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  • Washington Post Agricultural land is a key contributor to carbon emissions, but an upstart company wants to turn that around and teach farmers to suck carbon from the air and bury it.

Saturday, June 15, 2019 1:00 am

Deep climate idea: Pay farmers to bury carbon

Laura Reiley | Washington Post

Last month, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere surpassed 415 parts per million, the highest in human history. Environmental experts say the world is increasingly on a path toward a climate crisis.

The most prominent efforts to prevent that crisis involve reducing carbon emissions. But another idea is also starting to gain traction – sucking all that carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it underground.

It sounds like an idea plucked from science fiction, but the reality is that trees and plants already do it, breathing carbon dioxide and then depositing it via roots and decay into the soil. That's why consumers and companies often “offset” their carbon emissions by planting carbon-sucking trees elsewhere in the world.

But an upstart company, Boston-based Indigo AG, now wants to transform farming practices so that agriculture becomes quite the opposite of what it is today – a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

By promoting techniques that increase the potential of agricultural land to suck in carbon, the backers of Indigo AG believe they can set the foundation for a major effort to stem climate change.

This week, the company announced a new initiative with the very ambitious goal of removing 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by paying farmers to modify their practices.

Called the Terraton Initiative (a “teraton” is a trillion tons), the company expectes to sign up 3,000 farmers globally, with more than 1 million acres, in 2019.

David Perry, the company's chief executive, says he has lined up a group of buyers who will purchase carbon credits, from nonprofits to consumer-focused food companies who could claim their products are not merely carbon-neutral but carbon-negative.

Farmers will be given training and tools to institute what are known as “regenerative” practices. Indigo scientists will test soil samples for carbon content and farmers will be paid accordingly. To start, Indigo will pay farmers $15 per ton of carbon, using venture capital raised by the company.

“It's completely outcome-based. We don't really care how you get there. There's no requirement to be big or small, organic or conventional.”

Some farmers have already embraced the techniques. Russell Hedrick, a regenerative grower who farms non-GMO and heirloom corn, soy, barley, oats and triticale in Hickory, North Carolina, has been measuring the carbon in his 1,000 acres and the best he's ever done is 1.5 tons per acre.

The Rodale Institute, a major agricultural think tank, predicts that more than 100% of current annual global carbon emissions could be captured with a switch to widely available and inexpensive farming practices.

These include not turning the soil over through tilling or plowing; replanting with cover crops after a main crop has been harvested; and rotating through different crops to put a range of nutrients back in the ground.