'Carbon-eating fungi' could be the answer to Aussie farmers' prayers

NSW-based Loam Bio is making huge waves in the agriculture sector, and for very good reason.

We know that farming is a major contributor to Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions, and as our population skyrockets to new heights, the demand for produce will similarly continue to soar.

Farmers make up our country's backbone, providing all of us with the food we eat, the materials our clothes are made out of and everything else in between. Copping the brunt of weather extremes, Aussie farmers have long been calling out for action when it comes to the country's climate fight, and now, a game-changing new program has emerged that could prove to be the answer to their prayers.

Speaking to Yahoo News Australia, Tegan Nock, co-founder and COO of Loam Bio, an agriculture start-up responsible for a world-first initiative in which fungi is used to eat "the carbon emissions" from crops, explains how the fascinating scheme works.

'Exciting' bush-based project making waves on a global scale

Tegan Nock of Aussie agriculture start-up Loam Bio.
Tegan Nock of Aussie agriculture start-up Loam Bio is leading a world-first program that's set to make big waves. Source: Supplied

"So these fungi, they live around the root system of a plant," Nock told Yahoo. "They capture the photosynthetic material that all plants release, plant sugars, into the soil.

"The fungi live in that environment, they capture that carbon that the plant's releasing into the soil, and then they lock it away in a more stable form, that's good for soil health. It also means it's not being released back into the atmosphere."

When most people think of fungi, a mushroom or a mould-looking substance probably springs to mind, but Nock explains what we're talking about here is neither, in fact it's a ground substance that under a microscope looks "stringy". "It's all kind of like, hyphae networks," she said.

Ruby Pippen of Loam Bio.
Ruby Pippen said her field is "so exciting" and called on other women to consider a career in Science on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Source: Supplied

Billionaire investors secured

The bush-based business, that's run out of Orange in the NSW Central Tablelands, has already attracted some serious big-name investors, including billionaire Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes and Salesforce co-founder and tech heavyweight Marc Benioff.

Nock said it's been "great to be able to see" Loam Bio's huge success since it's inception in 2019, back when they operated with only a handful of staff, to now having 130 worldwide, with divisions in the US, Brazil, and in Canada,

"Loam is a beautiful Australian success story," Nock said. "We ended up rolling the technology out into a commercial entity that now operates across four geographies. We've taken our research all around the world to be able to scale up, to let this carbon-capture technology grow out, [to have] more than just an Australian impact, but a global one.

Win for climate change, farmers and protection against weather extremes

The product is "fantastic from a climate change solution perspective", too, Nock added.

Fellow scientist and one of many women in the team, microbiologist Ruby Pippen, 24, manages Loam’s Australian microbial libraries, and recently relocated from the city to the bush to take part in the "exciting" program.

Pippen — affectionately known as "the custodian of the fungi" — told Yahoo how much she's embraced her move, despite never imagining she'd live rurally, and how her work could change the game. "Our CarbonBuilder product is basically fungal mass," she said. "So, it's basically a powder that you can coat cropping seeds in and plant them.

Pippen said that while "a lot of credit is given to trees and plants" for drawing carbon out of the atmosphere —"that's not the whole picture". "For that carbon to stay in the soil, a lot of the work is on the microbes and fungi that interact with the plant roots.

"Traditional cropping systems sometimes can damage that relationship. So what Loam has seen as an opportunity to do is to develop a product around reintroducing fungi to be able to help mediate that process."

With emphasis on making the process as easy as possible for farmers, both Pippen and Nock said "nothing really has to change" when it comes to the planting process, with the seeds already coated in fungi. "So when you plant those seeds, the soil can grow and develop and interact with the plant as the plant itself is developing," Pippen explained.

"The plant can draw down the carbon but the fungi helps it pull that carbon into the soil and keep it there for future."

Tegan Nock of Loam Bio.
Loam Bio is based out of Orange, but has expanded to Canada, Brazil and the US, in their quest to combat climate change through carbon-eating fungi. Source: Supplied

Noting the obvious benefits when it comes to Australia's carbon emissions and battle against climate change, another "huge win" when it comes to the scheme, Nock said, is the increased soil health.

With the presence of the fungi, farmers grow better, healthier crops, which have better drought resilience and are generally more resistant to extreme weather events. "So if you get a drought, you're able to retain that water within your soil for longer," she said.

Looking toward the future

When it comes to adapting the science to livestock, which is not only responsible for a massive chunk of Australia's carbon emissions, it's also an emitter globally too — something vegans and vegetarians will tell have no problem telling you — the future looks bright.

Asked whether the CarbonBuilder program could potentially reach the livestock sector, Pippen said "it can't just yet" but "never say never". "I think we have such a wealth of resources in our microbial libraries, that potentially anything is possible," she said.

Scientists Ruby Pippen, left, and Laura Dionysius.
Scientists Ruby Pippen, left, and Laura Dionysius. Source: Supplied

"So it's figuring out the best way for the fungi to do the work and the best way to apply these sorts of ideas, because definitely, I've heard people talk about the livestock thing as well."

Calls for more females in the field this International Day of Women and Girls in Science

With today being The International Day of Women and Girls in Science, fellow Loam Bio team member Laura Dionysius implored other women to consider a career in the sector. "There should always be a viable path for women to pursue science because it allows for more opportunities, for innovation and creativity, leading to better research," she said.

Loam Bio research associate Shivreet Kaur agreed, saying "in the last decade science has become more accessible to the female population" but "a lot of work is still needed". "More women’s positions are required as executive chairs," she said.

Love Australia's weird and wonderful environment? Get our new newsletter showcasing the week’s best stories.