When It Comes To Soil Health, It’s Worth Diving Deep

When FoodShot Global launched its inaugural FoodShot, Innovating Soil 3.0, in 2018, we made a long-term commitment to building soil health and sustainable productivity.  We recognized that all of our future investments and grants would ultimately have to build on a framework that placed soil at the foundation of a healthy, sustainable, and equitable food system.  Innovating Soil 3.0 aimed to catalyze the innovations in soil biology, genetics, chemistry, robotics, sensors and machine learning that are needed to optimize yield and nutrition, while simultaneously sequestering carbon so that soil becomes a positive force in climate change mitigation and adaptation.

In June of 2019, we were honored to announce and celebrate the groundbreaking entrepreneurs and scientists who won our first GroundBreaker Prize and GroundBreaker Equity Awards. Even during this challenging time, these innovators and entrepreneurs are making significant contributions to Soil 3.0:

  • Trace Genomics is revolutionizing soil management by using high-throughput DNA sequencing, artificial intelligence, and a growing database of microbial species to identify and profile the soil microbiome, interpreting key soil health and disease risk indicators for every soil sample and delivering actionable insights to farmers
  • Gerlinde De Deyn is using spectral imaging and genetic sequencing to gain a mechanistic understanding of plant-soil interactions and their feedbacks to ecosystem functioning.
  • Keith Paustian is accelerating the global adaptation of his COMET tool systems, which provide farmers and land managers with sustainability metrics and decision support resources that promote regenerative and conservation-based agricultural practices at scale.
  • Dorn Cox is developing the collaborative Open Technology Ecosystem for Agricultural Management (OpenTEAM) to democratize access to environmental data and provide universal access to site specific global agricultural knowledge.

As proud as we are of these GroundBreakers, we recognize that there is far more work to be done.  There remains an urgent need to shift global agricultural production systems from extractive to restorative practices.

That’s why, even as we launch our second FoodShot, Precision Protein, we are diving deep on Innovating Soil 3.0 by continuing our work to identify and invest in advances in science, technology, and business models that can re-establish a symbiotic relationship between agriculture and soil in our modern food system.

Innovation Priorities

After reviewing the first cycle of applications and nominations from Innovating Soil 3.0, FoodShot Global was in a unique position to identify critical gaps in the soil innovation market. In our analysis from the inaugural cycle, we identified three key gaps that could significantly advance the implementation of a new soil operating system.

Now, with Innovating Soil 3.0, Deep Dive, we are focusing all subsequent pipeline for soil-related GroundBreaker Prize and GroundBreaker Equity awards on meeting these needs with best-of-class innovations that have the maximum potential for global impact:

  1. Soil Carbon Measurement: Despite improvements in sensing technologies, including spectral imaging, drone surveillance, and satellite data, there is still no reliable, low-cost, remote sensing method to quickly and accurately quantify soil carbon content. Progress in easily and remotely measuring soil carbon content will enable more widespread adoption of carbon markets and rewards for farmers to provide ecosystem services, such as soil carbon sequestration. We are also eager to see a reduction in the cost and complexity of soil analysis tools so that farmers around the world can access the information they need to improve soil health. That’s why Innovating Soil 3.0, Deep Dive, is specifically seeking breakthrough advances in mobile, low-cost, remote soil carbon sensing technologies.
  2. Microbiome Functionality: There are more soil microorganisms in a teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on the earth. Indeed, many of last year’s applications focused on manipulating soil microbiomes to restore ecosystem function. Yet the majority of soil microbes have not yet been isolated, and molecular details underlying their functions are largely unknown. This is why companies like Trace Genomics, which maps the soil microbiome, have so much potential.  At the same time, it is critical to go beyond a predictive understanding of gene function based on the genome/metagenome to understand actual functions carried out by the soil microbiome in situ. Dr. De Deyn’s work, which looks at soil-plant interactions, including the functions that various microbes perform under given environmental conditions, has incredible groundbreaking potential to address this challenge. Once these functions and the associated microbial communities are better understood, we anticipate even greater efficacy in microbial inputs. For Innovating Soil 3.0, Deep Dive, we will also seek breakthrough advances in understanding and harnessing the functional attributes of the soil microbiome.
  3. Rapid Adoption of Regenerative Practices: Soil management varies widely based on soil type, crop selection, weather, weed/pest pressure, and other factors. There are some practices – cover cropping, crop rotations, etc. – that seem to apply universally, but there is a need to understand the environmental, societal, and community context when identifying potential interventions to improve soil health. For example, local crop insurance policies and market forces could disincentivize certain beneficial practices or make it virtually impossible for farmers to afford new technologies. Soil is at the base of the food system, and a systemic approach is needed to create fundamental and lasting change.  Tools that allow farmers to rapidly adopt and implement better soil health practices are essential to achieving the benefits of a new soil operating system. Innovating Soil 3.0, Deep Dive, also seeks approaches and tools that radically increase farmer adoption of regenerative soil management.

FoodShot Global is accepting applications and nominations for Innovating Soil 3.0, Deep Dive, in these three priority areas until July 15. Learn more and apply at www.foodshot.org.

This editorial was provided by FoodShot Global.