CSU’s carbon and greenhouse accounting tech wins FoodShot Global Challenge Award

aerial view of farms

Imagine a scenario: a night out with friends. Your party takes an Uber to a restaurant, and as you’re dropped off, a notification pops up on your phone to add a tip – for the environment. After dinner and drinks, the bill arrives. You calculate a tip for the server, and then consider adding another tip, again, for the environment.

In a modern reality that’s faced with the looming threat of serious climate change, crowdsourcing carbon offset funding via micro-transactions with third-party outlets is coming to be seen as a real-world solution. It’s also one of three sectors keenly interested in the work of University Distinguished Professor Keith Paustian in the Colorado State University College of Agricultural Sciences and senior research scientist at the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory.

Paustian and his team have created COMET-Farm, a whole farm and ranch carbon and greenhouse accounting system that recently won the Groundbreaker Prize from the FoodShot Global Challenge. The award comes with a $250,000 prize.

Putting the power in the farmers’ hands

The state of modern farming in the United States comes with its set of challenges – from waning incomes to increasing debt to an uncertain future in light of current trade disputes – so expecting farmers to find a way to measure their greenhouse gas emissions or concern themselves with carbon sequestering is a tall order. That’s where COMET-Farm comes into play. With information sourced from the farmer, the free-to-use software can estimate the carbon footprint of the operation, and then present options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sequestering more carbon.

Keith Paustian

“For the United States, the biggest part of the greenhouse gas emissions budget comes from burning fossil fuels, and that’s a relatively easy thing to inventory,” says Paustian. “But there’s also a whole sector of greenhouse gas that involves the land-use sector. If you look at the greenhouse gas inventory in the land-use system, it’s way more complicated to track because there are lots of processes going on, all affected by how we manage the land.”

COMET-Farm sources detailed, spatially explicit data on climate and soil associated with a client’s location, and allows the client to input detailed information on farm or ranch operations, creating customized solutions for specific situations. It also requires no prior training to use.

Generating a buzz in the industry

The idea for COMET-Farm, as well as its sister application COMET-Planner, was years in the making. Paustian got involved with the International Panel on Climate Change in the mid-1990s as a member of its task force charged with creating scientific methods to identify harmful emissions and their locations. Paustian’s role was to develop methods of reporting carbon from soil.

From that experience, he then worked with the USDA to help it understand what was happening with greenhouse gas emissions on the farm scale. This grew into an idea to “develop methods that a farmer could use to inventory those elements based on where they are, what crops and soils they had, and what the climate was,” notes Paustian. “This would let them understand that.”

But the result has grown beyond just the farmer. According to Paustian, there are three main sectors that have reached out to him to leverage COMET-Farm: Governments such as the State of California, which applies the tool for its Healthy Soils Initiative; carbon offset programs, which combine blockchain technology and COMET-Farm to crowdsource volunteer actions for carbon dioxide removal services; and eco-minded companies such as Ben & Jerry’s, which produces goods derived from the land, but is also conscious about carbon footprints.

“Within the scientific community, [Paustian] is already well-known for his groundbreaking work on estimating greenhouse gas emissions from soils,” notes Matthew Wallenstein, head of the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences at CSU. “Now, he’s applying his expertise to help slow agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and lock away carbon in soil to mitigate climate change. His work is informing new policy and enabling the creation of new carbon markets to incentivize climate-smart agriculture. This award is a tremendous recognition of the important impact he is having around the globe.”

According to Paustian, he’ll use the $250,000 prize to create COMET-Global, which will allow countries around the world to apply his free tech.

About the FoodShot Global Challenge

The Groundbreaker Award is an annual award given by FoodShot, an organization described as one that’s “empowering bold ideas and companies to accelerate the transformation to a healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system.”

This year, the theme was “Innovating Soil 3.0,” which aimed to identify breakthrough solutions that create new soil operating systems in which an increased understanding of soil health will provide new opportunities for agricultural activity to increase organic matter.