Over the past few years, venture capital investment in agriculture and food businesses (collectively referred to as "Agtech") has soared (see chart below), startup incubators dedicated to Agtech launched, and even the USDA has gotten into the Agtech game by creating a fund to support Agtech innovation. All of this innovation has provided farmers with new tools to help them forecast weather more effectively, plant crops more precisely, and apply fertilizer / use water more efficiently (among many other benefits); and has provided consumers with new choices for eating more sustainable food.
One area of agriculture often overlooked by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists alike, however, is the field of “carbon farming.” Carbon farming is the umbrella term used to describe agricultural processes that sequester more carbon than they generate--i.e. produce net-negative carbon emissions--and can include: conservation tillage, cover cropping, crop rotation, compost application, and rotational grazing. Over the past few years, carbon farming has grown in importance both as a climate solution and because farmers are finding numerous economic, social, and non-climate environmental co-benefits from implementing carbon farming techniques. While the potential benefits from carbon farming have grown, innovations to help farmers implement and monetize carbon farming techniques have been slow to develop in parallel. For example, only a handful of companies out of the 264 deals that made it into AgFunder's 2014 Year in Review Investing Report were even tangentially related to carbon farming.
Here’s a list of four ways that the Agtech revolution could catalyze the development of carbon farming techniques:
1. Measurement and verification. As of today, significant uncertainties remain about the amount and permanence of carbon sequestration over the full lifecycle of carbon farming techniques. Innovation to build inexpensive, connected soil sensors and even smartphone apps capable of measuring carbon in the soil could help reduce these uncertainties. If farmers can say how much carbon they have stored in the soil and how long that carbon is likely to remain there, it will be easier for them to access carbon markets, providing a greater economic incentive for the adoption of carbon farming practices.
2. Optimizing carbon-negative fertilizer application. A number of fertilizers, such as compost and biochar, offer the potential to increase soil’s ability to store carbon. Tools that help farmers know a) which fertilizers can increase carbon storage the most and b) how and when to apply these fertilizers to maximize the carbon sequestration potential can prove critical. For example, the net lifecycle impact of biochar depends on numerous factors (e.g. feedstock, pyrolysis process, application method, soil type, local climate, etc.), and tools that help farmers understand what type of biochar is likely to have the greatest carbon sequestration benefit on their land would be valuable for effective implementation for carbon management purposes. Innovators can even leverage publicly available tools such as the USDA's COMET-Planner application to get started.
3. Increasing plants’ ability to build biomass. As the plant stock on land grows larger, it reduces atmospheric carbon concentrations by shifting the balance of carbon stored in biomass versus carbon stored in the air. As a result, a number of efforts are underway to increase agricultural plant stocks for carbon management purposes. These efforts include organizations like the Land Institute which are attempting to perennialize annual crops, the Savory Institute who are working on rotational livestock grazing that encourage plants to grow deeper roots, and permaculture advocates that encourage the use of cover crops. Agtech innovations ranging from genetic advances to big data techniques to optimize plant yields can help make these processes more economically viable and effective at carbon management.
4. Outside the box carbon removal technologies. Silicon valley is famous for taking ideas that sound crazy and making them the norm. Why not try to do the same with carbon farming? Some ideas, such as CO2 irrigation using direct air capture, seem like long shots today, but could hold breakthrough carbon sequestration potential in the future. Taking lots of long shots (of which the vast majority are bound to fail) is critical for finding that breakthrough innovation that can help increase food security and safeguard the climate for generations to come.
We are only at the beginning of the Agtech revolution, and innovation will prove critical for unlocking its potential value to farmers, venture capitalists, and the planet alike.