar, one of the lowest numbers since the USDA began keeping track in 1993. The rest of the dollar — 92.2 cents — covers off-farm costs, including processing, wholesaling, distribution, marketing and retailing.

Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance, an organization representing the interests of over 100 farmer and rancher-led organizations and agricultural partners, spoke at the company’s Beneficial Agriculture conference where the Terraton Initiative was announced.

“Farmers are the solution to providing ecosystem services and our ability to sequester carbon,” Fitzgerald says. “They are the change agents in this equation, and we must co-create solutions for the future with them. This requires all innovators to work with farmers and develop new business models that recognize the work of farmers.”

Making regenerative practices mainstream

The challenge will be to get more farmers to adopt the regenerative practices that the Terraton Initiative is banking on. To date, only a small percentage of farmers across the U.S. use the techniques.

But there are signs that this is changing. From an estimated 108 million acres of current adoption, Project Drawdown estimates regenerative agriculture could increase to a total of 1 billion acres by 2050, based in part on the historic growth rate of organic agriculture, as well as the projected conversion of conservation agriculture to regenerative agriculture over time. 

According to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM), the benefits of annual carbon drawdown in agriculture could start within as little as two to five years after adoption of technologies. The practically achievable technologies are well researched, increasingly marketed and have gained greater farmer acceptance, but according to NASEM more “shared risk and creative financing models are needed to further improve adoption rates.”

The Indigo Carbon market and other aspects of the Terraton Initiative are geared at persuading farmers that regenerative practices are a winning proposition for them.

“If the Terraton Initiative achieves its promise, we believe it will enrich agricultural soils with 1 trillion tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide,” Perry told industry journal Successful Farming. “It will improve the profitability of farmers. There will be healthier rural communities. It will also make farms more resilient to extreme weather by increasing water permeability of soils.”

Image credit: Pixabay

Amy Brown headshotAmy Brown

Based in southwest Florida, Amy has written about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line for over 20 years, specializing in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for multinational clients in pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, ICT, tourism and other sectors. She also writes for Ethical Corporation and is a contributor to Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.

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