Regenerative and sustainable agriculture practices can transform the industry from a source of climate change to a solution.
While it's hard to equate green acres with negative environmental impacts, the reality is that the agricultural industry is a major contributor to climate change. Agriculture is responsible for approximately 11% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the U.S, and the agriculture, forestry, and other land use (AFOLU) sector overall needs to cut emissions by two-thirds by midcentury to meet climate goals established in the Paris Agreement. Ensuring that the nearly 8 billion people around the world have access to sufficient quality food and nutrition further complicates addressing the impacts of agriculture on the environment. Simultaneously, the weather impacts of climate change are making it increasingly difficult for farmers and ag-related businesses to depend on reliable production, creating economic insecurity and threatening livelihoods and businesses.
How to address the interwoven challenges of cutting emissions, increasing yields and quality, and protecting business viability? Several Flagship Pioneering-founded companies are advancing science, technologies, and market opportunities that provide a path forward.
From farming cotton to carbon
Inherent to plant growth is fixation of carbon from the atmosphere into plant biomass during photosynthesis. This carbon is sequestered as soil organic carbon (SOC) from growth and death of plant roots, as well as during transfer of carbon compounds to soil microbes. Regenerative agriculture practices that restore natural systems are critical to turning farms from carbon sources to carbon sinks.
Cover crops are one regenerative practice that helps to reduce carbon losses and increase carbon inputs to the soil. These crops are planted not for harvest but to cover land that would otherwise be left fallow, which protects the soil from erosion, allows longer periods of photosynthetic activity, and increases water availability. Farmers can choose to plant grasses (e.g., rye, wheat, barley, oats, buckwheat), legumes (e.g., clovers, field peas, alfalfa), brassicas (e.g., mustard, radish, canola), or a combination of these species based on the farm’s requirements and benefits to the cash crop. Grasses, for example, are favored for increasing SOC, while legumes increase soil nutrient content by fixing nitrogen. Although some farmers report struggling to find access to cover crop seeds and knowhow in their communities, the U.S. Agricultural Census notes a 15.2% increase in the number of farms planting cover crops from 2012 to 2017.
Regenerative agriculture practices that restore natural systems are critical to turning farms from carbon sources to carbon sinks.
Cover cropping can work in conjunction with other land-management practices such as no or reduced tillage. The primary purpose of tilling is to loosen compacted soils, control weeds, and ease planting, but this practice increases carbon losses, water runoff, and disturbs the soil microbiome. Farmers who reduce or eliminate tilling save both time and fuel costs and can use cover crops as an alternative means to control weeds.
While the benefits of cover crops and no or reduced tillage are clear, it’s hard for farmers to accept the risk of a new practice without an incentive for doing so. Carbon credits alleviate this risk by allowing farmers to reliably monetize these new practices. Farmers who adopt regenerative practices can enroll their fields in “carbon farming” programs, producing carbon credits for the voluntary market once the practice is verified and GHGs reductions are quantified. These carbon offsets can then be purchased by companies looking to shrink their overall carbon footprint.
“The price and demand for these high quality, registry-certified credits have continued to climb,” says Chris Harbourt, Chief Strategy Officer at Indigo. Indigo helps farmers generate agricultural carbon credits and has already pre-sold its carbon crop — set to be issued for the first time later this spring — to market partners such as the North Face, Barclays, Shopify, and JPMorgan Chase. A critical aspect of Indigo’s credits is that they are registry issued, meaning the project methods, data, and reports are verified by renowned third parties, including Verra and the Climate Action Reserve, giving buyers assurance of the associated GHG reductions.
Carbon credits are one incentive for adopting better practices, but there is also a growing consumer base simply willing to pay more for sustainable products. To help ag businesses and businesses with ag in their supply chains access this market base, CIBO offers remote and on-farm verification of regenerative practices at scale. The company also provides crop modeling and simulation, helping farmers understand how shifting to new practices will impact their land, yield, and carbon sequestration. The company’s proprietary SALUS (system approach for land use sustainability) model creates a digital twin of the field, showing how changes in practices would affect crop growth and yield, soil organic matter, nitrogen dynamics, and heat balance.
Protecting ecosystems and livelihoods
Shifting our view of farmers from food producers to carbon capturers is intriguing. However, their role as food producers must of course remain paramount. The global population is expected to increase to nearly 10 billion by 2050, putting pressure on farms to increase their productivity, which often negatively impacts local environments. In tropical and subtropical regions, native forests and grasslands are being converted to farms, often impacting fragile and vital ecosystems. Indonesia, for example, has converted much of the country’s peatlands to oil palm plantations. While peatlands make up just 3% of land on earth, they store twice as much carbon as the approximately 30% of land covered by forests.
Incentives are critical to promoting investment in bold new approaches that may incur short-term costs but provide significant long-term benefits.
Farmers need resources to simultaneously increase production without increasing environmental impacts. How can farmers grow more corn, for example, without more land? Inari is answering that question with a more-efficient seed, targeting crops with the largest footprint. The company is working to unlock the full potential of corn, soybeans, and wheat by editing their genomes. Rather than focusing on a single edit, the company uses a toolbox of technologies to make multiple gene edits and types of edits that produce higher-yielding plants. Farmers can use Inari’s seed technology to meet growing demand without dedicating more land area to farming.
Novel seeds are an opportunity for farmers to boost production, but pesticides have long been a tool for farmers to increase crop yields by reducing competition from insects, fungus, bacteria, and weeds. Mechanization has led to an increase in pesticide use and the associated environmental impacts, including increased carbon emissions, water contamination, biodiversity degradation, and worker and ecosystem exposure. In the U.S., for example, more than a billion pounds of pesticides are used each year to prevent crop loss, requiring immense amounts of water and diesel fuel. A typical 1,000-hectare orange grove in Brazil, for example, is sprayed every 15 days to suppress potentially devastating insects and disease. Each application requires about 520,000 gallons of water and 52,000 gallons of diesel, producing around 52 tons of carbon dioxide, according to Avram Slovic, Senior Commercial Director, Latin America at Invaio.
Offering growers more sustainable options, Invaio aims to control pests with minimal environmental impact through a systems approach that reduces the use of pesticides by more than 90%, increases carbon capture, and reduces operator and environmental exposure to chemicals. The company’s integrated solutions, which include novel natural active ingredients, breakthrough delivery systems, and novel modes of action, work in concert to help plants better cope with changing environmental conditions and improve crop health. Invaio is applying this technology to existential threats that plague agriculture, including Huanglongbing (HLB) in the citrus industry and Xylella fastidiosa in olive production.
Enabling an agricultural revolution
Scientific innovations are critical to transforming agriculture; so is supportive public policy that lowers the risk of developing and adopting new technologies. Incentives are critical to promoting investment in bold new approaches that may incur short-term costs but provide significant long-term benefits. Federal and state governments should consider a range of legislative and regulatory options to help advance research, development, and commercialization of climate-smart agricultural practices, such as:
• expanding government research and public-private partnerships to identify novel approaches
• promoting standardization of carbon footprint assessment and reduction verification
• streamlining regulatory barriers for the approval of more environmentally friendly products
• paying and incentivizing farmers for adopting beneficial practices and technologies
• expanding existing carbon sequestration industrial tax credits to cover agricultural deployment
• leveraging the power of government purchasing through preferences for agricultural products developed through climate-smart practices.
The bipartisan infrastructure Bill that passed Congress last fall included important climate-change related provisions, but unfortunately did not significantly focus on the need to include the agricultural sector as part of the overall solution to our environmental challenges. As Congress gears up for its next renewal of the five-year authorization for farm programs in 2023, including a section dedicated to promoting climate-smart agriculture is critical.
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