Farmers start field trial for carbon capture with fungi
The first field trials using fungi to reduce carbon in the atmosphere are under way in Australia. Kelly Wong reports.
As carbon dioxide emissions increase in the atmosphere, scientists around the world are looking at solutions such as carbon sequestration. This process captures carbon dioxide, removing it from the atmosphere for long-term storage.
A group of Australian farmers is working with researchers to harness the power of fungi in soils. In the dry conditions of the Australian landscape, increasing soil carbon levels can help with water retention, boosting conditions for agriculture.
At the same time, by capturing carbon farmers can help contribute to addressing the problem of increasing greenhouse gases, climate change and global warming.
Farmers Mick Wettenhall and Jack Farthing have completed planting extensive trial plots using newly isolated fungi for mass carbon sequestration on their mixed livestock and grains properties at their respective farms in Trangie and Forbes, both in New South Wales.
The fungi were originally isolated in soils around the Sydney Basin and trialled in laboratory and glasshouse research by a team led by Peter McGee from the University of Sydney, Australia.
The results, reported in a paper published in the journal Soil Research, showed that particular strains of melanised endophytic fungi (MEF) have the potential to increase levels of organic carbon in controlled soil laboratory experiments.
MEFs, also known as dark septate endophytes, are a broad group of melanin-producing species that live within plants. The melanin produced by the fungi is a stable form of carbon which does not break down as easily as linear carbon compounds.
When integrated into soil the effect is two-fold. It increases soil carbon levels and contributes towards long-term carbon storage.
The laboratory research has now progressed into the first field tests.
The process starts with inoculating plant seeds with the fungi. The seeds are then added to a planter for later sowing. The researchers claim that once the process is increased in scale the approach could potentially draw gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere.
SoilCQuest, the not-for-profit agricultural organisation trailing the new microbial technology, hopes the fungi could both increase agricultural productivity and be a viable long-term carbon capture strategy. The research was recently featured in a 2018 award-winning documentary, Grassroots, part of Australia’s popular SCINEMA film festival.
“Soil microbiology has historically been a largely underrated area of science,” says the organisation’s Guy Webb.
“Little has been known about the complex ecosystems that live under our feet, yet of the plants we eat, none exist naturally without the interaction of tiny organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and nematodes.
“Soil is the largest terrestrial carbon sink on the planet, managed by the people with the most to lose from climate change: farmers. We are hoping that our trials will show that it can be easy and economical for them to transfer carbon from the air and secure it in their soil.”
Back on the farm, Wettenhall sees the need for rapid adaptation measures. “The only way we as farmers can currently mitigate our risk against climate change is by increasing our soil carbon levels,” he says.
“We simply must develop reliable and adoptable technologies to do this for our industry to move forward into the future.”