Today's guest is David Perry, President, CEO, and Director of Indigo Ag, Indigo Ag is harnessing nature to help farmers sustainably feed the planet. They improve grower profitability, environmental sustainability, and consumer health through the use of natural microbiology and digital technologies. Founded in 2016 Indigo Ag has raised more than $650 million in funding. David is a serial entrepreneur who has founded and built three innovative companies in the last 20 years, leading the last two through successful IPOs and to multi-billion dollar market capitalizations and raising over $1.2 billion while generating significant returns for investors. This is a great longform discussion that goes deep into both Indigo Ag and into the climate change problem in general, and I think you will enjoy it. David Perry, welcome to the show!
Today's guest is David Perry, President, CEO, and Director of Indigo Ag,
Indigo Ag is harnessing nature to help farmers sustainably feed the planet. They improve grower profitability, environmental sustainability, and consumer health through the use of natural microbiology and digital technologies. Founded in 2016 Indigo Ag has raised more than $650 million in funding. The recently announced Terraton Initiative is a global effort to remove a trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use it to enrich agricultural soils.
David is a serial entrepreneur who has founded and built three innovative companies in the last 20 years, leading the last two through successful IPOs and to multi-billion dollar market capitalizations and raising over $1.2 billion while generating significant returns for investors. He was most recently CEO and Co-Founder of Anacor Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ANAC), a biopharmaceutical company discovering and developing novel small-molecule therapeutics to treat infectious and inflammatory diseases. The company was acquired by Pfizer Inc. (NYSE: PFE) in 2016 for approximately $5.2 billion. David previously co-founded and served as CEO of Chemdex (NASDAQ: CMDX), later creating its parent company Ventro Corporation (NASDAQ: VNTR), a business-to-business marketplace focused on the life sciences industry. At its peak, Ventro was valued at $11 billion and was later sold to Nexprise. David is Founder and Chairman of the San Francisco-based digital health startup Better Therapeutics (f/k/a FareWell) and a Board Director of the human microbiome company Evelo Biosciences.
In 2000, David was named Entrepreneur of the Year in Northern California by Ernst and Young. He holds an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School and a B.S. in chemical engineering from the University of Tulsa. He also attended the United States Air Force Academy, where he was a National Merit Scholar.
In today’s episode, we cover:
Links to topics discussed in this episode:
You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 or @mcjpod and email at email@example.com, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and suggestions for future topics or guests.
Enjoy the show!
Jason Jacobs: Hello everyone. This is Jason Jacobs and welcome to My Climate Journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change, and try to figure out how people like you and I can help.
Jason Jacobs: Today's guest is David Perry, President and CEO of Indigo Ag. Indigo Ag is harnessing nature to help farmers sustainably feed the planet. They improve grower profitability, environmental sustainability, and consumer health through the use of natural microbiology and digital technologies.
Jason Jacobs: Founded in 2016 Indigo Ag has raised more than $650 million in funding. The recently announced Terraton Initiative is a global effort to remove a trillion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and use it to enrich agricultural soils.
Jason Jacobs: David is a serial entrepreneur who's founded and built three innovative companies in the last 20 years leading the last two through successful IPOs and to multi-billion dollar market capitalizations. He also raised over 1.2 billion while generating significant returns for investors in the process.
Jason Jacobs: Fascinating episode, great discussion, important topic and I learned a lot, so I hope you will as well. David Perry, welcome to the show.
David Perry: Thank you. Good to be invited.
Jason Jacobs: I'm really excited for this one. Agriculture is as you know, an important stop in terms of decarbonization, and that's my focus is decarbonization. So I've been going kind of sector to sector but I really haven't tackled agriculture yet.
Jason Jacobs: I'm Boston based, born and raised. And so I've seen this company in the last few years come out of nowhere and just kind of explode on the scene. And that's Indigo Ag. And especially with the Terraton Initiative, you guys are doing a lot of stuff that seems highly relevant to the things I'm thinking about. So I had to come and see you. I'm so glad that you were willing to speak with little old me.
David Perry: Hey, it's my pleasure. You're doing interesting stuff.
Jason Jacobs: So maybe we'll just take it from the top. What is Indigo Ag?
David Perry: At Indigo we think of ourselves as systems innovators and specifically we're trying to change the way the agricultural industry works, away from effectively a commodity industry today towards one that is decommoditized so that if we're successful farmers make more money, agriculture is more environmentally friendly and consumers get healthier food.
Jason Jacobs: I guess I'll ask two questions. I mean I was going to ask how did the company come about. But maybe we should take a step back further than that because this is not your first rodeo.
Jason Jacobs: And I think what's interesting as I prepped for this interview is that, I mean you've worked in a bunch of important mission-driven areas, but they don't necessarily have to do with each other.
Jason Jacobs: So how have you decided along the way what the right problems are to tackle and then what is it that led you to tackling this one specifically?
David Perry: I started life on a farm in Arkansas. We had a small farm. We also sold fertilizer to local farmers. So was both a farmer and we had farmers as customers. Then I went on to do completely other stuff. So I have a chemical engineering degree, undergrad, an MBA from Harvard.
David Perry: And really since graduating with my MBA, I've been starting and running technology-based companies. So in '97 I started a company called Chemdex, which was one of the first business-to-business eCommerce companies. Took that public in '99, sold it in a one.
Jason Jacobs: I feel like I might have done a case study on Chemdex in business school. Is that possible?
David Perry: What year did you graduate?
Jason Jacobs: '03 to '05 I was there.
David Perry: Yeah. Almost certainly, yes.
Jason Jacobs: I'm 99% sure that we did.
David Perry: There was a case on Chemdex written, and I don't remember if it was '98 or '99 that was taught for several years. Then I took a little break and in 2002 started Anacor Pharmaceuticals, which was a therapeutic company using a completely different chemistry approach, using boron chemistry to create human therapeutics.
David Perry: We had both a for-profit side focused on new antibiotics and antifungals and a not-for-profit side that was focused on neglected diseases, things like malaria, tuberculosis, African sleeping sickness.
David Perry: Much longer ride with Anacor. Eight years after we started it, took it public in 2010. I stepped down when we got our first drug approved in 2014. And Pfizer ultimately bought Anacor for about five and a half billion dollars in 2016.
Jason Jacobs: Leave on a high. I like it.
David Perry: Yeah, right. And then so in 2014 I had the opportunity to sort of step back and think about what I wanted to do next. I started with a completely clean sheet of paper. I said, I now have the opportunity to do whatever I want to do. How can I take the things I've learned and sort of make the biggest impact?
David Perry: Just concluded out of that, that I wanted to focus on food and agriculture mostly, or at least in part because I think food and agriculture represent some of the biggest problems we face as a planet and as a society.
Jason Jacobs: What were the problems that were most striking to you as you thought about food and agriculture?
David Perry: I'll name at least four. One is that agricultural production isn't growing as fast as the population growth demands for food was growing. Today they're roughly balanced, but if they continue on the current path, we will be way out of balance just 20 or 30 years from now when we have nine and a half billion people on the planet.
Jason Jacobs: So population growth is outpacing the ability of the current agricultural system to keep up with that demand?
David Perry: Yes. The second is that the means that we're using to get the growth we are in agriculture are bad for humans and bad for the planet. We're degrading about 25 million acres of farm land each year.
David Perry: We use about 30% more fresh water each year than the planet can replenish and about 70% of that use goes to agriculture. So you can't really think about water use without thinking about agriculture's use of it.
David Perry: Nitrogen runoff from synthetic fertilizer use causes algae blooms in rivers and lakes and dead zones and oceans. Pesticide residue creates health concerns in humans and so forth.
David Perry: Third is that agriculture is 25% to 35% of the human cause greenhouse gas emissions. I mean second only to oil and gas in terms of contribution to global warming. So you know there's a, we believe, a big opportunity to change it from being one of the biggest contributors to the problem, to being what I think is one of the most hopeful solutions to the problem.
Jason Jacobs: So you came to this realization that there's this industry that has these problems that are fundamental to our quality of life and the planet's quality of life. What next? Where'd you start? Actually as a proven entrepreneur who had already taken a company public, it's always interesting to hear about when you start over from day zero.
David Perry: I've now written five or six business plans in my life and I always basically start from the same place, which is to talk to anybody who will talk to me. So I go to conferences, I find people who are doing interesting stuff and I call them and see if they'll meet with me and that's what I did in this case.
David Perry: I was looking for either something to start from scratch or something to buy or technology to license and educating myself as I went. In the process I met the scientific founder of Indigo, a guy named Geoff von Maltzahn, who's a remarkably talented biotech entrepreneur.
David Perry: He had started the predecessor to Indigo. He had 13 people but really interesting data about how one could use microbiology, sort of naturally occurring microbes to reduce or replace a lot of the chemicals and fertilizers used today.
Jason Jacobs: And was that through the coating on the seeds?
David Perry: At the time it was just science. We didn't have any way of applying it, but ultimately that is the way we brought it to market. So using ... coating seeds with microbes to improve their performance.
Jason Jacobs: So you found this brilliant scientist with a team of 13 people and then decided to join them at that time?
David Perry: So co-invested in the A round. Moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Boston to be the CEO.
Jason Jacobs: Great. And what year was that?
David Perry: January of 2015, so a little over four years ago.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. So that's not very much time. You guys, I think you've raised what? Almost $700 million at this point.
David Perry: That's correct.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. So how did you get from there to here and what were some of the key milestones along the way?
David Perry: There's a lot of work in there, but it does feel like it's gone fast.
Jason Jacobs: You think?
David Perry: Yeah. Well, part of it is that there is an enormous potential opportunity. Agriculture is one of the largest industries in the world and impacts every single one of us every day. And there are a significant number of problems that most people agree with.
David Perry: So, if you can figure out how to solve that, it's a potentially really large and valuable company. And so it's with that mindset that we've approached this. It's the way we've built the business plan, it's the way we've raised money, et cetera.
David Perry: That if we can do this, we're going to build a rarely valuable company and, therefore, we should hire executives who can manage that kind of company. We should have financial partners who can provide financing for that kind of company and so forth.
Jason Jacobs: So when you first started thinking at that time about going to market, you had this science and you hadn't figured out how to apply it. So now you've since progressed and you apply it through this coating as we just touched on.
Jason Jacobs: But you're doing a lot of other things as well. So how did you think about staging it that time and then how has that thinking evolved as both time has gone on and also the way that you've capitalized the company has changed quite a bit?
David Perry: One of the things that I talked to Geoff and Flagship Ventures, who incubated the company before I ever joined, was the bigger picture in agriculture.
David Perry: My view at the time was that there are big problems in agriculture and the solutions are going to require systemic change, and that microbiology could be a cornerstone for what we build that systems change around but it wasn't going to be sufficient by itself. We're going to have to to try to build all the building blocks to change agriculture.
David Perry: So fortunately Geoff and Flagship were fully on board with that and we've continued to recruit investors who are in agreement. So, we like most technology companies spent the next couple of years just working on technology, but we didn't bring anything to market until 2017.
David Perry: As we did all that we began putting in place if you were going to design an agricultural system from scratch, what would it look like and begin building the tools and stuff to make that work.
Jason Jacobs: With that clean slate, what should an agricultural system look like and then how is that different than what exists today or in a world where Indigo Ag doesn't exist?
David Perry: Ongoing hypothesis is that one of the reasons that the existing problems in ag do exist is because most farmers are producing commodities. They get paid for volume, a bushel of corn or weight, like pounds of cotton, just like somebody producing a barrel of oil does or a ton of iron.
David Perry: There is no consideration to most farmers for quality or sustainability. It doesn't matter how they produced it. It doesn't matter what the protein levels are. It doesn't matter what the pesticide residue is. As long as it meets certain minimum specs, it's all worth the same thing.
Jason Jacobs: Why is that? What is preventing quality from getting factored into those decisions?
David Perry: Well, it's the system and the system was created for good reason. It's more than 100 years old. As people were moving off the farm into urban areas, farmers for the first time in history, their customers changed.
David Perry: So for the previous 10,000 years, farmers produced food for themselves, their family, their neighbors. But now they're producing food for people who might be thousands of miles away.
David Perry: So that requires aggregation. You need to store that differently. You need to be able to ship it in rail cars. And all of that at the time required commoditization so that every bushel of corn would be the same so you could buy corn from multiple farmers and put it all in the same silo, for example, or all in the same rail car.
Jason Jacobs: Because otherwise it would just be logistically chaos?
David Perry: And how would you value it differently? You can't keep it separate. Yeah, just it ... that's the only way it would work given the technology that existed, you know, 100 years ago.
Jason Jacobs: So that commoditization, is that the key tenant of what's broken today or are there others as well that we haven't touched on yet?
David Perry: We think that's the core. If you can decommoditize agriculture and make it a specialty, things immediately get better. So allow buyers of grain and other farm produce to specify what they want and what they're willing to pay for and then farmers to specify what they have and what they'll take for it. And you, voila, you have a specialty market.
David Perry: So think of the local farmer's market as an example of this. People go to the farmer's market because they think they get higher quality, more nutritious food, and farmers are willing to produce things that those customers want because they get paid more for doing so.
Jason Jacobs: So is there no menu today?
David Perry: No, there is no scalable way of doing that. And so that's one of the core things that Indigo has done, is created ... Called the Indigo's Grain Marketplace. So a giant eCommerce platform where buyers of grain can go and buy directly from farmers.
David Perry: In the first 17 months ... So this only existed, and we launched it in June of '18. It's only 17 months old. Over $250 billion worth of bids have been placed in that marketplace.
Jason Jacobs: So if I'm hearing right, it sounds like there's this buzzword being floated around in the Valley that I'm sure you know well, which is this kind of full-stack company, right?
Jason Jacobs: So you guys look at the agricultural industry and you say it's broken. And actually we have this science and new way of doing things using microbiomes, which is more natural by finding the right microbiomes. It's kind of a wedge, but ultimately it's a wedge to reinvent the whole thing in a way that's far more beneficial for the key tenants that you mentioned. Sustainability, health and farmer livelihood.
David Perry: Farm profitability. Yeah.
Jason Jacobs: Farm profitability.
David Perry: That was nicely done.
Jason Jacobs: Thanks. I'm trying, I'm trying. I did watch a couple of talks that you gave that were long form as part of my prep. So hopefully I retained at least a little bit of it, but I still feel like a beginner. So you've got the coating, right, the seeds, and then you've got the marketplace. Are there other core components of the Indigo vision, and and also how many of those are in place today?
David Perry: So marketplace enables decommoditization. That's the reason we think of it as core. But now you've got to do a whole bunch of other stuff to enable farmers to deliver against that.
David Perry: So for example, you need traceability. We have an announced deal with Anheuser-Busch as an example where they're paying more, paying farmers a premium for producing sustainably grown rice. But that only works if they know that the rice that's showing up at their mill was grown in the way that they're paying a premium for. So you've got to be able to trace it from the farm all the way to the buyer.
David Perry: So for that reason, we launched Indigo Transport, which is our eCommerce platform for trucking so that farmers who need transportation can get it inexpensively and we can trace goods from farm to buyer.
Jason Jacobs: Are there point solutions that exist for that monitoring that you're displacing or how were they doing it before guys came along?
David Perry: In a commodity market, you don't have to do that. It's the reason you have to think about it as the whole system. So, once you enable decommoditization, now there are a whole bunch of pieces you have to put in place to allow people to deliver specialty stuff.
Jason Jacobs: Where does the coding fit in in terms of that decommoditization?
David Perry: Well in that particular case Anheuser-Busch is asking for those crops to be grown with less nitrogen fertilizer, less water, and a lower carbon footprint. Microbiology helps in all of those by reducing the amount of fertilizer that's needed, reducing the amount of pesticides that are needed, and allowing those plants to be more water use efficient.
Jason Jacobs: So who buys the seeds?
David Perry: Farmers buy the seeds.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. So you sell the seeds to farmers directly, they produce the crop. If they want, they have participation in this marketplace. Do you have to be a customer of the seeds to participate in this marketplace?
David Perry: No. It's all in our cart. So you can choose to participate in one, any one that you want to, but it obviously works best as a system and that's what we find most farmers doing.
Jason Jacobs: Given you said, I think with the marketplace since it launched has been 250 billion claims. Did I get that right?
David Perry: Bids.
Jason Jacobs: Bids, bids.
David Perry: Yeah.
Jason Jacobs: So 250 billion bids. I heard you say when talking about this marketplace or any marketplace for that matter, that there's this chicken and egg problem when you get started that each side doesn't have value to the other because there's nothing there. How did you guys get around that and get this traction that quickly?
David Perry: It's true of any marketplace. Day one you have no value to buyers because you don't have any sellers and vice versa. So the single hardest thing to do in most marketplaces is just get started.
David Perry: In our case, we had the advantage of already having lots of farmers as customers. So we have a sales force, we had existing customers, so we had a way of aggregating those. We had already built the technology sort of for our own use. So we had something that they could immediately interact with, and then we built a sales force to go talk to buyers and get them onboard.
Jason Jacobs: Got it. And then the buyers are of what profile?
David Perry: Anyone who buys grain. So it could be a brewery, it could be a flour mill, or a bakery, a ethanol plant. I mean truly the entire spectrum.
Jason Jacobs: And isn't there ... There's like a, it's not like a grain agent, but it's like a place to warehouse the grain that's like a middleman. It begins with a C maybe, what's that word?
David Perry: Are you thinking of silo.
Jason Jacobs: No, no.
David Perry: Because that'd be where that is.
Jason Jacobs: No, it's not silo. But there's actually a term. Gosh, I should have written it down. I saw it in, you brought it up on one of your talks and then I Googled it. Anyways, it's not important but it sounds like they were part of that customer base too. Not the end customer, but it's almost the equivalent of a reseller, it sounded like.
David Perry: There are grain companies that often sit in between and manage logistics. And the largest of those in the world are companies like Cargill, ADM, Bunge.
Jason Jacobs: I'm going to email you the name once I find it of whatever this category is, but it's not critical for this discussion.
David Perry: Okay.
Jason Jacobs: I'm just trying to show off my little bit of prep. Okay, so there's the seed, there's the marketplace, there's Indigo Transport. Are there other layers of the stack that we haven't talked about yet?
David Perry: There's Indigo carbon. So we just launched the Terraton Initiative in June. But it's a ... the goal of the Terraton Initiative is to pull a trillion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere,
Jason Jacobs: Which is the difference between pre-industrial revolution and today, right?
David Perry: In the atmosphere, very good. And store that in agricultural soils. So to do that, we have to build what we call Indigo carbon, the ability to measure, quantify, verify, and certify carbon sequestration on farm, turn those into carbon credits and be able to sell those in the existing carbon credit market.
Jason Jacobs: So can you explain that a little bit? Why is that an essential component of this new vision for agriculture?
David Perry: I can. Let me step back on this. Let's state the problem. Scientists recently measured 415 parts per million carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That's the highest that we know of in the last 14 million years. And it's significantly higher than it was right at the beginning in the industrial revolution where it was about 280 parts per million.
David Perry: That increase from 280 to 415 parts per million represents about a trillion tons of carbon oxide that's in the atmosphere today that wasn't there before we learned how to burn coal and oil for fuel and heat.
David Perry: When people begin to grasp that problem, their first instinct is, okay, we got to quit emitting carbon dioxide. We have to reduce emissions, or you used the term earlier to decarbonize. And we absolutely do. You know, we need to change the entire economic structure of the planet so that we are less dependent on carbon sources for fuel and heat. And that's not sufficient.
David Perry: If we do that, and let's say we meet every commitment we've made thus far. Everybody who signed the Paris accord meets their commitments. Every company that's announced science based targets do what they say they're going to do. We're still emitting more carbon dioxide tomorrow and a year from now and 10 years from now, while the amount of emissions may be going down the total mountain of the atmosphere is still going up.
David Perry: And by the end of the century, 80 years from now, we're going to have somewhere around 600 parts per million in the atmosphere. Then you might think of it as best case, if we don't do anything, it's going to be 1200 parts per million. Those are levels that are extraordinary given Earth's history thus far.
David Perry: We don't know exactly what that looks like in terms of the climate, but it's bad. So one can quickly conclude that we need to reduce emissions everywhere we can and that that's insufficient. We also have to figure out how to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and undo the damage that we've done. Otherwise reducing emissions is still going to leave us in a really uncomfortable place.
David Perry: That's sort of where I was about a year ago. The more you understand this, the more hopeless it feels. If we have to reduce emissions, we've laid out targets, it's hard to be optimistic that we're actually going to hit all those targets. And even if we do, all we've done is slowed down an inevitable march toward a climate cliff. That's a bummer.
David Perry: The realization that natural systems can make a huge impact here is the most optimistic thing I know about with regard to climate change. It's completely changed my mindset around it.
Jason Jacobs: What led to that revelation? Was there a book or a speaker or a conference or you hit your head in the shower?
David Perry: It's like almost all innovations here at Indigo, it's a result of a whole bunch of conversations with a bunch of different people. But it included realizing that there were certain farmers who were farming in a way that they were building the carbon in their soil.
David Perry: So those farmers are usually called regenerative farmers and the practices they were using are called regenerative practices. So, they're things like using cover crops and not tilling the soil. They were doing this because they thought it was a more profitable way to farm, but they were getting the happy side effect of more and more carbon building up in the soil.
David Perry: So we approached this from the beginning as, well, how can we pay farmers for that? They're effectively performing a benefit for society. We as a US government has already made the decision that that's something to pay for because we pay oil companies for it.
Jason Jacobs: For sequestering carbon.
David Perry: Yeah. Oil companies get paid somewhere between $35 and $50 a ton of carbon dioxide. They get paid. They get a tax credit.
Jason Jacobs: That's the 45Q?
David Perry: 45Q for pumping carbon oxide into the ground. Well, if we're willing to pay oil companies for it, our reasoning went, surely we would be willing to pay farmers for it. So that's sort of how we started thinking about it is, you know, how do we provide incentives for farmers to farm in a more sustainable way?
Jason Jacobs: So is it you that's paying the farmers?
David Perry: No, but let me get back to that. So that's how we started. It was only as we were pretty well into it, we started doing the math on what could this mean from a planetary perspective and the number is in the trillions of tons of potential. And that's just agricultural soil.
Jason Jacobs: I don't need specifics, but what's the back of the envelope math on that. How did you get to that trillions of tons?
David Perry: We had a whole bunch of backup on this. But really simply the average carbon concentration in today's agricultural soil is about 1%. Prior to it being cultivated, when it was native Prairie or forest or whatever, it was around 3%.
David Perry: If we could get every cultivated acre on earth, so the 3.6 billion acres of farmland from 1% back to 3%, that would be about a trillion tons of carbon dioxide.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, so that's where you get to a trillion. Then the hard part is actually what is the work that gets us there and then how credible are these estimates, et cetera. You're saying that's the potential if we can get the soil back.
David Perry: That's the potential. And that was only cultivated acre. So there's another eight billion acres of grassland that also has significant potential to increase carbon. And that's on top of that.
David Perry: And then I'll just say a couple of other things is that agriculture is one of the ways of harnessing plants to do this, but not the only one. And I'll make a quick aside. So there's a number of ... There are people working on a bunch of ways to pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, direct air capture and I applaud those efforts. It is absolutely worthwhile.
David Perry: But right now those sort of machines cost hundreds of dollars, a ton to sequester the carbon. And at their current scale, it would take hundreds of millions of the machines to have a real impact. Or we could use plants because this is what they do. The core process for plants is photosynthesis, which is the process of pulling carbon oxide out of the atmosphere using energy from the sun combined with chlorophyll and turning atmospheric carbon oxide into hydrocarbons.
David Perry: Every part of a plant used to be carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They do it for us already. They use a free energy source and they put the carbon in a place where it can be useful. So any credible plan to pull carbon oxide out of the atmosphere today harnesses photosynthesis. It's the only way for it to be scalable, affordable, and immediate.
Jason Jacobs: Well. So going from 1% to 3% and if that's all we need to do for a trillion tons, that sounds easy. So what actually needs to happen tangibly to go from 1% to 3%?
David Perry: I'm feeling like I'm about three questions behind, so I'm going to try to catch up for a moment.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, sorry. And I keep going. Maybe I shouldn't have had the last cup of coffee. That was the one. The other five didn't matter, but it was the sixth.
David Perry: All right. So agriculture is a really important way to harness photosynthesis, but it's not the only way.
David Perry: A second really important way are trees and forest. So maintaining trees to the greatest extent possible and planting trees everywhere there's not a more higher use for the land is really important. That can all ... I'd say worth at least hundreds of billions of tons of potential.
David Perry: Then a third opportunity is oceans or plants that grow in the ocean. So if we can figure out how to harness seaweed or algae, grow it at scale, harvest it somehow. So we've got so much surface area in the oceans that it's got enormous potential and we haven't really figured out how to do that yet.
David Perry: But those three things which you could lump together as natural solutions, all leveraging photosynthesis have trillions of tons of potential. This is a solvable problem. We're not waiting for a new technical solution. We don't have to depend on something that doesn't exist yet. We just have to decide collectively as a society that we're going to make it happen. That's the optimistic part.
Jason Jacobs: Can I add a fourth question into the backlog then?
David Perry: Yeah. Keep them coming.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. The first question is just when you lay it out, it sounds so compelling and obvious. Why is that such a controversial point amongst people that have dedicated their whole careers to this topic?
David Perry: Well, I'm not sure that it is. Which part are you referring to?
Jason Jacobs: The part that natural solutions could be enough. Why are people pushing so hard on direct care capture and other forms of engineered carbon removal if natural solutions could be enough? Why don't we just put all our eggs into natural solutions?
Jason Jacobs: Okay. It sounds like you think we should, and there's a lot of experts that think it's all hands on deck and that we shouldn't rely on that. So I'm just trying to figure out why they think ... maybe I should ask them.
David Perry: Well, I think you put words in my mouth a little bit. I didn't say it was the only thing we should do. In fact, it's critically important that we reduce emissions. Otherwise we're pulling carbon out of the atmosphere even as we put more back in.
David Perry: So, all of this only works if we decarbonize, if we reduce and ultimately stop putting more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So that's one thing.
David Perry: And second is I think this is a big enough problem that we should do everything that might make sense. The reason I'm so optimistic about natural solutions is we don't have to wait on anything to start. It's big enough. It's scalable. The potential solution is at the same scale as the problem.
David Perry: It's immediate. We don't have to wait for new technology breakthroughs. We can start now. And it's reasonably affordable. It's somewhere around $15 or $20 a ton we can sequester a whole bunch of carbon and that's a lot less expensive than other alternatives. We can implement that in today's economy and not cripple what we're doing.
Jason Jacobs: If that's the vision, as someone who's very concerned about climate change, how could I not support that vision? I think that sounds fantastic. What's Indigo Ag's role in that process?
David Perry: One of the things that has prevented agriculture from being sort of harnessed in this way, is that there was no scalable, affordable way of measuring carbon in the soil. Imagine that you're a company that's buying carbon credits.
David Perry: Today, if you wanted to use farmers to do this, you'd go contract with hundreds or thousands of farmers. You would measure their soil at baseline, you'd come back in a year and measure it again. It's not a feasible approach. And so maybe the most important thing that Indigo brings to this is a scalable, affordable way of measuring and quantifying carbon and turning that into carbon credits, say by currency that the world understands.
Jason Jacobs: And so if I'm a farmer and maybe I'm even a farmer who's a customer of the Indigo Ag seeds, and I'm also using the marketplace and I'm selling through the eCommerce solution with the transport, I hope I got all that right so far.
Jason Jacobs: If I also want to improve my soil quality, you think that by enabling them to get credits and essentially get paid to do so, that it will help incentivize that behavior so that a higher percentage of them are doing the things that some of them are doing both out of a combination of a goodness of their heart and because they believe it's better business? And then connecting them with is it large enterprises that either are mandated or are voluntarily looking to offset their emissions?
David Perry: Again, an excellent summary. So farmers for the most part are the most sustainably minded people I know and for the most part they're just trying to make a living. So, if we can give them additional financial incentives to change behavior, we could see a really rapid shift in farming practices. And that's the idea around the Terraton Initiative. Being able to quantify the amount of carbon sequestered and then paying farmers to make that change.
Jason Jacobs: I think that was a great summary of the different layers of the stack and Indigo Ag's piece. I guess my last question is just if you had $100 billion and you could allocate it towards anything to maximize its impact in the climate fight, where would you put that money and how would you allocate it?
David Perry: 100 billion, if you could invest that at $20 a ton, that would be five billion tons of carbon dioxide. I would first allocate it towards drawdown. It's important to both reduce emissions and pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. My personal belief is our primary focus ought to be on undoing that damage, getting carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
David Perry: I would then allocate the money exclusively towards natural solutions. So, every scalable affordable immediate solution I know harnesses photosynthesis. I would put some of it in agriculture. I would put some of it into planting trees and maintaining forest, and I would put some of it into research around how can we use oceans to pull carbon dioxide out of atmosphere as well.
Jason Jacobs: Great. And actually more specific to the Indigo Ag vision, but just in terms of barriers or hurdles, if you could make one change that would most accelerate this vision that you laid out towards becoming a reality and that might be an Indigo Ag changer or it might be a policy change or it could be a consumer behavior change, an anything change, if you could wave your magic wand, what would change?
David Perry: I'm going to give two answers to that. The first one is societal. The biggest thing that could impact this is for society to, a, believe that it's important and, two, believe that it's solvable. I believe this is the biggest problem we face this century. Maybe the biggest problem we've ever faced, but it solvable.
David Perry: As of yet, we haven't marshaled our resources accordingly. We've got entrepreneurs focused on a whole bunch of stuff that's a lot less important than this problem. So, for it to be solvable, we've got to turn all of that attention and creativity and innovation and capital towards solving it.
David Perry: So people have to believe it's a problem and they have to have a hopeful perspective. They have to believe if they focus on it, it's a solvable problem. Those two things are necessary. Without both of them happening, we're not going to put that sort of attention to it and it's not going to get solved. It's a tragic outcome.
David Perry: So the most important thing we can do is bring awareness of both the problem and the potential for solutions to the broader society.
David Perry: The second sort of more practical answer to that is a carbon tax or cap and trade system. Once you put a value on carbon, everything will change. The use of carbon will go down and the sequestration of carbon will go up.
Jason Jacobs: And the last question since I know I'm about to get the cane here, is just for any listener out there who's super concerned about climate change and wants to help, just speak to them for a minute. What advice do you have for them trying to figure out how to apply themselves to maximize their impact on this problem?
David Perry: What's the saying? Be the change you want to see in the world. I guess I would start there. First, calculate your own carbon footprint. We all have one. Understand how your own lifestyle impacts the problem and you can ... We have a carbon calculator at IndigoAg.com, there are others out there.
David Perry: But sort of gain an understanding of what your contribution is. Think about how to reduce that impact, so what changes can you make to reduce your own footprint, and then what can you do to offset that? Are there investments you can make either in agriculture or trees or oceans, et cetera, to turn your sort of negative carbon footprint into a positive?
Jason Jacobs: Great. Well I think that's a great point to end on. I learned a lot. Thank you so much for coming on the show.
David Perry: Sure. I was happy to do it and enjoyed it. Thank you.
Jason Jacobs: Hey, everyone. Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on My Climate Journey. If you'd like to learn more about the journey, you can visit us at myclimatejourney.co. Note that is .co not .com. Someday we'll get to .com, but right now .co.
Jason Jacobs: You can also find me on Twitter @JayJacobs22 where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear.
Jason Jacobs: And before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show, please share an episode with a friend or consider leaving a review on iTunes. The lawyers made me say that. Thank you.