Photo taken August 19, 2013 shows combining in a field of canola in a field near Tioga, North Dakota. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Farming practices such as minimal tilling of the soil when planting, planting cover crops in-between main crops, and crop rotation can all help the soil capture more carbon © AFP

Indigo Agriculture, a Boston-based agritech start-up, will start paying farmers to store carbon in soil, as it seeks to spur a novel market that could help address climate change. 

The new initiative is part of a growing field of climate-related agricultural practices — which have been supported by companies including General Mills and Cargill — that seek to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. 

Indigo, which has raised $650m from investors including Baillie Gifford and the Investment Corporation of Dubai, said the initiative was part of its efforts to encourage sustainable agricultural practices and address climate change. 

“The potential for agricultural soils to capture and store atmospheric carbon dioxide is the most hopeful solution I know of to address climate change,” said chief executive David Perry. “This is completely within our ability to execute, and we’re not waiting for new technologies.

Founded five years ago, Indigo sells crop microbials to replace chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and operates a digital marketplace for grains akin to an “Ebay for farmers”, as well as a grain transport service. 

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Indigo said it hoped to sign up more than 3,000 growers, covering more than 1m acres this year. They will be paid $15 for every tonne of carbon dioxide that is stored underground. 

It plans to sell the carbon credits that can offset a company’s inherent emissions to the food and agriculture sector. 

Farming practices such as minimal tilling of the soil when planting, planting cover crops in-between main crops, and crop rotation can all help the soil capture more carbon. 

Plants absorb carbon dioxide from the air as they grow, then release it back to the air and soil as they decompose. 

But storing carbon in soil has traditionally been excluded from carbon markets because it is extremely hard to measure how much carbon goes into the soil and how long it stays there. 

Noah Deich, head of Carbon 180, a consultancy in California, said that storing carbon in soils has sometimes been an afterthought in climate policies because it is difficult to verify how much carbon has been stored. 

“We know a wide range of practices that almost certainly lead to carbon stored in soils. What we don’t know is exactly how much carbon, and exactly how long that carbon stays in any given field,” he said, calling for more research. 

Indigo says it will use satellites and image analysis to measure soil carbon sequestration and on-farm emissions. The company is also participating in a decade-long study including tens of thousands of farms to study how carbon is stored in soil.

An increasing number of agriculture and food companies are focusing on carbon offsets as part of their sustainability efforts. 

Earlier this year, a group of agricultural traders and food companies — including Indigo as well as Cargill, General Mills, McDonald’s USA and Mars — launched the Ecosystem Services Market Consortium that encourages farmers and ranchers to adopt conservation management practices to improve soil health and reduce emissions 

Mr Perry said a farmer would probably be able to capture 2 to 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide per acre a year, meaning additional revenue of $30 to $60 per acre annually. 

“This is a big impact for farmers,” he said.

After the ocean and fossil fuels, soil represents that largest pool of carbon on the planet. Carbon levels in agricultural soils have been depleted due to poor farming practices, and carbon-rich soils are considered more beneficial for plants. 

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