Agrifood tech startups worldwide—ranging from ag biotechnology to meal delivery kits—raised $16.9 billion in 2018, according to research from venture capital platform AgFunder. Upstream investment, specifically, or startups operating closer to the farms themselves, raised $6.9 billion. The United States dominates this sector, while China, India, and Brazil contributed some of the largest deals of 2018.
As more and more agtech investors and innovators seek to provide solutions to the biggest environmental challenges, food system issues are at the top of mind for many. Food production, when accounting for the entire system—from clearing forests to packaging food—produces more than one-fourth of global greenhouse gas emissions.
While advancements in packaging, precision application, and innovative growing methods are important contributions to building more sustainable systems, attention is needed most at the beginning of the food journey—the soil.
“Soils are fundamental to life on Earth, but human pressures on soil resources are reaching critical limits.” –World Soil Charter, FAO, 2015
Soils are a finite resource. Worldwide today, 33 percent of land is moderately to highly degraded due to the erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification, and chemical pollution, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. The majority of the world’s soils are in fair, poor, or very poor condition. If soil degradation continues at this rate, it’s estimated that global topsoil may be completely gone in 60 years. And revitalization is no small task—just three centimeters of topsoil takes about 1,000 years to develop.
A single teaspoon of soil contains more microbes than there are humans on Earth. Teeming with microorganisms, flora, and fauna, soils' complex microbiome drives nutrient recycling and produces compounds that help crops persist against environmental stressors. And all soils play a role in the global ecosystem, particularly climate regulation and water regulation, which can be disturbed by land use conversion.
Widespread Land-Use Change
A predominant example of large-scale land-use conversion is the American Great Plains. Eighty percent of the prairie is comprised of 40 to 60 different species of grasses. It is also home to more than 300 species of forbs and flowers, tree and shrubs, and varying soil types, slopes, and depths. Combined with thousands of years of grazing bison, elk, deer, and antelope cycling nutrients into the ground, the central North American grassland is one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth.
Converting the American grasslands to row-crop production has allowed growers to feed a rapidly growing population ample food at an affordable price. Because of this, over the years since European settlers discovered the grasslands, they have declined about 80 percent (and as much as 99 percent in particularly fertile areas). Farm subsidies and crop insurance incentivize further breaking of the prairie to maximize production on this vast and fertile land.
But removing indigenous grasses exposes topsoil to the region's high wind speeds. (The Dust Bowl era of the 1930s was a devastating example of this—massive dust storms combined with drought and heat waves meant crops struggled to survive, leading to crushing economic impact on growers.) The grasslands' natural ecosystem cycles nutrients, disperses seeds, mitigates drought and flood, controls pests, regulates disease-carrying organisms, decomposes waste, protects from erosion, pollinates crops and natural vegetation, and maintains overall biodiversity, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Converting to monocropping system dramatically reduces the nutrients returning to the ground, and with that, the health and resiliency of the soil.
Now, many companies and organizations are recognizing the importance of more diverse ecosystems, taking steps to build soil health for more resilient and profitable food production systems across the world.
The Power of Soil Health
There is a significant business case for investing in soil health.
Healthy soils are proven to have improved nutrient and water storage capacity—each one-percent increase in soil organic matter, for example, helps soil hold 20,000 gallons more water per acre. This allows fields to be more resilient through drought and heavy rain. And with better aggregation and pores, healthy soils have reduced erosion and nutrient runoff, so farmers save on erosion repair.
Growers are able to increase the efficiency of fertigation and irrigation on fields with healthy soils, which better hold and transport water and nutrients to plants. Healthy soils are also able to filter and prevent contaminants from reaching the food system or polluting the rivers, lakes, and oceans surrounding them. In short, healthy soils are able to protect themselves, saving input cost, time, and labor.
The Climate Factor
There’s more carbon in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined.
Biodiverse ecosystems and healthy soils play a vital role in the health of the Earth, as well. Recently, Bill Gates weighed in on the topic: The importance of the world's soils, he agrues, relates most to carbon.
"Here’s a mind-blowing fact," Gates writes, "there’s more carbon in soil than in the atmosphere and all plant life combined." Agricultural activities like converting forest or grasslands to cropland releases stored carbon into the atmosphere. And clearing these natural carbon sinks reduces the planet's ability to remove carbon dioxide from the air. What's more is that those microbes living in the soils will create greenhouse gases when they interact with fertilizers, particularly synthetically produced ones.
"We can’t simply get rid of soil—or stop growing crops, using fertilizer, and raising livestock," says Gates. But we can use fertilizer more efficiently, and capture more carbon in the ground through healthier soils—a boon for growers and environmentalists alike.
“Although soils are hidden and frequently forgotten, we rely on them for our daily activities and for the future of the planet,” José Graziano da Silva, the Director-General of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said at the World Congress of Soil Science last year.
In the U.S., the Natural Resources Conservation Service, writes that “keeping our soil healthy and productive is of paramount importance,” noting that farmers using systems focused on soil health “are sequestering more carbon, increasing water infiltration, improving wildlife and pollinator habitat—all while harvesting better profits and often better yields.”
Major food companies, as well, have been seeing the value of investing in soil health and partnering with growers on sustainability initiatives. Cargill, Kellogg, McDonald's, Unilever, Anheuser-Busch, and PepsiCo (to name just a few) have recently announced plans to invest in healthy soils and building more regenerative systems to grow their products.
Technology & Soil Health
Healthy soils do much of the work in protecting themselves, cycling nutrients, and holding water—but technology can play a vital role.
Sensors and software solutions can help growers quantify the impact of soil health-building solutions to help minimize risk in adopting new practices. With nutrient sensors, for example, fertilizer can be applied with precise control. Aeration and respiration metrics, as well, can signal soil health improvements. Growers experimenting with conservation practices in side-by-side field tests can use drone imagery to track improvements from season to season.
More comprehensive data through emerging technology means growers can more confidently use methods like reducing tillage and cover crops—the impact and savings are proven. Meanwhile, food companies can provide transparency into their practices and growers can better tell their stories to consumers. With more insight into the importance of soil health on food production as well as the environment, consumer demand will push more investment and innovation into the space.