It’s not often you hear people refer to “livestock farming” and “climate change” in a positive context. And even less so among tech entrepreneurs, as increasing numbers look to create meat-free, alternative food products with the hope of reducing the impact of the meat industry on the environment.
But David Perry, CEO of Indigo Agriculture, a startup out of Boston and one of few agtech ‘unicorns,’ says livestock will be key to reversing climate change in a major new initiative launched by the company.
Today, Indigo launched the Terraton Initiative, a goal to sequester one trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by adopting “regenerative agriculture” practices. Perry and his colleagues say that sequestering one trillion tons of carbon will reverse the increase in atmospheric carbon since the Industrial Revolution.
“Through the process of photosynthesis, agricultural plants have the ability to economically pull more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than any other technology,” wrote Geoffrey von Maltzahn, PhD, Indigo’s chief innovation officer, and co-founder in a press release.
But isn’t agriculture is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, particularly driven by livestock?
It doesn’t have to be. Regenerative agriculture practices – which can include cover-cropping, crop rotations, no chemical use or no tilling – can facilitate the sequestration of carbon from the atmosphere as well as its long-term storage in the soil.
Conventional farming practices typically include growing the same few crops — often corn, wheat and soy — year-after-year on soil that’s tilled before planting. The use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides damage the soil, releasing carbon into the atmosphere and reducing its capacity to store it. It also reduces its infiltration ability, as well as water and nutrient storage.
But much of today’s agriculture system supports this conventional system, with economies of scale and large agricultural inputs and equipment suppliers promoting the use of the same seeds and chemicals year after year.
The same can be said for the intensive, feedlot-based livestock operations that dominate much of the US market and are the main culprits in livestock’s environmental footprint. Intensively-raised livestock that spend much of their lives in feedlots don’t graze and tug at grasslands promoting root growth, one of the key benefits of grazing livestock, according to Perry.
“There’s a lot of evidence to say that having ruminants grazing can increase carbon sequestration in many ways including biting and tugging at grass, which stimulates the roots, recycling nutrients back into the soil through urine and manure, and above ground helping to recycle plants into the soil by churning it with their hooves,” he told me.
On the road to decommoditizing ag?
This huge carbon sequestration effort is just part of Indigo’s overall mission is to decommoditize agriculture and help farmers get out of the cycles they are often stuck in where margins remain razor thin. It started on this journey with a microbe-treated seed product, aimed at reducing farmers’ use of synthetic and chemical products and promoting a more sustainable system.
Indigo then facilitated the sale of crops grown with its microbes for a premium —due to their sustainability credentials —through its crop marketplace. To help with the transport and logistics of those crops, and with the aim of enhancing their traceability, Indigo then launched Indigo Transport, an uber for crop trucking.
Overlaying all of this is Indigo’s research platform where it works with a network of farmers to deploy agtech tools that can measure the performance of their management practices alongside a team of agronomists that advise them on future plans. It’s that team of agronomists that will help farmers to convert their operations to regenerative if they choose to join the Indigo Carbon initiative.
Indigo Carbon is a marketplace for farmers to make money out of sequestering carbon in their soils. Indigo will measure the changes, alongside partner organizations such as COMET-Farm, and Ecosystem Services Market Consortium and facilitate the payment of carbon credits. Buyers of those credits will include food companies wanting to sell carbon negative products — and AB InBev already signed up to purchase 2.2 million bushels of sustainably grown rice — as well as companies from other industries wanting to mitigate climate risk, such as insurers, or offset their own carbon footprint.
Can It Work?
It’s clearly transformational if it works; some commentators think that the 1 trillion mark is too lofty a target and could discourage the industry, while others are unsure there is a market for purchasing those carbon credits, particularly considering the poor performance of previous carbon markets.
And some emphasize the major challenges facing farmers in the transition, particularly as all of the regenerative practices are necessary for it to work and it could create a dip in income in the short to medium term.
“Any time we can put dollars in producers’ pockets is good,” Gabe Brown, a trailblazer in regenerative agriculture told me. “But the big question I have that I have to be convinced about is who’s going to steer producers down this regenerative path? You’ve gotta hold their hands a bit.”
Other concerns relate to the fact that Indigo is a venture-backed, private organization that will be amassing large amounts of data from its 10,000 grower network through the research part of this initiative —The Terraton Experiment— in collaboration with the Soil Health Institute and the Rodale Institute.
“I wish they would develop the Terraton initiative as separate to the core Indigo business or even become a B-Corp altogether, because as long as this effort is essentially driven by the purpose of maximizing shareholder value, I doubt sequestered carbon will really be the underlying KPI,” said Benedikt Bösel, chair of Soil Alliance and managing director of Schlossgut Alt Madlitz, an ecological farm and forestry in East Germany where he’s implementing different forms of regenerative agriculture, transitioning the farm from previously conventional farming methods.
“If they were to develop a separate company with the core purpose of sequestering carbon through building soil organic matter, that could potentially be the single best solution to climate change as of yet; it’s really that dramatic. No-one at this scale has ever initiated anything like this before, so even with all the open questions there are, you have to admire this effort.” Indigo said they’re open to exploring other structures in the future.
As Gabe Brown told me last year, “there’s no silver bullet” when it comes to regenerative agriculture and the positive, related benefits such as carbon sequestration. The system is based on natural processes and therefore involves a range of different practices, including grazing ruminants.
How practical and scalable is this diversified farming approach for a population that’s growing exponentially? Can enough farmers globally be incentivized to join the efforts to make them worthwhile? Indigo is brave to take this on but will no doubt see the benefit, whatever happens, in the wealth of new data they collect.