Do you reckon 1 million farmers globally can sequester 1 billion tonnes of carbon — removing the rough equivalent of 217 million cars from the road — and all within the next five years?
Given the seemingly sluggish development of carbon credit markets and regulations to govern them, the persistence of climate change skepticism, and the fact that the world has its mind on other things at the moment, no-one would blame you for feeling that may be a little over-optimistic. No-one, perhaps, apart from FarmLab co-founder and CEO Sam Duncan and his team.
To coincide with tomorrow’s World Soil Day, FarmLab is boldly setting itself that exact target in an initiative it’s calling the ‘1 million, 1 billion mission.’
It might seem extremely ambitious for an early-stage agronomy software startup from the rural town of Armidale, in Australia’s New South Wales. But Duncan is convinced FarmLab has the tech and the knowhow — and the ability to pull in the right partners — to do just that.
“We want to collaborate and bring together people that share our mission, share the vision,” Duncan tells AFN. “This can’t be about any one company or entity going out and doing this themselves.”
Duncan first became interested in soil health and its environmental importance while serving as a logistics officer in the Royal Australian Air Force in the 2000s. During UN deployments to Africa he saw first hand the potential role for soil and carbon as mitigators for climate change.
“The impact of climate change was just so obvious,” he says. “In developing countries, if you get just a bit more rain [than expected], then everything floods, there’s widespread damage, and people are really severely impacted. I really got sucked into [Zimbabwean regenerative ag pioneer] Allan Savory’s TED talks, and I loved the idea you could sequester CO2 into the soil. And that’s when I realized a major problem — the main reason we weren’t already doing this in places like Australia — was that farmers didn’t have the data.”
That lack of data had a lot to do with the high costs and archaic nature of soil sampling, Duncan adds.
He started FarmLab with co-founder and chief technology officer Shahriar Jamshidi in 2016 with the aim of making sampling on farms more efficient and wallet-friendly.
Back then, it was still a largely paper-based process, requiring agronomists to trek into fields to take samples, send them off to labs, then wait for the results to come back – all the while requiring them to have their own systems in place to remember precisely where each sample came from.
The FarmLab team built a mobile app that could automatically record where each sample was taken from. It also allowed agronomists to interact directly with sampling labs online, and have soil results sent straight back to them in-app.
FarmLab’s offering has evolved since then. Today, Duncan describes the startup as a “Xero for soil,” providing a digital account that allows farmers to manage their soil health — including water capacity and levels of nutrients and carbon — by storing test results, maps, and other relevant data in one place.
‘Xero for soil’
A key milestone came in 2018 when the team secured a A$1.1 million ($817,000) grant from the Australian government’s National Landcare Program to participate in its Soil Tech Project. Working with the University of Sydney, FarmLab has taken soil sample data gathered from individual locations through its agronomist app and mapped it out over whole farms and regions, generating insights into soil health across wide swathes of Australia’s farmland.
“That’s a fundamental thing for soil carbon,” Duncan says. “Unlike atmospheric carbon, where you can fly a weather balloon up into the air and just take a measure, soil needs a series of samples from specific locations in the paddock and specific techniques to map those [over a wider area.] We’re now able to accurately do that and we believe that can now be taken up by carbon credit markets. Our aim is to develop something that’s verifiable by buyers like the Australian government, or private markets like Nori.”
“These carbon markets are worth $45 billion globally, but there’s a clear lack of participation by farmers due to the cost involved to enter them,” he adds.
The ‘1 million, 1 billion’ mission will use two “levers” in an effort to encourage farmers to sequester more carbon, Duncan explains.
The first of these will focus on trying to significantly reduce the costs currently faced by farmers who wish to join soil carbon projects.
“We have management of [soil] data, but we need to work with farmers, with businesses, with academics to build models, and with governments like Australia’s which is working on ways to bring down costs,” he says.
The second lever will seek to develop an accreditation scheme that will allow farmers to certify their produce as carbon-neutral or carbon-positive. This could be particularly helpful for smaller growers and graziers, giving them a way to benefit from carbon sequestration without incurring the typically high costs associated with soil sampling and other aspects of entering carbon credits programs.
However, such a scheme would need to be seen as rigorous and trustworthy to have any chance of success – which comes with tech challenges of its own, Duncan says.
“One area we’re interested is downstream buying of ag products. We think the biggest way to improve the uptake of soil carbon methods is providing an accreditation system, so farmers can sell their produce at a premium,” he says.
“But that needs to be backed by science and there’s also a challenge around provenance – getting that steak to the supermarket and allowing consumers to know for sure it came from a carbon neutral or positive farm.”
The objective for the next 12 months is to work closely with farmers and agribusinesses to come up with a low-cost accounting method that can leverage the work done by FarmLab and the University of Sydney to help farmers demonstrate improvements in their carbon storage. The early momentum looks positive, Duncan suggests.
“We’re using artificial intelligence and machine learning to do mapping and measurement, to bring down the cost to enter carbon markets. We believe we can reduce that cost down from about A$50,000 to about A$10,000 per farm just by strategically sampling and bringing in some remotely sensed data,” he says.
“We’ve been trialling this along Australia’s east coast, producing soil carbon maps — where we haven’t even taken samples — using training datasets. This is not something that doesn’t require any sampling at all, but it significantly reduces the costs. And the carbon credit game is really all about labor costs and the cost of soil sampling – so we need models to help reduce those costs.”