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Conventional farming is intended to feed the world, but the reality is it’s killing our soils and the planet. Since farmers began tilling in the U.S., 57.6 billion tons of topsoil have eroded. Globally, more than 70% of our topsoil is gone. Representatives from the United Nations‘ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimate if soil degradation continues at those rates, we will have less than 60 harvests left before our global food system falters or collapses.
For years, we’ve neglected the health of our soil, unintentionally employing practices that degrade it and leave 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 strive for.
But the problems don’t stop there. The levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere are the highest they’ve been in over 4 million years, yet at the same time, there’s not nearly enough carbon in our soil. According to the FAO, we’ve lost 250 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from farmland soils into the atmosphere. If that carbon was back in the soil, it could be contributing to healthier soils, more resilient farmlands and more nutrient-dense and drought-resistant crops.
While the picture painted above may seem dire, there’s an untapped opportunity to turn these bleak predictions around — and it’s right beneath our feet.
We’ve painted carbon as the enemy, but in the soil, it can be a resource more valuable than gold, offering both economic and environmental gains. We can change the course on climate destruction, revolutionize agriculture and tap into a $200 billion economic opportunity, but it requires the prioritization of soil health and the tools to measure it.
Related: Why We Need An Operation Warp Speed For Agriculture
The hidden power of soil
The stark reality of what soil degradation means for both farm yields and food security is drawing interest from everyone from corporations to the government.
Companies like Nestle and Unilever are finally investing in soil-friendly regenerative agriculture practices. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is looking to move $30 billion in farm aid to pay farmers to adopt practices that capture carbon in their soil. The growing interest in soil-first regenerative agriculture is for good reason: It’s soil replenishing and offers a ripple effect of benefits for soil health, plant health, farmers and the planet alike.
In contrast to conventional agriculture practices, regenerative approaches to farming including no-till and cover crops improve 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, thus saving farmers thousands of dollars yearly and making room for greater profits.
As well as those cost savings, healthier soil unlocks the potential for a whole new carbon economy. But to help our soil (and food systems) thrive, we need better tools of measurement.
Related: It’s Time to Put Our Soils First. Long-Term Global Food Production Depends on It.
Towards better soil data
In order to build farmers’ trust in soil-boosting regenerative practices, there needs to be access to affordable, reliable and scalable soil measurement at depth. This is the problem we need to solve for today: our lack of good soil data.
If you’ve ever tried to lose weight, you’ve likely used a scale to measure your progress. It’s clear, it’s straightforward, you can see it yourself, measure it on demand and get the result immediately. Measuring soil carbon, however, is more complicated. Right now, uncovering how much carbon there is in soil generally involves digging and extracting core samples from a field. Then, the sample is sent to a lab to be burned and quantified for carbon. It’s expensive, it takes time and farmers can’t do it themselves — and it’s not that accurate. We can get a sense of the carbon content of the sample, but the error margins for quantification of carbon in that field can be 40% to 90%.
There is no cost-effective, real-time and accurate soil health testing as it stands. To get farmers and industry on board with protecting and nurturing soil health, we need an inexpensive, scalable way to plan, track and manage soil health and nutrition.
Because there’s variability in our measurements, incentives for farmers to prioritize soil health, like carbon credit systems, have typically been undervalued. That gap is preventing us from tapping into tremendous economic benefits.
Related: These Entrepreneurs Hope to Use Garbage to Change the Way America Grows its Food
The potential of soil as an asset class
We’ve seen the success of solar farms in unlocking solar energy’s value as an asset class. But unlike solar farming, where there are highly accurate tools to measure the energy assets produced, soil health is complex and expensive to quantify and adequate tools to measure it just don’t exist.
But what if farmers could produce a secondary crop: carbon stored in the ground? This would essentially function as its own asset, like money in the bank, appreciating and adding value through growing nutrient-rich, resilient soil.
We’re seeing carbon credits as an asset class catching on. Many are familiar with programs where people and businesses can buy credits to offset their carbon emissions from things like running factories or flying. So far, investors are enthusiastic about the potential of this space — credits linked to projects that curb deforestation, for example, saw an almost 300% growth between September 2020 and 2021. With better soil carbon quantification, agriculture can be the next frontier.
As we work to build low-cost technology that can reliably measure the full range of the soil’s components and provide actionable data, I’m optimistic that we can mitigate our current challenges from the threat of food insecurity to the climate crisis, and with economic benefits to all. There are solutions if we look to soil health for answers. In fact, our species’ survival depends on it.