For the last four years a group of scientists and entrepreneurs working in a small university town in New South Wales, Australia have been hard at work training microbes to help crops absorb more carbon dioxide.
That work from research facilities around Charles Sturt University, about four hours from the edge of the Australian outback, could have huge implications for combating climate change -- and Loam bio, the company commercializing that research, has attracted big money from venture capital investors.
Agriculture accounts for about one-third of global greenhouse gas emissions and cropland covers about 10% of the earth's surface.
If there were a way for those crops to absorb more carbon dioxide it could potentially go a long way toward helping the world meet its goals for net-zero emissions by 2050.
Getting crops to capture more carbon is not an easy problem to solve, as Loam co-founder Guy Hudson told the food-focused publishing and investment platform, AgFunder.
“It’s particularly hard in the context of cropping systems to build significant quantities of carbon,” Hudson told AgFunder. “The annual cropping cycle can be intensive on soils, with much of the carbon and nutrients being drawn from the soil to grow the crops each season.”
While land management work, like the no-till and cover cropping techniques that the Department of Agriculture and the Biden administration support, may have some impact, no one is sure exactly how much carbon can actually be sequestered.
One review, cited by the environmental publication Grist, found that the US could conceivably capture up to 250 million metric tons of carbon per year (it's about 4% of what the country emitted in 2020).
However, those farming practices can be pretty disruptive. Loam, on the other hand, isn't forcing farmers to do much of anything different from what they currently do when planting. The company's microbial treatments provide a way for existing crops themselves to do the work.
“Loam’s microbial tools are another way to help farmers do this, and do it more rapidly,” Hudson told AgFunder. “By applying Loam seed treatment, farmers can accelerate a path towards healthier, more productive soils by driving more rapid increases in soil carbon, which benefits resilience and productivity.”
And, as Loam scientists will say, not all carbon dioxide is created equally. Labile carbon in soils turn over rapidly and get released back into the environment. Meanwhile, recalcitrant carbon is stored in different structures and is trapped in soil for longer periods of time.
“It’s the more stable forms of carbon, which means there’s lower risk for growers integrating carbon farming practices.” Loam co-founder Tegan Nock told AgFunder.
And Loam doesn't just provide treated seeds for farmers, it also has a project development arm to ensure that farmers can get credits for using its technology.
Basically, Loam creates offset projects using its technology and sells those credits to corporate buyers. That defrays the upfront costs associated with using its seed coatings so farmers don't have to worry about paying.
Then, as the sequestration technology is deployed, farmers can reap some of the benefits from the carbon credits alongside Loam.
“By removing the risks of upfront costs, not [being able to build] soil carbon, and access to skilled support to manage the project, farmers are able to integrate carbon building into their existing farming system,” says Loam. “Loam’s SecondCrop carbon project options are designed to remove these barriers for farmers and encourage increased participation in carbon farming.”
Now, with the new funding from investors including Lowercarbon Capital, Acre Venture Partners, Horizons Fund and others, Loam is looking to take its technology from the Australian outback to the heartland of the U.S. and its broad agricultural belt.
“We’re really focused on delivering value for broadacre cropping systems right now, including wheat, barley and canola for the Australian market, and soy and corn for the US market,” Nock told AgFunder. “The $73 million series B raise will help us expand our product development and support the delivery of new products entering the pipeline that will go through years of testing for key crops in regions we’re already working in.”