The grower’s ability to measure soil health for carbon sequestration is pivotal to climate-smart farming. In this exclusive article to mark World Soil Day, specialists share their outlook for the next frontier in soil understanding and achieving measurement at scale.

Seana Day
Seana Day, BETTER FOOD VENTURES

Laying the groundwork: Overcoming the challenges regarding soil sample collection at scale
“The limits of our understanding are defined by the complexity of ag’s ecological and biological systems – it reminds us that there is a lot we don’t know about our soils. That means important foundational, ground-truthing work is still needed to embed transparency and confidence in financial products tied to quantifiable environmental outcomes.

Central to the limits are measurement infrastructure problems linked to standardization (e.g. collection, testing, frameworks, indicators, stratification tools, etc.). For example, most soil sample collection on farms today is done by someone pushing an old-fashioned soil probe into the ground and scraping a sample into plastic baggies that are labelled and sent through the mail to a corporate or university soil lab which works for research studies but isn’t really scalable for capital markets.

Of course, in the last two years we have seen significant innovation coming from remote sensing whereby aerial platforms (e.g. drones, aircraft, and satellites) gain insights on soil through hyperspectral sensors. Remote sensing has a huge advantage in being less manual and more cost effective but will still not be as capable of analyzing all the aspects of soil as an in situ sensor and lab testing.” Seana Day, Partner, BETTER FOOD VENTURES

Rob Hranac, PATTERN AG

“To date, soil health evaluations have focused on the ecosystem service the soil provides but have yet to consistently and explicitly link those services to an economic benefit from increased yields and lower input costs. Healthy soils support food production, water supply and regulation, nutrient cycling, and carbon cycling.

The next frontiers in soil health will focus on linking those ecosystem services to agronomic outcomes. Understanding soil biology is the key to understanding that connection. The complexity of the soil microbiome, long accessible only indirectly through analytic chemistry measurements, can now be directly measured at scale using new genomics techniques. These methods for directly measuring field ecosystems will drive our understanding of how soil health drives agronomic outcomes. That knowledge will create new pathways for growers to optimize their agronomic practices to maximize productivity while minimizing environmental impact.” Rob Hranac, CEO, PATTERN AG

Jack Roswell, PERENNIAL

“Digital tools that measure the outcome of regenerative practices will be key to scaling climate-smart farming. Verifying practices alone is problematic because you don’t know the outcome of how much carbon was sequestered on that field. And if you rely on physical samples alone, the cost and capacity for the industry to collect and process physical samples will not allow for measuring and verifying regenerative agriculture at the scale we need to unlock to make a global impact — tens of millions of acres.” Jack Roswell, Co-Founder & CEO, PERENNIAL

 

Building a full-service soil health tech stack 

Niall Mottram - Cambridge Consultants - World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit
Niall Mottram, CAMBRIDGE CONSULTANTS

“Current soil health analysis practices are rigorous but slow and not suitable for the mass market scale we’ll need if the projects in the USDA Climate Smart Commodities program are to be successful. This necessitates a move from remote modeling and analysis to in-field measurement, enabled by novel sensors and microfluidic technologies. Think of it as a need for ‘point of care’ diagnostic tools for soil – the same technical principle that has helped medical diagnostics break free from the hospital lab and be used in patients’ homes at the bedside. The time is right for a similar point of care revolution in agritech.” Niall Mottram, Head of Industrial & Energy, CAMBRIDGE CONSULTANTS

Adrian Ferrero, BIOME MAKERS

“A good model is one that is not static, but that is constantly being tested and revised (using real measurements). One way to incentivize real measurements is to find ways to extract more value out of data collection exercises. For example, chemical soil analysis has been standard practice for many years and enables more precise fertility recommendations. However, chemical analysis is only one piece of the puzzle, and there are significant benefits to overlaying soil biology information to the data set to provide a holistic data-driven picture of soil health. Biological soil tests like BeCrop and chemical soil tests offered by labs, Waters Agricultural Lab and Regen Ag Lab, offer this soil data.” Adrian Ferrero, CEO, BIOME MAKERS

“Remote MRV capabilities are undoubtedly a critical layer of the soil health tech stack because measurement and verification are the most expensive capabilities to deliver. These companies are also getting good at the difficult work of digitizing the environmental science in soil databases, carbon sequestration models, soil health models which requires continuous feedback loops, calibration, and translation to make data flows work in the soil health tech stack.

I still think the holy grail in soil health will be integrating enough ground-truthed soil measurements to feed robust data models that are powered by ML/AI to interpolate the soil health of a particular farm field, pasture, paddock, or range land. In this way, remote sensors can be used in lieu of field-based measurement for verification over time.” says Seana

“First, methodologies need to be adapted to innovations: Carbon measurement technology is rapidly advancing, and the methodologies and standards today in the carbon market still rely on decades old technology. Second, it is simply not possible to collect a dense array of physical samples on every field enrolled in a carbon program as they expand to millions of acres. Methodologies can account for uncertainty in new technologies that use a data-driven approach like Perennial which fuses physical sampling, environmental data, and remote sensing to measure changes in soil carbon. I cannot emphasize enough that no innovations in MRV technology for agricultural soils solves THE problem unless it can operate at scale — at a low cost on tens of millions of acres. Then, companies and carbon market registries need to certify these new technologies… Only then will the soil carbon markets scale.” adds Jack.

Accelerating knowledge-sharing

“University extension offices and local USDA resources are underutilized. We often see these resources as only a repository of valuable information, which they certainly are; but they also don’t have all the answers. Research groups, retailers, testing labs, growers, industry, crop advisors, and even non-extension university researchers should be actively engaged with these groups both to inform and to be informed.  Each one of these groups plays a vital role to support growers in understanding new technologies and methodologies. Grants are often an effective tool to facilitate research projects between universities and industry. Published and peer-reviewed scientific research helps to de-risk new technology for end-users.  By asking technology vendors about published research, end-users can more effectively vet new technologies and methodologies and ensure a higher rate of success.” says Adrian

“My colleague, Rob Trice, wrote a fantastic piece recently that outlined an Eight Step Action Plan to Fix the Soil Health Tech Stack NOW. I think this really reflects where the sector is today and what is needed to move from silo’d scientific research to scalable ecosystem services markets. I would encourage readers to take a look at this practical guide for action” says Seana.

Want to talk with soil health focused corporates, investors and innovators? Join Seana, Niall, Jack, Adrian, Rob and more at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit on March 14-15 in San Francisco.