8 May 2024

Roots and A.I. offer carbon storage solutions


According to Alliance of Bioversity International deeper roots boost carbon sequestration while artificial intelligence enables more accurate measurements of carbon storage

by Matteo Cavallito


The development of crops characterized by deeper roots and the use of artificial intelligence can help farmers reduce carbon emissions. As well as profitably take part in emissions credit markets. This is stated in an article by researchers at the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT (Center for Tropical Agriculture), a Rome-based global research organization.

Better management of soil carbon represents “a way for farmers to increase food production, achieve global net-zero carbon emissions, and address the impacts of climate change,” the authors said in a statement.

A gene is responsible for root development

The researchers, in particular, highlight the role played by roots in carbon storage. Indeed, tillage in preparation for planting tends to break them down and promote their decomposition, which, in turn, releases the stored element into the atmosphere. When able to reach up to about two meters deep, on the other hand, roots are much less vulnerable to the action of microbes and can also act as reservoirs for nutrients and water during droughts.

“Crop varieties with deeper roots contribute to carbon storage by depositing it in deeper soil layers, providing protection against tillage and erosion,” explains the article published in the journal Molecular Plant.

Moreover, “Various root traits, including growth angles, cortical cell features (thickness, count, wall area), aerenchyma formation, stele diameter, and multiseriate cortical sclerenchyma (MCS), allow plants to adapt to hard soils and navigate mechanical impedance.” Regulating the direction of root development, the authors point out, is a gene known as DRO1. Its discovery in 2013 was a breakthrough and paved the way for the development of crop varieties that can better withstand water stress by being able to reach underground water sources.

The role of artificial intelligence

Measuring carbon sequestration, however, the researchers explain, still remains an open question. Estimates, they add, are made by analyzing soil samples taken at a limited depth. This technique, however, has reduced effectiveness. “If you are surveying 400 hectares, 40 samples will not be a true representation of the soil carbon,” explains Michael Gomez Selvaraj, a scientist and co-author of the paper. “Also, most people who are measuring carbon are doing it to a depth of only to about 40 centimeters.”

Offering a new solution, however, is the combination of remote sensing and the subsequent use of artificial intelligence analysis. Thanks to A.I., in particular, it is now possible to scan large areas of land to accurately estimate the presence of organic carbon without altering the soil.

Agriculture can be capable of promoting carbon sequestration

Accurate measurement is essential for the development of carbon farming, or those agricultural practices that increase the uptake and storage of the element. This is crucial in a still problematic global scenario in which, the article remarks. “Agricultural practices currently contribute to the emission of approximately 10%–12% atmospheric greenhouse gasses, with tillage agriculture accelerating soil disruption and carbon dioxide release.”

Initiatives such as the use of new technologies and the selection of plants with deeper roots, of course, can be very important for climate mitigation. In Europe alone, say EU Commission estimates, carbon farming is expected to deliver total emission savings of 42 million tons of carbon dioxide by 2030.