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Conventional agriculture is meant to feed the world, but the reality is that it is killing our soils and the planet. Since farmers started farming in the US, 57.6 billion tons of topsoil have been eroded. Globally, more than 70% of our topsoil has disappeared. Representatives of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimate that if soil degradation continues at these rates, we will have less than 60 harvests left before our global food system falters or s sink
For years we have neglected the health of our soil, unwittingly employing practices that degrade it and make it less fertile. As a result, farmers have found themselves in a negative feedback loop where they rely on more inputs like fertilizers and pesticides to get the yields they seek.
But the problems don’t stop there. Carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere are the highest they have been in over 4 million years, but at the same time, there is not enough carbon in our soil. According to the FAO, we have lost 250 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from agricultural soils to the atmosphere. If this carbon were returned to the soil, it could be contributing to healthier soils, more resilient farmland, and more nutrient-dense, drought-resistant crops.
While the picture painted above may seem dire, there is an untapped opportunity to overturn these bleak predictions, and it’s right under our feet.
We’ve painted carbon as the enemy, but in the soil it can be a more valuable resource than gold, offering both economic and environmental gains. We can reverse climate destruction, revolutionize agriculture, and seize a $200 billion economic opportunity, but it requires prioritizing soil health and the tools to measure it.
Related: Why we need a Warp Speed operation for farming
The hidden power of the soil
The stark reality of what land degradation means for both agricultural yields and food security is piqued the interest of everyone from corporations to government.
Companies like Nestlé and Unilever are finally investing in soil-friendly regenerative farming practices. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is looking to shift $30 billion in farm aid to pay farmers to adopt practices that capture carbon in their soil. The growing interest in regenerative soil agriculture is for good reason: it is soil replenishment and offers a ripple effect of benefits for soil health, plant health, farmers and the planet alike.
Unlike conventional farming practices, regenerative approaches to agriculture that include no-till and cover crops enhance the soil’s ability to store carbon through photosynthesis. In turn, carbon-rich soil benefits farmers, growing more resilient, nutrient-dense plants, higher yields, and requiring fewer inputs, saving farmers thousands of dollars a year and making room for higher profits.
In addition to these cost savings, healthier soil unlocks the potential for a new carbon economy. But to help our soil (and food systems) thrive, we need better measurement tools.
Related: It’s Time to Put Our Floors First Long-term global food production depends on it.
Towards better soil data
In order to build farmers’ confidence in soil-improving regenerative practices, there needs to be access to affordable, reliable and scalable deep soil measurement. This is the problem we need to solve today: the lack of good soil data.
If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, chances are you’ve used a scale to measure your progress. Sure, it’s simple, you can see it yourself, measure it on demand and get the result immediately. Measuring soil carbon, however, is more complicated. Right now, finding out how much carbon is in the soil usually involves digging up and taking core samples from a field. The sample is then sent to a laboratory to be burned and quantified for carbon. It’s expensive, time-consuming, and farmers can’t do it themselves, and it’s not that accurate. We can get an idea of the carbon content of the sample, but the margins of error for quantifying carbon in this field can be 40% to 90%.
There are no cost-effective, real-time, accurate tests of soil health as they are. To get farmers and industry on board with protecting and maintaining soil health, we need an inexpensive and scalable way to plan, track and manage soil health and nutrition.
Because there is variability in our measures, incentives for farmers to prioritize soil health, such as carbon credit schemes, have typically been underestimated. This gap prevents us from taking advantage of enormous economic benefits.
Related: These entrepreneurs hope to use trash to change the way America grows its food
The potential of land as an asset class
We have seen the success of solar farms in unlocking the value of solar energy as an asset class. But unlike solar agriculture, where there are very precise tools to measure the energy assets produced, soil health is complex and expensive to quantify, and the right tools to measure it simply don’t exist.
But what if farmers could produce a secondary crop: the carbon stored in the soil? This would essentially function as its own asset, like money in the bank, appreciating and adding value through growth in resilient, nutrient-rich soils.
We are seeing carbon credits as an asset class that is catching on. Many are familiar with programs where individuals and businesses can buy credits to offset their carbon emissions from things like running factories or flying. So far, investors are excited about the potential in this space: credits linked to projects that slow deforestation, for example, saw growth of nearly 300% between September 2020 and 2021. With better carbon quantification of the soil, agriculture may be the next frontier.
As we work to build technology as low-cost as possible reliably measuring the full range of soil components and providing actionable data, I am optimistic that we will be able to mitigate our current challenges, from the threat of food insecurity to the climate crisis, and with economic benefits for all. There are solutions if we look for answers to soil health. In fact, the survival of our species depends on it.