Over the last 200 years, agricultural practices have advanced dramatically, enabling the human population to expand from 1 billion in the early 1800s to nearly 8 billion today, all while improving life quality and expectancy and eliminating nearly 90% of global food scarcity. Over that same period, the percentage of the population engaged in agriculture in the US declined from 90% to ~1%. By these metrics, the rise of modern agriculture and the impact modern farmers have on quality of life are an unabashed success. As farmers utilize increasingly sophisticated technology, their ability to improve efficiency and scale farming operations increases commensurately. As a result, humans currently manage roughly 50 million square kilometers of Earth’s surface (1/3rd of Earth’s total 150 million square kilometers of land) for food, fiber, and livestock production.
Unfortunately, this growth has also resulted in vast amounts of soil-stored carbon release—an unintended consequence. It’s estimated that 487.7 billion metric tons of CO2 that otherwise would have been stored as carbon in the soil have been released into the atmosphere due to industrialized agriculture. In comparison, transportation in the United States, including cars, trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes, emitted 1.9 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2019 (the most recent year measured by the EPA). At this rate, it would take 256 years of US transportation emissions to equal the atmospheric CO2 generated by modern industrial agriculture!
Figure: Correlation between farming activities and soil organic carbon. PNAS September 5, 2017 114 (36) 9575-9580; first published August 21, 2017; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1706103114
Carbon naturally moves between the atmosphere, ocean and land in a delicate equilibrium called the carbon cycle. Atmospheric CO2 is typically sequestered through dissolution via biological processes such as photosynthesis and via contact with surface waters (e.g., oceans, lakes and precipitation). In pre-industrial times, this sequestered carbon was only re-released into the atmosphere via natural processes like volcanic activity, combustion (e.g., forest fires), and organic decay. However, agricultural processes over the last two centuries have artificially released huge amounts of terrestrial carbon (carbon stored in soil and plants) into the atmosphere, exceeding the natural budget for atmospheric carbon release and throwing off the carbon cycle equilibrium. And yet somehow, agriculture is frequently overlooked as a contributor to climate change. This is despite generating 12% of annual greenhouse gas emissions (a figure that does not include stored soil carbon release). However, agriculture is also one of the only industries with the potential to go carbon negative—a potential which, if realized, could enable a 100-115%% swing in total annual greenhouse gas emissions, completely offsetting global CO2 emissions.
Figure: Carbon cycle aspects (modified from Paul and Clark, 1996). https://store.extension.iastat...
Weed control is an underappreciated piece—and perhaps the most important piece—of the agriculture-climate puzzle. It’s estimated that, if left unchecked, weeds have the potential to cause over $50B in crop loss annually in North America alone. To combat the threat of weeds, farmers currently leverage two primary solutions: 1) tilling soil and 2) spraying herbicides. Both processes damage the soil’s ability to store carbon and are primary drivers in releasing soil-stored carbon into the atmosphere.
- 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!
- 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
NEA is thrilled to lead Aigen’s $4M seed round. Leveraging best-in-class AI and robotics, Aigen builds solar-powered robots that empower farmers to weed their crops autonomously, reduce or eliminate tillage and herbicide use, regenerate healthy soil, and naturally sequester substantial amounts of atmospheric carbon. Aigen was founded to reverse this net-negative trend in terrestrial carbon storage, to regenerate soil, and to enable safer, healthier, and more environmentally and economically sustainable farming practices. Agriculture has the potential to become a carbon net-negative industry while simultaneously solving pressing problems for humanity and the global climate.
Climate change is one of the most significant challenges facing humanity. At NEA, we believe that the next generation of climate tech startups will be instrumental in meeting this challenge. With that in mind, we are thrilled lead Aigen’s $4M seed round! Aigen’s mission is to regenerate Earth’s health using AI and robotics to offer a platform of affordable alternatives to the conventional farming practices that undermine soil’s carbon storage potential. Aigen’s method of accomplishing this mission is soil regeneration, and the company’s initial mode of soil regeneration is weed control.
Aigen offers a solar-powered robotic platform that operates in fleets to monitor crops, eliminate weeds mechanically, collect valuable data, and produce actionable insights. Aigen’s product has the potential to solve multiple critical challenges for farmers while simultaneously revitalizing soil’s ability to capture and store carbon, offering one of the only truly scalable ways to pull CO2 out of the atmosphere at planetary scale. This automation improves the farmer’s ability to manage deleterious weeds sustainably, to monitor crops for disease, to predict crop yields, and to manage all aspects of their farms with increased efficiency. Furthermore, Aigen’s bots can measure nutrient and carbon content in the soil to provide enhanced analytics and eventually even revenue to farmers for the carbon sequestered on their land.
In short, Aigen’s technology provides an elegant solution to three of humanity’s thorniest problems: stopping invasive weeds from ravaging global farmland, curbing reliance on carcinogenic and unsustainable pesticides, and unlocking the evasive superpower of atmospheric CO2 sequestration at planetary scale. NEA is inspired to support the Aigen team in building this scalable, mission-driven, highly impactful venture.
From left to right: Henry Magun (NEA), Richard Wurden (Aigen), Andrew Schoen (NEA), Kenny Lee (Aigen)
To learn more about Aigen, visit https://www.aigen.io/