How Carbon and Climate are Driving New Agricultural Horizons

Insights from Food, Ag, Ideas Week 2021

Carbon emissions goals are a common topic. Our goals for mitigating climate change through emissions reductions seem to be widely supported by individuals, corporations and governments alike; however, our process for reaching those goals (and how strict those goals should be) are heavily debated. 

Broadly, our global climate change initiatives have fallen under two primary goals:

  1. Limit global warming to well below 2℃ compared to pre-industrial levels, as defined by the Paris Agreement.
  2.  Neutralize carbon emissions across industries and global activity. We often refer to this as a ‘net-zero’ carbon emissions goal.

Technological innovation has made it theoretically possible to reach the 2℃ goal by mid-century. However, the implementation of these goals, and the responsibility of reaching these goals, is carried differently across countries and industries.

Agriculture is an industry that bears a heavy burden in terms of reaching these goals; particularly, American agriculture. This is not only because agriculture is a large contributor to our global carbon footprint, but also because it carries significant opportunities for reducing emissions and sequestering greenhouse gases.

Carbon removal technologies, which can be utilized in agriculture, can actually sequester more carbon than we emit annually. This enables us to move beyond ‘net-zero’ goals and into ‘net-negative’ territory, which allows us to reach our 2℃ goal quicker.

But with this responsibility, the question remains: how can we reach these goals, while maintaining a productive and financially sustainable agricultural system?

Reaching Climate Goals through Agricultural Innovation

Dr. Nick Goeser, Technology-to-Market Special Government Employee at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), discussed the role of ag technology in reducing carbon emissions and meeting a ‘net-negative’ global carbon goal at Grow North MN’s Food, Ag, Ideas Week 2021.

Dr. Goeser helps prepare innovative technologies for market with ARPA-E. In his discussion, he addressed the conflicting ideas that many farmers feel:

How can I reduce my carbon footprint, while maintaining the yield necessary to keep my operation afloat? 

To address this, Dr. Goeser and his team established the SMARTFARM innovation model: one which defines farm success by both yield and carbon intensity. This allows farmers to produce enough yield to keep their operations viable and efficient, while also monitoring carbon emissions and contributing to our global efforts to mitigate climate change. In this model, data is collected from farm research locations, which can help us learn how to reduce our carbon emissions while maintaining yield. 

Data is collected in two phases: 

Phase 1: Grounded Truth

This phase involves setting baselines for farm innovation and emissions reduction, using state-of-the-art technology. Data is collected from research sites in a highly-precise way, and the data itself is grounded in real-world conditions (plant data, soil data, environmental conditions, etc.) Data collected in this phase is scientifically rigorous and hyper-specific. However, collecting data in this way is not viable on a large scale for agriculture.

Phase 2: 

Phase 2 research looks to increase scalability and decrease the cost for data collection, which then influences farm innovation. Scientific models, remote sensing and other technological innovations help us collect farm data on a more efficient scale, while building scientific rigor through comparisons to phase 1 datasets. Regrow’s products, specifically our DNDC soil carbon model, falls into this category. We use the data collected from our models and technology to quantify soil carbon levels, increase the adoption of resilient agriculture practices and reduce carbon emissions.

Combining information from these two phases can lead us to a system of efficient, cost-effective, yet scientifically rigorous data collection. 

Using Data to Make Meaningful Change

According to Dr. Goeser,

“We need data and funding in order to reach our emissions goals.”

Data is essential in identifying opportunities for reducing carbon emissions, and creating farm management processes that are productive in both yield and emissions reduction.

The opportunities Dr. Goeser and others have identified in agricultural innovation can lead us to a more sustainable, cooler planet, while driving progress for the industry and for our food systems.

Learn more about how data innovation can impact climate change, and read more insights from Food, Ag, Ideas Week 2021.

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