High flying market disruptor Indigo Agriculture challenges farmers to reduce their carbon footprint with The Terraton Initiative

Ambitious plan seeks to reduce ag industry’s impact on climate change by preventing one trillion metric tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere

One of the industry’s highest profile and perhaps best funded agtech company wants to see the world’s farmers return to the land management practices of yesteryear in an ambitious plan to sequester carbon – and they’re willing to pay hundreds of millions in reward money to make it happen.

Boston-based Indigo Agriculture, the microbial seed treatment startup, has already shifted the playing field for growers and their customers with its digital Indigo Marketplace, an online grain exchange developed to create more transparency and efficiency in the buying and selling of domestic crops. Launched just last year, Indigo executives claim roughly $6 billion worth of grain was put up for sale and over 4,000 bids worth $2 billion were offered in the first six months alone.

Now the firm’s leadership is intent on helping curb the trillions of metric tons of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from the planet’s 3.6 billion acres of farmland. Growers who are judged to succeed in mitigating the release of carbon will be eligible to be paid $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide sequestered during the 2019 growing season, a tab that could run into the billions if the program works.

Research data cited by the company states that the atmosphere today contains an unprecedented 415 parts per million, or a “teraton” of carbon dioxide. That’s at least one trillion tons more than prior to the start of the Industrial Revolution which began in the late 1700s. Not coincidentally, it’s the amount of CO2 Indigo Chief Executive Officer David Perry hopes The Terraton Initiative can prevent from  entering the environment.

Indigo’s team says they’re taking the lead on the issue because the ag industry has a unique opportunity to address climate change unlike any other form of human activity.

“Through the process of photosynthesis, agricultural plants have the ability to economically pull more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere than any other technology,” the firm’s co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer, Geoffrey von Maltzahn is quoted in a news release. He says The Terraton Initiative launched last week has the potential to be the “world’s largest atmospheric carbon sequestration experiment” and offers the potential to “unlock ways to accelerate the drawdown of a teraton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere”.

Once implemented, Dr. von Maltzahn says growers will benefit from enriched soil and society will reap the rewards of a healthier worldwide food system. In explaining how the carbon sequester goals will be met and the controls Indigo will use to measure and verify the CO2 reduction results of every participating farm, the company describes a multi-pronged strategy.

The first step is the establishment of Indigo Carbon, an exchange similar approach to the Indigo Marketplace, in this case, one that tracks carbon. By registering their operations and farming practices in the Indigo Carbon system, it provides growers with a financial incentive for implementing “regenerative farming practices”. These traditional farming methods have almost completely vanished due to the use of “factory farming” and an over-reliance on fertilizers and agrochemicals. They include reduced tillage, the rotation of crops and planting cover crops to preserve and enrich the soil, as well as livestock grazing. By adopting these natural and eco-friendly techniques, carbon levels typically rise in the soil as does its ability to retain water.

Mr. Perry says Indigo will analyze and measure the reduction of CO2 by participants with the assistance of the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium, a large-scale initiative launched earlier this year focused on land stewardship and conservation management among farmers and ranchers. The consortium builds upon the earlier Ecosystems Services Market Program, which also pulled together the resources of major ag industry and food producers (ADM, Bunge, Cargill, General Mills, McDonald’s, Noble Research Institute, Soil Health Institute, Mars Inc. and The Nature Conservancy) which was established to encourage soil carbon sequestration and water conservation throughout the global ag industry. Indigo is also a founding member.

Other monitoring will be accomplished using the digital agronomy capabilities and satellite imagery Indigo already has in place for its Indigo Marketplace.

To provide a framework for the collecting of data, a decade-long research study called The Terraton Experiment will evaluate the results of what works best to increase carbon levels across “tens of thousands of farms”. Among the benchmarks to be measured are strategies to maximize soil carbon and the rate of absorption, the use of microbes for carbon sequestration, impact on water conservation and drought resistance, crop quality, and improved profitability.

To encourage further collaboration, an open competition dubbed The Terraton Challenge is offering $1 million prizes to winning submissions deemed useful to the overall goals of The Terraton Initiative. Indigo judges will evaluate innovations able to accelerate sequestration of carbon and expand the carbon storage capacity of soil, better techniques for sampling and measuring carbon, and efficient processes for rewarding growers.

Finally, a competition pitting growers against each other will award winners in every state with the Carbon Cup based on farms which achieve the fastest rate of soil carbon enrichment and the highest absolute level of soil carbon.

Exactly how big the opportunity is for agricultural stakeholders to make a contribution in mitigating climate change is beyond debate. Multiple studies peg the CO2 emissions of global farming and livestock activity at 35% or more of all carbon released into the atmosphere. The stakes are high in part because as weather becomes more extreme, the world’s food supply becomes less stable even as its ecologically harmful practices further accelerate the problem.

Whether Indigo’s gamechanger strategies and reputation as a disruptive force in the $2.4 trillion global agricultural market can be leveraged into helping save the planet is anyone’s guess. However, with Indigo’s current market cap of $3.5 billion and $609 million to date in funding, and David Perry’s track record of success (his Anacor Pharmaceuticals was acquired by Pfizer in 2016 for $5.4 billion), it’s going to be an interesting effort to keep tabs on.