$10 million boost for soil carbon quest

The soil carbon project with a Forbes agronomist at its centre has been given a $10 million boost.

In a laboratory in Orange, a group of scientists is hoping to find the fungi that will work with our farmers to improve soil carbon levels - and identify the best way to get it to the world's crops.

For Forbes' Guy Webb it's a dream come true.

Soil carbon, he explains, is the foundation of fertility in any soil. Plants capture carbon from the atmosphere every day. What these fungi do is lock it into the soil long-term.

Soil C Quest's Guy Webb explains how fungi can improve soil fertility

Guy was one of a small team that founded not-for-profit SoilCQuest to explore the benefits of these 'carbon fungi' for the world's carbon-depleted cropping soils.

This year Soil Carbon Co, the commercial sister company to SoilCQuest they've formed to take this idea forward, has received $10 million in funding from private backers and the Australian Government.

It's given them the capacity to set up a lab and start on the serious work of producing a commercial inoculum product that will be able to be applied to seeds so that the farmer, upon sowing a crop, will be setting it up to improve the soil carbon levels for the long term.

"We've been given the chance to do what we have dreamed of, and to do the science properly," Guy says.

It's now more than eight years since Guy first heard about fungi that could capture carbon from the air and transform it into stable soil carbon - improving soil health and fertility.

With every fungus sample that turns black in a petri dish the team is one step closer to having something farmers can take to the paddock, Guy says.

Holding a petri dish, he explains how a fungi sample that turns that little glass tray black is good news for soil.

"It manufactures a compound called melanin - that's the black stuff - and melanin is basically soil organic carbon," he explains.

"So this fungus, when you inoculate it onto a plant, actually goes inside the root and helps the plant go about its daily business of acquiring nutrients and so on.

"The fungus then uses some of the carbon that the plant is making for photosynthesis and converts it into soil organic carbon. It sends its hyphae out through the soil laden with this melanin / organic carbon and deposits it in a halo around the root system. The fungi deposit some of that organic carbon into soil microaggregates. Once trapped inside a soil microaggregate, the carbon is rendered stable for long periods of time.

"That fungus literally turns plant sugars into stable soil organic carbon and deposits it safely into the soil - and that's what's got us excited.

"Not only is the fungus stimulating the plant to grow better, these fungi help with water relations and nutrient acquisition in the plant, so you get a growth promotional effect from the fungus at the same time as helping enrich the soil with carbon. More carbon holds more water, improves nutrient cycling and soil structure, so the plant roots can go further into the soil - improving the crop yield at the same time improving soil fertility.

"Year by year the soil gets better and better rather than run down."

In the year or so since the Advocate's last update from Guy, he and the SoilCQuest team have travelled thousands of kilometres collecting thousands more fungi samples from all over Australia.

Each is being put to the test in this lab to find which ones are going to be the best to go to the market - because the team is absolutely passionate about ensuring whatever they produce is accessible to farmers all over the world.

It's only the beginning, really, of a journey that Guy hopes will change agriculture.

The first group of farmers, ranging from family farms to corporate farms right across the country, have started meeting with SoilCQuest with a view to road testing the product in the paddock.