According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, agriculture accounted for 10% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. Mitigating those emissions requires sustainable agricultural processes that work for farmers’ business models as well as the environment. Companies are working the problem, sequestering carbon and avoiding emissions with cash cover crops and long-lived tree crops that minimize tilling and improve profitability, identifying and developing microbes that can pull carbon from the air and store it in the soil, and tracking and reducing indoor growers’ carbon footprints.
To support these efforts, the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator (IN2) provides technical assistance and non-dilutive funding to promising agtech companies. IN2 launched in 2014 with a focus on reducing the energy impact of commercial buildings and expanded its focus to sustainable agriculture in 2018. Agtech research takes place at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri, the world’s largest independent plant science research institute.
Here are a few of the IN2 companies that are innovating to have a positive impact by reducing carbon:
Most of the 30 million acres devoted to corn and soy in the southern Midwest sit bare over the winter. Cover crops reduce soil erosion, prevent runoff, improve soil health, and sequester carbon, but for many farmers, they don’t make financial sense.
That is changing. CoverCress created harvestable cover crops that fit in the time frame between corn and soybean rotations, which is the dominant farming method in the U.S. Through traditional breeding and genetic modification techniques, the company and their Danforth Center research colleagues transformed pennycress, a common Midwest weed, into a commercially viable cover crop that can be sown after the fall corn harvest and harvested before soy planting in the spring.
The company is also developing a closed-loop business model to make the process easy and attractive for farmers. For example, there is no upfront cash cost; farmers receive free seed and CoverCress receives payment when the farmers harvest the crops.
Founded in 2010, TerViva is an agricultural technology company that is commercializing a patented, high oil-yielding pongamia tree. Native to Asia and Australia, pongamia trees produce abundant protein and oil-rich seeds that can create sustainable food ingredients. With the Danforth Center, TerViva is working on producing more resilient and cost-effective trees through grafting, rooted cuttings, and micropropagation.
The trees have natural pest resistance, drought and salt tolerance, and nitrogen fixation ability. In addition, over their 30-year lifetimes they sequester carbon above and below ground, making it easy and inexpensive for pongamia growers to adopt sustainable and regenerative practices.
Pluton Biosciences’ Micromining® Innovation Engine allows researchers to discover novel microbes in months rather than years. These discoveries can then lead to safe, effective, and potentially commercially viable pesticides from microbial sources for agricultural and human health applications.
The collaboration with the Danforth Center validates Pluton’s technology, which mines populations of microbes to identify specific microbes that harbor compounds with beneficial pesticidal characteristics. Specifically, the project is identifying active pesticide molecule(s) capable of killing mosquitos that harbor Zika virus. This test case will accelerate the development of crop protection applications from other microbes.
In a collaboration with Bayer AG, Pluton will also use its technology to identify and develop soil microbes that can store carbon and nitrogen. Early research indicates that these microbes, sprayed at planting and harvest, could scrub nearly two tons of carbon from the air per acre of farmland per year while replenishing nutrients in the soil.
CarbonBook is a tool for making indoor growers more sustainable by quickly and easily determining their carbon footprint.
In 2021, the IN2 focus broadened to include indoor and controlled-environment agriculture. CarbonBook developed an indoor farming carbon assessment tool (also called CarbonBook) that leverages artificial intelligence, machine learning, and current sustainability science to help indoor farms track and reduce their carbon footprints. Since it launched in 2016, indoor growers worldwide have also used the insights CarbonBook provides to optimize resources, reduce costs, minimize waste, and grow their operations.
The process is easy; users enter the relevant data and the software calculates their current carbon footprint and offers suggestions for reducing it. The indoor agriculture cohort takes advantage of the expertise and resources of both IN2 technical partners—the Danforth Center for plant science and NREL for building science.