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soil health

Noble Foundation’s Buckner: Soil Health Must No Longer Take a Back Seat to Plant Science

April 13, 2017

Agriculture biotechnology is a very broad category within the agtech universe. And it’s increasingly grabbing the attention of venture capital investors; in 2016 Ag Biotech startups raised $719 million, a 150% increase on 2015 levels, according to AgFunder data.

This category encompasses startups using genetics, microbes, breeding techniques, chemistry, and other scientific processes to manufacture crop inputs — such as pesticides, fertilizers, seed, and soil additives, animal agriculture-focused products such as feed, and other services.

For nearly 80 years, much ag biotech research has focused on plant science and genetics to help farmers increase their yields with optimized crop varieties and accompanying inputs. Today, there’s a small but growing group of ag biotech startups focusing on the environment in which crops are grown, namely the soil and the soil microbiome.

Some of these startups are raising big bucks, such as microbial seed coating manufacturer Indigo Agriculture, which raised $156 million in 2016 across two separate investment rounds.

It’s about time the industry paid more attention to the soil, but there’s still a long way to go before we have a complete understanding of soil health and how it interacts with plant growth, according to Bill Buckner, president and CEO of the Noble Foundation.

We caught up with Buckner to hear his views on the state of soil health today and to find out why the Noble Foundation created the Soil Health Institute.

What is the state of soil health today?

In comparison to its importance, we have mostly ignored soil for centuries and are only just now starting to understand the biology of it. We are starting at a level where few people truly understand how soils function and are thinking about it as a biological living entity. We don’t know how to understand what constituencies/organisms are playing in the playground and producing a crop response. We need more folks to get involved as it’s a wide open space that needs significant investment, and there are many opportunities in it as well.

Why have we ignored it for centuries?

It is complex and it took a backseat to plant science when the green revolution happened, and Norman Borlaug was saving the world through better nutrition and plant productivity.  Most emphases went into designing the greatest plant in the world at the expense of focusing on the soil base.

Now we have to think about how to make soil relevant again and start a new soil-based revolution. Scientists often tell us that our understanding is so far out, as well as the timelines for soil improvement so distant, that it will be difficult to raise capital for research. So at the Soil Health Institute, we’re trying to build a baseline of research for scientists, companies, and anyone else who might be interested to have a launching pad from which to hopefully create solutions.

In the agtech space, there are startups innovating biological and microbial alternatives to synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. How do they play a role in soil health?

Biologicals are really just another crop input product, designed to protect the plant during its early growth stage. For example, biologicals that are applied as solutions or seed treatments provide a favorable environment for only the seed and rootzone but it’s got nothing to do with enhancing and building the health of the soils. To build up soil health, you need to look at the entire field with an effort to build organic matter and a biological base naturally. If you’re not careful in the use of biologicals and really don’t understand the research behind them, you could be disrupting the natural microbial environment in a negative way. Inocucor is one company that’s looking at ways to avoid that disruption and build a symbiotic relationship with existing microbes in the soil.

So are microbials bad for soil health?

We don’t know. It’s all about field trials, field trials, field trials, and we have to conduct them in myriad soil types across the country. This is one of the most complex issues to address.

What is the Soil Health Institute doing?

They are assimilating all the research out there, trying to bring it together into one centralized location. There are papers everywhere, and there’s unpublished research. Also, we’ve never calibrated our soils to meet the standards we have today for crop genetics. In most cases, we haven’t calibrated our soil test recommendations since 1960. This means that recommendations for corn crops based on soil tests from the 1960s are not going to be relevant against the new varieties of commodity crops we have in 2017. We need to bring this up to speed.

Another thing we haven’t done in soil health is to determine what constitutes soil health, and so we are working on getting the industry a baseline standard for soil health that farmers can work to achieve.

The Soil Health Institute has also developed an Action Plan to strategically guide investments in soil health to address gaps that are most pressing and that will provide the greatest benefits. That Action Plan will be released in May of this year.

Do you see farmers being incentivized to improve their soil health in the future?

They could be rewarded for practices through crop insurance. In the health industry, a smoker pays a higher health insurance premium than a non-smoker, so equally farmers that have healthier soils than others should pay a lower premium on their crop insurance.

Also, farmers should be rewarded for their practices when they sell their land by demonstrating the health of their soil. You can’t do that without a standard that’s established.

We’re also engaging a lot of people in discussion around carbon markets, to reinvigorate those and regain trust in them. Farmers want to be able to demonstrate that they’re able to sequester carbon through their operations. Technologies will be useful to help us commoditize water and soil and do fact-based checking to legitimize any incentives.

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