Farming the Planet Back to Health

By Mark Tracy, CEO Cloud Agronomics

You may be surprised to learn that there is a highly effective, scalable and proven technology to sequester excess carbon from the atmosphere. The technology is even free — all you need is sunlight and water. It’s called photosynthesis.

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Photo by Sandro Mattei

It has been estimated that since the dawn of the industrial revolution, humankind has put a trillion tons of excess carbon into the atmosphere (and another trillion and a half tons have been absorbed by the oceans). This excess carbon in Earth’s atmosphere and in our oceans has catastrophic effects on all living things through climate change and ocean acidification. The existential threat posed by excess carbon has driven a tremendous amount of research and investment into removing carbon from the atmosphere in a safe, expedient way.

There are 3.6 billion acres of farmland soils worldwide. Modern agronomic practices used to grow traditional commodity row crops (corn, wheat, and soybeans for example) were developed with the focus of maximizing yields. However, the unintended consequences of intensive industrial agriculture are counterintuitive. The crops and soil are deficient in nutrients and industry-wide, farmers are using environmentally harmful and costly fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides. Most importantly, modern agronomy minimizes the amount of carbon sequestered in this soil, which is currently at ~1% concentration of organic carbon. With the adoption of a few regenerative farming practices, the amount of carbon sequestered in the soil can reach over 3%. Albeit simplified math, if we were able to triple the carbon sequestered on global farm and pastureland (including pastureland adds an additional 8–9 billion acres) we could sequester all of the excess atmospheric carbon in the atmosphere.

Regenerative farming improves the nutrient density of the food we eat and dramatically reduces the application of energy intensive and environmentally harmful fertilizer, pesticides and insecticides. Moreover, land farmed with regenerative practices is more productive, drought and flood resistant, and decreases crop vulnerability to disease and pest infestation.

What are these regenerative practices? Regenerative farming practices include planting cover crops, no tillage farming, livestock grazing, and crop rotation. The adoption of these practices has proven how effectively soil holds carbon. The soil organic carbon levels on some farms in the United States have increased to as high as 6% — well beyond the 3% required to reach our goal.

However, farmers need a financial incentive to change their practices. There can be an initial dip in productivity as farmers adopt regenerative farming practices that requires subsidization. Farmers also need an incentive to break with tradition and the social pressures to conform to modern agronomic practices. That necessary incentive can be provided through the voluntary carbon credit market. In the voluntary carbon credit market, primarily large corporates and foundations pay for verifiable projects that sequester carbon on a metric ton basis. Nouri, Indigo Ag, and other industry leaders have recognized the potential of farmland as a carbon sink. As the voluntary carbon market continues to grow at an unprecedented pace across all regions, the task at hand becomes driving adoption. Agricultural industry leaders are working to provide the necessary financial incentive to drive adoption of regenerative farming practices.

In order to make farmland a successful carbon sink, we must overcome a few challenges. First, the market needs to define clear standards to measure and track carbon sequestration. A number of current standards (e.g. Verified Carbon Standard, Gold Standard, and Climate Action Reserve) were not designed for farmland and the unique nature of producing food. Second, we need to provide the market with the necessary liquidity to incentivize farmers to adopt these practices before the reduced carbon emissions are realized. Conversely, the payment structure needs to include financial ramifications for farmers who don’t follow through on their sequestration commitments. Finally, we need a verifiable system to track carbon sequestration in soil. This requires measuring the current amount of carbon present in the soil and monitoring levels over time. At present, this is an expensive and inefficient process. We have to take physical soil samples across a field and bring them to a lab for individual testing. A solution is needed that remotely detects carbon levels in soil at scale.

These challenges are surmountable, and dedicated people are working to address them. With groundbreaking innovation from the private sector, we can demonstrate the efficacy of a farmland carbon sink to the public sector. Thereafter, governments can actively shift uneconomical, distortive subsidies into sensible incentives to help the farming community address climate change. In the coming year, we will see substantial breakthroughs to unlock the potential of soil as solution. With its scope, co-benefits and longevity, a farmland carbon sink could be the most important tool available to fight climate change today.

Mark Tracy is the CEO of Cloud Agronomics. Cloud Agronomics is the industry leader in hyper-spectral imaging deployed at scale. Utilizing breakthroughs in cloud computing and machine learning, we are building the world’s richest data set for agriculture. He previously served in leadership roles with Indigo Agriculture and Cargill, Inc. Mark will be discussing carbon farming a the upcoming UNC Clean Tech Summit

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Cloud Agronomics is a geospatial imaging and analytics company creating a living map of global agriculture.

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