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Applying science and healthcare principles to soil wellness can help our planet

Improving the health of the planet, the quality and quantity of our food and the prosperity of farms and agricultural businesses starts underground.

Healthy soil, seedings

Basic human health principles tell us that we should diagnose before we treat and that we should test before we diagnose. 

From annual physicals and screenings to blood tests and imaging exams, providers and specialists have many new tools and resources to address the health issues we experience in real-time and to prevent new issues from arising. For example, our deepening understanding of DNA helps us discern how drugs, medication, multi-vitamins or treatment plans work differently in patients — creating a brand-new frontier, personalized medicine.

Today, by leveraging advancements in technology and new medical discoveries, we are able to treat and prevent diseases and enhance our quality of life, health and wellness. Take the influx of at-home genetic testing kits that provides data on food sensitivities, fertility and predispositions to disease. These same principles of human healthcare, and these same scientific and technological advances, are starting to be applied to soil — our most important asset for securing our food supply.

Soil at the center 

Soil is one of the most important natural resources we have, yet we’ve degraded over a third of the soil used to grow food, feed, fiber and fuel with intensive farming practices. Healthy soil is critical for environmental sustainability, food security and the agricultural economy — even large food companies are starting to fold soil health efforts into their sustainability programs as they understand the impact it has on creating a viable, cost-effective supply chain. 

Soil removes about 25 percent of the world’s fossil fuel emissions each year through carbon sequestering, a natural way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. From a food security perspective, farmers can harness soil organic matter to ensure greater productivity of their fields and reduce erosion and improve soil structure, which leads to improved water quality in groundwater and surface waters.

If we continue to apply science and technology — and at scale — we can address disease and deterioration of the soil, and we can give it the nutrients it needs to survive and thrive.

According to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, a foundation whose mission is to catalyze change to improve the standard and quality of life, soil loss costs an estimated $400 billion per year globally.

Undoubtedly, soil is foundational to human life, yet we know very little about the soil itself. We need to get to know our soil if we want a science-based, data-driven agricultural ecosystem. The first step in improving the health of the planet, the quality and quantity of our food, and the prosperity of agricultural businesses is soil wellness. And now we have the tools to investigate.  

A global, comprehensive soil intelligence project

Agronomists are agricultural specialists — soil doctors — who test, touch and smell our soil to assess the earth’s physical and chemical characteristics to determine how to make it most productive, now and going forward. They ask questions such as: Does the soil have large or small pockets of air? Does it have a silty, sandy or clay loam texture? What are the phosphorous levels of the field?

Based on their findings, they might recommend chemical inputs or physical measures farmers can take such as adding tiles to the field to help with drainage, planting cover crops or adding a new crop to rotation to reduce depletion of certain nutrients from the soil to improve its resiliency.  

Problematically, agronomists have a dearth of information on the biomes that makes up our soil. Over 10,000 species and 100 billion actual specimens of bacteria are in a single handful of soil. More biodiversity is in the earth beneath our feet than in all above ground ecosystems combined. Without the ability to account for the biological make up of soil, our agronomists, farmers, chemical and fertilizer providers, food companies, environmental scientists and more cannot fully diagnose, treat or increase the wellness of the soil to grow more food, farm profitably or capture more carbon.  

The agriculture, food, environment, science and technology communities are collaborating to change this. Combining microbiology, DNA sequencing, data science and machine learning, we can digitize the physical, chemical and biological aspects of the soil to generate evidence-based, actionable soil intelligence. This allows agricultural stakeholders to better identify and prevent disease, understand soil nutrients to make better planting decisions and preserve and restore our deteriorating top soil.

Then you add in hyperspectral imagery technology, which collects and processes information from across the electromagnetic spectrum to help collect and determine soil properties and composition. Alternatively, farmers can use a method called the Haney test to evaluate soil health indicators such as soil respiration and water-soluble organic carbon. Automated sensors can monitor and measure soil’s physical traits, such as respiration and temperature, with predicted development towards the measurement of soil’s biogeochemical properties. 

This is all in an effort to gather data to create intelligence that can help us better understand how to improve the health of the earth beneath our feet. What does it look like in action? Like a 23andMe test but for the soil, farmers can sample their soil and know if their field is at high-risk of certain diseases or nutrient deficiencies based on soil composition; this allows them to make informed decisions about which crop to plant, how many inputs are needed, what kind of and how much fertilizer to use — all based on known risks. 

This isn’t unlike taking our daily vitamins. A 2019 survey showed that 86 percent of Americans consume dietary supplements for their overall health and wellness, yet only 24 percent of those had information indicating a nutritional deficiency. Not every vitamin is needed, and not every treatment plan will work for everyone. The same goes for our fields. 

The same health and wellness interventions we use on ourselves can and should be applied to our living soil. If we continue to apply science and technology — and at scale — we can address disease and deterioration of the soil, and we can give it the nutrients it needs to survive and thrive. 

Potting soil

Hurdles to jump moving forward 

There are hurdles to scaling and applying science to soil — from lack of regulations and investment to upending the status quo — but it’s essential we address them as soil health has vast implications, above and below ground. 

Investing in intelligence to drive agricultural decisions rather than reverting to traditional practices is a major obstacle. According to the latest AgFunder Agri-FoodTech Investing Report, $19.8 billion was invested in agrifood tech across 1,858 deals in 2019. The report shows that the largest year-over-year growth in funding was for downstream innovations such as meat alternatives, indoor farming and robotic food delivery. Investment in startups operating upstream, or closer to the farmer, increased 1.3 percent year over year. There’s a significant opportunity to boost investment for upstream innovations — and nothing is more upstream than soil. 

Today, farmers are experiencing setbacks due to the pandemic. According to the University of Missouri’s Food and Agricultural Research Institute, this year, farmers face losses of more than $20 billion. Taking a risk to try new practices or invest in new technologies weighs heavy on these communities.

Combining microbiology, DNA sequencing, data science and machine learning, we can digitize the physical, chemical and biological aspects of the soil to generate evidence-based, actionable soil intelligence.

Embracing regulation to protect the planet is also key to creating real change for our soil, air and water. Take the phase-out and eventual ban on methyl bromide, a fumigant used to control pests in agriculture and shipping: Methyl bromide used to be injected into the ground to sterilize the soil before crops are planted, with 50 to 95 percent of it eventually entering the atmosphere and depleting the ozone layer, until it was phased out from 1994 to 2005

Furthermore, diseases are spreading quickly due to climate change and expanding global trade. For instance, seeds are grown and traded around the world, and there are many examples where diseases in agriculture that originated in other countries have spread across the world in a matter of weeks or months via the seed market. This can have a huge economic toll on food security, quality and production. 

Monitoring, measuring and regulating our ecosystem, along with the substances that we put into our ecosystem and the practices we use to create a global food and agricultural economy, is vital as we work to create a healthier, more vibrant earth for ourselves and future generations. This is an urgent need because of the state of our soil and the depletion of our topsoil. If we continue to use soil the way we are today, we'll have only 60 more cropping cycles left. 

Now is the time to build a cohort of stakeholders — including farmers, chemical manufacturers, small and large food brands, policy makers, activists, scientists and technologists — armed with information on what good soil looks like, why we should care about what’s under the surface and what immediate and long-term impact soil wellness can have our world to fast-track innovation and positive change. 

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