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saving our soils

Saving Our Soils Will Require a Diverse Set of Technologies and Tools

December 17, 2018

Editor’s Note: Rajiv Singh is co-chairman of FoodShot Global, a multi-stakeholder investment platform aimed at accelerating food system transformation.  Here Singh, the former CEO of Rabobank North America, writes about FoodShot’s first annual challenge — Innovating Soil 3.0: a search for projects and ideas that utilize the latest in technology, science, and engineering to address the crisis of soil deterioration. In particular, he writes about how a diverse set of technologies can be brought to bear to improve the conditions of the world’s soils, from machinery and equipment to low-tech farming practices, to carbon sequestration tools.

To be in the running for up to $10 million in equity funding and $20 million in debt funding, as well as to nominate someone for the $500,000 Groundbreaker grant prize, apply here before January 8, 2019. 

“Every year sooner that the world learns how to tackle problems collectively, then every year sooner the odds increase that we can cope before complex problems crash our whole society.” – Douglas Engelbart

On December 9, 1968, exactly 50 years to the day I am sitting down to write this article, Douglas Engelbart of Stanford Research Institute, sat on a stage and gave a presentation that would become known as the Demo. In one session, he introduced the world to modern computing, showcasing a computer mouse, windows-style personal computing, word processing, hyperlinking, multimedia communication (e-mail and video conferencing), networking, and interactive computing. He even talked about augmented reality and machine learning. That singular event inspired an audience of a thousand leading computer scientists and generations to follow. Engelbart was driven by a post-world war realization that the world’s problems were becoming increasingly complex and that technology needed to focus on our capacity to deal with that complexity. He made it a lifetime pursuit to boost humankind’s collective capability to cope with the world’s complex, urgent problems by augmenting researchers and workers with computing and communications tools.

Engelbart did not make much money from his ideas. It took decades before any of the concepts he demonstrated (not just imagined and described!) became commercial realities, and some are still in the early stages of development. When it comes to the world’s food system, however, a more rapid transformation is necessary to address many of the clear manifestations of societal-scale problems that Engelbart feared. Today, we have the benefit combining aligned capital, a clear sense of urgency, and a network of shoulders to stand upon in order to rapidly implement innovations like Engelbart’s. This is the strategy that drives FoodShot Global as it brings expertise, philanthropy, commercial financing tools, public policy discussion, innovation/technology ecosystems, and corporate development and partnerships under one platform to facilitate quick action on solutions that have the potential to significantly impact our food system.

Protecting and improving soil health is one of the handful of existential, complex problems we need to solve over the next 50 years to continue as a civilization. As the foundation of our food system, it was an obvious choice for FoodShot Global’s first challenge.

More than Crop Yield

Soil provides the physical, chemical (including water) and biological environment for sustaining plant growth. There has been much written about the alarming condition of soil health in major agricultural zones of the globe and the implications of that on our future food security. If agricultural production must increase, or even double in the next two decades, as implied by many recent estimates of the future demand for food, substantial efforts are needed to restore and maintain the productivity of soils in all global agricultural regions. Some obvious candidates for the challenge are solutions to restore and maintain the physical structure of soils, improve the efficiency of water and nutrient use, and manipulate the rhizosphere (where plant roots interact with microbes) to enhance the soil and plant (animal) performance – and we would love to hear about those at FoodShot Global.

But the issues related to soil health go beyond crop yield – they include water quality (both for groundwater run-off and effectiveness of soil as a filtration system for underground reserves of water), biodiversity, and carbon sequestration. Soils serve as critical carbon sinks. In fact, the estimated total amount of carbon currently stored in soils is 1,100-1,600 billion tons — more than twice the carbon in vegetation or in the atmosphere. However, it is estimated that 50% of carbon in soils on the North American Great Plains has been lost over the last century, primarily due to farming practices. While this may seem tragic, it is also a great opportunity. We know that our oceans, the largest carbon sink for our planet, are at full capacity to absorb carbon. Just restoring soils of degraded and desertified ecosystems has the potential to store in world soils an additional 1 billion to 3 billion tons of carbon annually, equivalent to roughly 3.5 billion to 11 billion tons of CO2 emissions. So, we would also love to hear about proposals that could have scalable impact on restoring soils as carbon sinks.

And those solutions do not necessarily have to be about direct intervention in soil itself. For example, we now know that heavy agricultural machinery damages the soil, leading to poorer crop yields and increased pollution run-off from agricultural land. Compaction in the surface soil can reduce crop yields by 5% to 15%, and poorer soil structure reduces the effect of added nitrogen. In compacted soil, the plants are only able to absorb between 60% and 65% of such substances, while the rest is prone to leaching into rivers and watercourses. Moreover, compacted soil loses nitrogen to the atmosphere more easily because nitrate is converted into nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas. This means that machinery attributes (weight, modes of use etc.) are another fertile area for innovations in soil health.

Relevant Technologies & Approaches

In fact, many fields at the leading edge of current technology development have great potential when it comes to soil health – Robotics, Drones, Digital Imaging, Lasers, Sensors (remote, in-ground, underground), Artificial Intelligence, Geospatial Mapping, Weather and Climate-tech, Microbes, Genetic engineering (CRISPR), Phytosimulators, Drug Delivery, Materials Science, Nanomaterials (eg., using zeolites for water retention), as well as less high-tech initiatives including creative cover cropping, regenerative farming and ranching.

As I rattle off that list, I am reminded of a conversation with an agribusiness client from about 8 years ago. After reviewing a showcase of emerging technologies aimed at farmers, my very experienced client shrugged his shoulders, saying he didn’t think a prudent farmer should spend a lot of time or money on new “toys”. Today that comment may seem like the response from William Orton, the President of Western Union in 1876, when he was offered the opportunity to purchase Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone patent. He is said to have retorted, “What use could this company make of an electrical toy?” We know that the toy that Orton rejected, using rational business judgment, went on to transform communications and connect the world in a way that would have been unimaginable to even its inventor, while creating trillions of dollars in value over the next century. The list of “toys” that my client would encounter today has expanded, whether they be related to data collection and manipulation, intelligent farm machinery, communications, new seeds and inputs, biotechnology, smart logistics, controlled environment technologies, better nutritional formulations, and more. In fact, the food and agriculture sector today needs to examine and find uses for all the toys that can meet the needs of a rapidly changing consumer at one end of the food chain and deal with serious resource constraints at the other end of the food production system.

As entrepreneurs, leaders within your companies, scientists, or interested observers, I’d invite you to think of all possible tools and toys – technologies, products, and business models – that could have a positive impact on soil health and bring them to the attention of the FoodShot team by applying or nominating innovative people, ideas and organizations.

Apply to FoodShot Global before January 8, 2019.

**This article is sponsored by FoodShot Global, an AgFunder Network Partner. Find out more about our Network Partner program here.

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