Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have pumped an estimated 1 trillion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, causing the current climate crisis that the planet faces today.
Now an ambitious new plan called the Terraton Initiative by the agricultural company Indigo Agriculture is trying to pull all of this excess carbon out of the atmosphere, in effect neutralizing the threat of greenhouse gas emissions.
The secret weapon? Soil.
Indigo Ag argues that the prevailing mode of industrial agriculture — relying on deforestation, heavy chemical use, and monocrop production — has diminished the ability of soil to absorb carbon.
The company says that adopting sustainable and traditional alternatives to farming and land management can combat climate change, rehabilitate habitats, and also boost long-term food security.
“The ability of agricultural soils to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and hold it in the soil is literally the most optimistic thing I know about with regard to climate change,” said David Perry, CEO of Indigo Ag, in a video.
“We know we can do this,” he said. “Because farmers are doing it today. It includes using no till practices, using cover crops, more crop rotations.”
The company is counting on farmers around the world to recognize the value of sustainable agriculture and it will be developing educational campaigns to spread its message. It’s partnering with a range of nonprofits and other companies to fund the mission, and has sent out a call to innovators to develop new techniques for improving soil’s capacity to absorb carbon.
Farmers who join the effort will receive payment as an additional incentive. For every ton of carbon stored in their soil, the farmers will receive between $15 and $20. Farmers that work with Indigo Ag will also receive a seal of approval that could increase the market value of their crops. Anheuser-Busch, for example, has already agreed to buy $2.2 billion worth of rice from Indio Ag certified growers.
The company urges consumers to buy Indigo certified products as a way to encourage other companies to join the effort and create a virtuous cycle.
With the help of the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, other groups, and individual farmers, Indigo Ag will begin a global study of soil health, and will use various imaging technologies and soil measurements to determine how much carbon is being stored in different areas.
There are an estimated 3.6 billion acres of farmland in the world, according to Indigo Ag. If all of that land was optimized to store carbon, then a trillion tons of carbon could be sequestered.
“One trillion tons today that wasn’t there prior to burning fossil fuels,” Perry said in the video. “One trillion tons — it represents both the scale of the problem and the scale of the potential solution.”
Enabling soil to absorb more carbon allows it to flourish. Healthy soil houses thousands of microorganisms, helps to protect crops from pests and disease, filters environmental pollutants from water, and shields areas from the impacts of natural disasters.
Globally, more than a third of the world’s soil is degraded in ways that undermine ecosystems.
Indigo Ag isn’t the only organization working to improve soil health around the world.
The United Nations works with governments around the world to promote sustainable land management techniques.
The Terraton Initiative faces hurdles, however, such as figuring out how to scale the effort and the entrenched interests of the global meat and chemical industries. But its pitch of fighting climate change, global hunger, and environmental degradation could appeal to a broad range of consumers, farmers, and companies.