Without an ample supply of healthy soil, our food system would likely collapse. Almost every agricultural product can be tied back to the soil at some point in its production history, yet until recently soil has been one of the least-discussed inputs. A growing number of stakeholders in the agricultural world have started asking more questions about whether conventional farming practices are causing irreparable harm to our soil ecosystem and whether there are any practices or technologies we can implement to reverse the damage.
In this quest to improve the industry’s soil consciousness, a number of researchers and academics have identified certain farming practices that are less than soil friendly. The intensive cropping of commodity crops like corn, soybean, and cotton in regions like the Midwest has been linked to a decline in soil health as the result of increased runoff and a lack of organic matter, which refers to the carbon-based compounds found within the soil that both give it life and help it sustain plant growth.
Relentlessly farming a select handful of crops over thousands of acres also depletes the soil’s nutrients over time and leaves bare fields prone to erosion. It also degrades the soil’s infrastructure, which soil scientists like to describe as a cottage cheese-like consistency, which is critical for trapping water and carbon and allowing moisture to infiltrate below the surface.
The use of chemical inputs like pesticides has also taken its toll on soil health. Farmers resort to fungicides, herbicides, and pesticides to kill unwanted pests and destructive funguses, but repeated use inevitably kills the microbial life and organic matter that are critical to maintaining healthy soils. Many farmers are now exploring ways to manage pests, weeds, and funguses without traditional agrochemicals.
To address soil erosion and poor health in monocultures, many outlets, including the National Resources Conservation Service, are now advocating for crop farmers to implement cover crops between their commodity cash crops. Mixing in a specific rotation of different crops helps restore a better nutrient balance while providing a critical blanket of protection over the soil during the off-season.
Crop farmers aren’t the only ones keying in on soil health. A growing number of cattle producers are working on ways to graze livestock in a way that promotes soil health through allowing pastures to have sufficient time to rest and regrow between grazings and ensuring a more adequate distribution of nature’s original fertilizer: manure.
Entrepreneurial startups have seen the rise in cover crops as an opportunity to address several pain points across a variety of industries. They are applying everything from gene editing to traditional plant breeding to create soil-friendly cover crops that can be used for a variety of purposes to provide farmers with an additional revenue stream.
Major corporations are also seeing the value in farmers’ adoption of conservation methodologies, which have been proven to create a cascade of cost savings. Land O’Lakes launched a new digital tool called the Truterra Insights Engine that uses data from a variety of sources to quantify the economic and environmental benefits of certain practices. It uses soil, weather, and economic data to create customized reports.
Cover cropping isn’t the only new tech-driven solution. For World Soil Day, we’ve put together a list of startups that are hoping to put the life back into the foundation of our food system.
- Aphea.Bio is aiming to develop sustainable biopesticides and biostimulants using natural microorganisms with the aim of increasing crop yields and improving protection against fungal diseases, providing farmers with an alternative to using chemical pesticides. It will also develop novel ‘biostimulants,’ with the aim of stimulating crop growth through various processes, such as promoting the uptake of nutrients from the soil.
- Concentric (formerly Inocucor) develops biological and essential plant nutrient inputs for conventional and organic specialty and broadacre crops. Its products target the entire phyto-microbiome: the seeds, plants, root systems and the soil surrounding them.
- Indigo Agriculture is a Boston-based microbial crop technology startup producing microbial seed coatings for corn, soy, wheat, and cotton. These coatings help crops to withstand environmental stressors such as drought, high temperatures, salty soils or low nitrogen and bolster resistance to disease and pests.
- MicroGen Biotech is a microbial crop input and soil remediation platform. The company’s flagship technology Constructed Functional Microbiome produces microbial products for increasing crop yields and soil health with the goal of food safety. The company’s target market is China because many areas of China have soil contaminated with heavy metals like cadmium.
- Pivot Bio is creating microbes that are applied to crops to make nitrogen available to them, which could reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers. The microbes in its debut product fixate nitrogen from the atmosphere and secrete it at the corn crop’s root zone for the plant to use reducing farmers’ need to apply fertilizer.
- Trace Genomics, an AgFunder portfolio company, has built the first scalable soil microbiome test to help farmers predict soil disease, soil health, and crop quality, using high-throughput DNA sequencing and machine learning. The company recently closed a $13 million Series A.
- CoverCress (formerly Arvegenix) is using CRISPR gene editing tools to create a new cover crop based on a native plant. The oilseed is pressed to create oil as well as mash that can be used for livestock feed and other applications.
- Agrisoma Biosciences, a Canadian agtech company that develops Carinata seeds to produce aviation biojet fuel, recently partnered with United Airlines and French oil and proteins sector company Avril Group to accomplish the second international commercial flight using the company’s seed oil.
- Cool Planet is a biocarbon producer that has earned a USDA Certified Biobased Product Label. Produced from non-food biomass and a variety of feedstocks in a process called biomass pyrolysis, CoolTerra is applied to soil at a variety of different stages depending on the crop. It has a range of benefits such as a highly porous medium, which acts like a sponge retaining water and nutrients at the root zone.
- HarvestPort, a California crop inputs and equipment marketplace, recently teamed up with grain merchant Penny Newman to launch a new soil amendment product that has the potential to reduce nitrogen application by 30% over three growing seasons.
- Locus Agricultural Solutions sells a beneficial fungus and bacteria product called Rhizolizer that it says results in higher yielding and higher quality crops such as larger, sweet strawberries and citrus fruit, as well as increasing the size of potatoes. It is also helping citrus growers to regenerate their trees in the wake of the citrus greening epidemic that devastated Florida’s citrus industry.
- Wanda Organic is a Kenyan start-up providing organic bio-fertilizers to small and medium-sized farmers in order to improve their soil health and yields. Clients can order products by sending a simple SMS with their phone. Wanda says that its products improve soil organic matter, increase nutrient turnover, increase disease tolerance facilitate soil stability, and break down pesticide and herbicide residues.
Soil Sampling Technologies
- Autoprobe is a soil sampling equipment attachment manufacturer.
- AgroCares has developed a handheld soil scanner to monitor and analyze soil fertility in real-time.
- Falcon has built automated precision soil sampling equipment that can attach to the back of any automobile.
- FarmLab is digitising the soil sampling process to make it easier for farmers and agronomists to manage soil. Today FarmLab announced its involvement in a $1.1m Landcare Australia grant to digitize soil science and open source it to the world.
- LaserAg does soil testing with laser technology
- Teralytic built the world’s first wireless NPK soil probe and an analytics platform for best-in-class nutrient management.
Water-Saving Soil Technologies
- mOasis created a non-toxic gel-like soil additive that helps seeds grow using less water by holding moisture closer to the plant’s roots and releasing it as the soil dries out. Giving seedlings a boost helps create the critical network of roots that help give soil its important structure.
- Land Life Company is a startup hoping to regenerate degraded soil. The company makes Cocoon, a low-cost, biodegradable product in which trees can grow autonomously without irrigation. The Cocoon allows the trees to grow in soil that would otherwise not be conducive to growth and as it breaks down provides healthy microorganism life.
Many soil sensor and remote sensing digital offerings also measure conditions at the soil level and aim to help farmers manage their soil better, but these are more indirectly innovating for soil and there are too many to list here!
Have a soil-focused innovation and looking for funding? AgFunder Network Partner FoodShot is accepting applications for its first moonshot challenge, with a varied supply of funding sources available. Click here to find out more, and here for an editorial on the need for a new Soil Operating System.