Soil: Secret Weapon in Fighting Climate Crisis

  1. Tilling fields agitates surface soil by chopping up weeds and crop residue, which exposes dead plant matter and increased soil surface area to the atmosphere. Microorganisms then utilize the exposed material as a source of carbon for metabolism, combining it with atmospheric oxygen to be released as CO2. While microorganisms are critical in breaking down organic matter into forms that other organisms can reuse, when provided with excess plant detritus, they process and release the extra available carbon as CO2. Furthermore, tilling aerates the top layer of soil, which increases the availability of oxygen that microorganisms use to respire, further increasing the rate of carbon dioxide release. Ultimately, this leaves the soil fine, dried out, and extremely prone to erosion (the direct cause of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s). Historically, farmers had little alternative to tillage… until now!
  2. Herbicides, while historically an effective means of controlling invasive weeds, come with significant drawbacks. First, with continued use, the efficacy of herbicides decreases over time as weeds evolve resistance. Herbicide resistant weeds are one of the primary challenges farmers face around the world today. Second, herbicides significantly degrade the soil. They kill off beneficial microorganisms, obliterating the soil’s ability to sequester carbon. Finally, herbicides are hazardous to human health. The safety of glyphosate — by far the most widely used herbicide in the world — is actively in question, and dozens of countries around the world have passed legislation limiting or banning glyphosate at a national or local level. Despite all this, glyphosate continues to be widely used as there are no other scalable alternatives on the market. A 2016 study concluded that if herbicide control techniques were not available and no alternative was developed, economic losses just in corn and soy in the US and Canada would total $43B annually! Given the economic impact and lack of alternatives, it’s no surprise that despite the extreme drawbacks, over 3.5B pounds of herbicides are still sprayed on fields each year.

NEA’s Investment in Aigen

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Andrew Schoen

Andrew Schoen

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Venture Capital Investor at NEA (New Enterprise Associates). Co-Founder of Flicstart. Schwarzman Scholar.