Agriculture is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, with livestock management, deforestation, and other common practices releasing heat-trapping compounds that would otherwise be trapped underground.
But agriculture could also help mitigate the problem: By reducing plowing, rotating crops, and planting cover crops on empty fields, farmers can help bury millions of tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by human activity.
Now, a well-funded Boston agricultural technology startup is looking to build a business around “regenerative” farming practices, using arable soil as a sink for greenhouse gas emissions.
Indigo Agriculture says it will pay farmers $15 for every metric ton of carbon that they can demonstrably capture in their soil, perhaps beginning to make a dent in the huge concentration of greenhouse gases that have accumulated in the atmosphere since the industrial era began.
“Nature provided us with the technology to remove the carbon dioxide from the air, and plants conveniently use the energy of the sun to do it,” said David Perry, the company’s chief executive. “This is what nature wants to do. We just have to harness it.”
Indigo, which employs about 400 people at Charlestown’s former Hood Milk plant, is best known for its development of seed coatings that use microbial treatments to help plants weather difficult conditions. But the company has set its sights on a broader reform of the agricultural industry, and it has raised a total of $650 million in venture capital.
Indigo calls this new venture the Terraton Initiative, a reference to the trillion tons of carbon released into the atmosphere as a result of human activity. The company hopes to work with more than 3,000 farmers through the program this year, sequestering as many as 3 million tons of carbon dioxide.
Indigo hopes it can entice other companies and industries to eventually purchase the credits it buys from farmers.
Businesses or individuals might buy them to demonstrate their commitment to the environment, the company said. Or, if Indigo can secure regulatory approval, the credits could potentially be purchased by energy and transportation companies, which face regulations in some jurisdictions to reduce emissions or support programs that do.
The program also could boost sales of Indigo’s core products. The company says plants from its seeds allow farmers to use less synthetic fertilizer, which can also draw carbon out of soils. Indigo is not, however, requiring farmers in the carbon program to use its seeds.
The idea of sequestering carbon in soil is not new. Many of the practices Indigo has promoted are part of a movement toward “carbon farming,” and farmers have long known that increased carbon content means better soil quality, drainage, and water retention.
The practices can cost more than conventional farming, however, and require different equipment. Though some organic farmers have undertaken these efforts independently, on the grounds that they produce stronger crops and better environmental outcomes, the price of entry has limited their spread.
Federal initiatives and programs in some states have offered limited support for soil strengthening programs, and the issue has begun to come up in the 2020 presidential campaign, with Democratic candidates including South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg touting such programs as potential greenhouse gas solutions.
Pamela Templer, a Boston University professor who studies climate change, said the potential of capturing carbon in soil is just beginning to gain traction.
“People increasingly are recognizing that using soils is a tangible goal we could have, and that we can both mitigate climate change and also help farmers,” she said.
Though she cautioned that no single solution can fix climate change, Templer said ideas like soil carbon capture are important because they go beyond simply limiting fossil fuel consumption and begin to address the question of how to remove carbon from the atmosphere.
There’s more carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere than at any other point in human history. Recent observations in Hawaii found carbon dioxide levels at 414.8 parts per million , which researchers said is the highest in millions of years.
The effects of this change have already become apparent, with rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and increasingly severe weather becoming more common.
Indigo believes incentivizing farmers to capture carbon could mean substantial improvement, though it will have to overcome some obstacles along the way. For one, if the company hopes to sell the credits in regulatory markets, it must find ways to measure carbon in soil across a huge amount of land.
Similar efforts in the forestry business have run into problems, said Barry Rabe, a University of Michigan professor who has written extensively about carbon markets.
“It is one thing to, with confidence, measure the amount of carbon coming from the smokestack of a power plant or the tailpipe of a vehicle,” Rabe said. “It’s just much, much harder to monitor when you get into a larger, decentralized area like agriculture.”
Indigo’s program is focused on soil concentrations, though it said it will also grant credits for other emissions reduction efforts, such as reduced use of fossil fuels for heavy equipment. The credits will take into account activity dating back three years.
Caro Roszell, who runs a Massachusetts soil carbon training program for the Northeast Organic Farming Association and operates a small farm, said another challenge Indigo could face is making sure that the carbon it pays farmers to trap remains in the ground. Disturbing the soil, she said, can release it back into the atmosphere.
Some farmers, she said, could “get their payment in the mail, and then they could go back out and plow, and oxidize a lot of that carbon.”
The deep-pocketed Indigo, founded in 2014 by the biotech-focused venture firm Flagship Pioneering, has a roster of scientific researchers and a global workforce of around 950. It says it will at first rely on “rigorous soil sampling” and analysis, and aim to develop more advanced technologies. Indigo plans to award $1 million contracts for inventions or strategies to help the company reach its goals.
Others in the environmental world said they were skeptical that the company’s $15 per ton price would be high enough to entice farmers.
Torri Estrada, executive director of the California-based Carbon Cycle Institute, which encourages carbon capture in farming, said many of the methods his group has used are much more expensive. Though he said he is interested to see what Indigo has planned, he cautioned that lower-priced efforts risk paying farmers for doing things they would have done anyway, or that are subsidized by government programs.
Josh Heinrich, who grows corn and soy on about 2,500 acres near Jamestown, N.D., and is in talks to join Indigo’s program, said he has tried some carbon capture strategies over the past several years. He gradually implemented “no-till” practices to reduce plowing because he was looking for ways to increase the fertility of his soil while reducing fertilizer and labor.
The Indigo program could help him afford further improvements, he said, and could potentially entice neighboring farms that have not tried similar practices.
“There’s got to be a value,” he said. “These major corporations are polluting like crazy, and some of us out here on the ground can sequester some of that carbon that they’re using.”
But the program may not be a fit for everyone interested in carbon capture farming. It’s launching with a minimum size of 300 acres, which means it could leave out some smaller farmers already using regenerative practices.
Chuck Currie, who manages the 88-acre organic Freedom Food Farm in Raynham, said he’d be skeptical about joining a program that uses carbon credits because he would not want his activities to justify emissions elsewhere.
“I’d feel better if [the money] was coming directly from our customers, with more education, and them being willing to pay for better-quality food,” he said.Andy Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.