The first XPrize reached for the stars. What if the solution to the latest one lies in the soil beneath our feet?
In January, entrepreneur Elon Musk promised in a tweet to give $100 million from the Musk Foundation for a breakthrough in carbon-capture technology. And last month, he announced his partnership with the XPrize Foundation to offer the largest incentive prize in history. This new effort builds on the success of previous challenges, which have provided financial awards in large-scale competitions with measurable goals. The first XPrize, achieved in 2004, offered $10 million for the successful launch of a reusable crewed spacecraft.
The audacious goal of Musk’s XPrize involves the creation of a technology that can remove 10 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere per year by 2050. Complete details are scheduled for release on April 22, which is Earth Day.
What a fitting project for the visionary talents of the man behind Tesla, the electric car company: Climate change presents the world with one of its greatest tests, and the XPrize has a tremendous capacity to leverage human ingenuity.
A Uruguayan farmer like me, however, can’t hope to compete—at least not by myself. I lease land here in Uruguay to grow a range of crops, such as wheat, barley, oats, canola, corn, and soybeans. We also raise livestock for meat production.
Yet I’m just as concerned as Musk about climate change. Over the years, we’ve suffered from more frequent occurrences of extreme weather: high temperatures, bad droughts, excessive rain, and destructive hail. To protect ourselves from these intense events and “flatten the curve”, we’ve turned to everything from insurance policies, irrigation, cover crops and crop rotations to GMOs, and precision technology.
Our most important tool, however, is the practice of no-till agriculture, which increases our farm’s resilience and improves our soil health by building its organic matter. The fundamental concept is clear: We use our crops to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and move it into the ground where it is held, enriches the soil and aids in the growth of grain, grass, and residues.
We work hard to keep the carbon fixed in the ground: We don’t turn over the soil through traditional tilling, an age-old habit that can release carbon back into the atmosphere.
When we brought the innovation of no-till agriculture onto our farm three decades ago, we weren’t thinking about how it would help in the fight against climate change. Back then, hardly anybody worried about climate change. We had a different objective. We just wanted to boost our yield and take care of the soil we were working with.
With the help of no-till agriculture, we met this goal. Combined with other practices and technologies, no-till farming keeps our soil healthy and allows us to grow more food on less land in a sustainable way more than ever before.
But we enjoy an additional benefit: The carbon-capture of no-till agriculture limits the damage of climate change.
No-till farms hold the potential to become factories of carbon sequestration. The most depleted soils have the most to offer because we can bring them back from harmful erosion, poor structure, and diminished biology. As we turn them around, each acre can harvest about one ton of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year (2-3 ton of CO2 per hectare per year).
Over time, as soil health improves, these fields will harvest less carbon. However, I believe that science and technology will support us in maintaining those magic numbers by creating more efficient crops, perhaps with the new technology of gene editing. In the future, we may focus on CO2 harvest efficiency as we determine our seed purchase.
A single farm won’t solve the problem of climate change—but imagine what all of the farms in the world might accomplish, if they were to work together. Farmers’ every day actions are uniquely important, and as a collaborative force, they are a force for good.
The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there are 4.62 billion acres of land currently under cultivation on the planet. Less than 20 percent of them use regenerative practices that include no-till methods of raising crops.
That leaves us a lot of room for improvement. And the opportunity to sequester a lot more carbon. For me, the most important thing I can do is to share this information, this story, this idea with other farmers around the world. When you see that part of the solution is below our feet, that is amazing and rewarding at the same time. This can be a game-changer.
How much carbon capture might we achieve through agriculture? That’s hard to say, as farming conditions vary widely from place to place. But we’re probably talking gigatons.
Elon Musk, the scientists and engineers who pursue the new XPrize have an amazing opportunity to partner and collaborate with farmers into a winning x-factor. And we will all win!