This Soil Health Innovation Focus Area outlines the issues and opportunities for ensuring our soils remain healthy into the future. The Innovation Institute for Food and Health (IIFH) supports the work of our partners in tackling the soil health challenges of our time, with a view to advancing food systems globally, improving health outcomes, and helping producers excel in the sustainable, productive and efficient use of available land.
IIFH is focused on developing and deploying breakthrough solutions to global issues across the food system. Our research and investor network spans faculty, students and industry from myriad disciplines in dairy, energy, food waste, materials development, meat preservation, alternative proteins, crop management, food safety, human health and design.
INTRODUCTION TO SOIL HEALTH
According to the UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute, healthy soil can sustain a full ecosystem of plants, animals and microbes, and provide farm-level benefits like water and nutrient retention and improved crop yields.
Soil health is the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans – UC Agriculture & Natural Resources
The features of a healthy soil relate to its specific organic matter, whose carbon content is integral to the fuel and structure needed to keep it healthy.1 Similar to human health, soil health varies widely in specific mineral composition and other physical properties. Types of soil include sandy, clay, silt, peat, chalk and loam. Tracking the differences and unique qualities of various soil types adds to the complexity of studying soil health and establishing standardized methods of measurement.
Cover cropping and no-till practices were also found to strengthen fungal communities important for cycling nutrients and organic matter, and bolstering soil structure.2 Other international researchers have observed that beneficial microbial and virus biomass play key roles in soil carbon dioxide (CO2) fluxes across different habitats, ecosystems and climates.3
Soil types. Source: Boughton, 2020
There is an urgent need to shift global agricultural production systems from extractive to restorative practices that establish soil as the foundation for a healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable 21st century food system – Victor Friedberg, Founder, FoodShot Global, Soil Challenge
Defining the exact characteristics of soil health remains a challenge for researchers, but a landmark 100 year study at UC Davis’ Russell Ranch reveals that winter cover crops increase soil organic matter in the top foot of soil, adding poultry manure significantly increases desirable fungi and microbial biomass compared to conventional management with synthetic fertilizers, and organic management increases beneficial soil fractions. 4
|HEALTHY MEASUREMENTS||HEALTHY ACTIONS|
|Tight nutrient cycling: Makes nutrients available to plants and organisms as they need it.||Enhance diversity: Keep plants growing all year long, increasing soil diversity through plant diversity.|
|Increased aggregate stability: Withstands erosion, retains water and reduces contaminant flow.||Reduce disturbance: Consider reducing the amount of tillage.|
|Resistance to crop disease and soil pathogens: Maintains yields, minimizes losses.||Apply cover crops: Utilize crop residue and roughage.|
Source: Adapted from UCANR Nutrient Management Resources
Soil Mapping and Measurements
This interactive map of USDA National Cooperative Soil Survey data allows exploration of specific geographic information and statistics like a soil’s water storage potential by clicking on different locations across the US.
Climate and Carbon Projections
According to the international soil study published in Nature, soil contains more below-ground carbon than above-ground atmospheric and plant biomass carbon combined. An important part of CO2 efflux from soils can result from turnover of soil microbial biomass, which is sensitive to environmental changes.
External climate factors play an important role in quantifying the health of any given soil and how that influences soil carbon emissions. Cal-Adapt offers an array of charts, maps and data for observed and projected climate variables in California. Click the icons below to access useful tools that provide insight on how California’s climate will change over the next several decades, which may help inform our outlook for the future of soil health.
Economic Benefits of Soil Health Management
Recent case studies by the Natural Resources Conservation Service and American Farmland Trust highlight increased profitability and yield that comes from better soil health.5 Practices like no-till or strip-till, nutrient management, cover crops, compost, and mulching were found to increase profits and reduce costs and risk across the US:
- Corn-soybean farmers in Illinois and Ohio
- Almond producers in California
- Sweet corn, alfalfa, and corn diversified crop farming in New York
Until now, the extent of economic benefits has not been consistently quantified – a major impediment to the adoption of soil health practices, identified as a priority by the case study partners.
With soil health management, producers can increase profits and reduce costs and risk all while conserving resources for the benefit of all – USDA
Sample results from NRCS study6, by the numbers:
average return on investment, with a range from 35% to 343%.
average yield increase for all crops grown
estimated reduction in total greenhouse gas emissions
MEET THE INNOVATORS
The next generation of innovators are pioneers making critical contributions globally on soil health, plant genetics and physiology, and data standards. Research, discovery and innovation is happening at every level, from plant breeding to soil minerals that help retain carbon. Read ahead as we dig deeper into some of the most innovative research in this space.
Applying Biochar Amendments
According to Adina Boyce, a Ph.D. candidate in her final year of Biological Systems Engineering at UC Davis, biochar is charcoal specifically used for soil amendment or environmental mediation. It has a “priming” effect on soil to increase the pH, which can be controlled under certain treatments. Boyce studies biochar that supports nitrate and phosphate retention. Researchers continue to determine the full benefits of biochar application, including the potential to increase crop yields. Read about the expertise and experience of our Inaugural Innovator Fellow, who worked with food system investors FoodShot Global to advance their inaugural soil health challenge: learn more…
Many others fail to make the connections between soil health and human health, but it’s certainly an important issue – UC Davis Doctoral Candidate Boyce
Enriching Soil through Crop Rotation and Other Soil Amendments
Nicole Tautges is a cropping systems scientist at UC Davis’ Russell Ranch. Building on the Century Experiment in operation for almost 30 years, Tautges works to better understand how rotations of crops alter the biodiversity of a soil’s microbiome. According to Tautges, the 100 year experiment examines the sequencing of crop rotations within different farming systems, currently focusing on corn, tomatoes and alfalfa, as well as different kinds of compost.
We study the effects on soil carbon sequestration, plant nutrient cycling, crop fertility and disease, which allows us to see individual or combined treatment effects on the microbial community; it can take years to track changes in soil organic matter content – UC Davis Cropping Scientist Tautges
To help build carbon and offset GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, conventional and non-conventional sources of organic matter are also being applied to soil. Tillage, such as that used in California’s vegetable cropping system, releases carbon that can be offset by storing soil carbon via compost, manure or biochar application.
UC Davis cropping systems specialist Jeffrey Mitchell also found that no-till practices and crop residue preservation in wheat harvesting reduces soil evaporative loss by more than 10%, compared to standard tillage operations.7
The degree of complexity between plants and microbial soil interactions is so large right now that we have only just scratched the surface – UC Davis Cropping Scientist Tautges
Unlocking Key Insights from Plant Genetics
An innovative Stanford research team led by chemical engineering associate professor Elizabeth Sattely recently published a study in Nature on “hardy” plants that produce root metabolites to interact with soil microbes for surviving dry or unhealthy environments. This apparent survival trait reveals the complex mechanisms used by plants to interact with the soil microbiome — the community of bacteria and fungi that live around the roots of plants. According to Sattely, understanding the relationship between these microbes may support more “eco-friendly” innovation in the future.
We may be able to take traits developed through natural selection and move them where we need them – Stanford Associate Professor Sattely
Sattely’s lab studies the way soil microbes help plants process nutrients in much the same way gut bacteria help animals digest food. Her research focuses on one form of plant indigestion: an inability to absorb the essential nutrient iron, which stunts crop growth and depresses yields.8
Carbon Sequestration and Water Availability
Climate scientists and researchers understand that carbon is stored in soils, but UC Santa Barbara professor Oliver Chadwick is digging even deeper into the relationship between soil, carbon, and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Chadwick’s research explores the connection between soil water retention and mineral-bound carbon, complex interactions that occur deep within soil to sequester atmospheric carbon. The soil’s moisture content influences how carbon is stored, and determines the soil’s nutrient status according to the prevailing climate and water balance.
How much water is moving through the soil profile determines its ability to store carbon – UC Santa Barbara Professor Chadwick
As Chadwick published in Nature, different water retention thresholds indicate how much carbon the soil is able to store. Increased moisture content is responsible for the presence of deep soil minerals like potassium, magnesium, and phosphorus, and these bind to carbon within the soil. While further research needs to be done on the nature of these bonds, Chadwick suggests these findings can help optimize land usage, identify healthy soils, and understand which soil compounds will release the most carbon emissions if disturbed. In 2019, he worked to further identify optimal soil fertility conditions according to changes in water balance.10
Other California researchers have reviewed soil water retention as a function of irrigation and rainwater utilization, observing that deeper crop rooting and allowable water depletion can enhance water conservation by 75% through less frequent irrigations and reduced evaporative loss.11 Precision irrigation simulations at UC Davis have established modular, low-cost and open-source solutions for Robot Assisted Precision Irrigation and Delivery (RAPID-MOLT) for optimizing water usage, crop yield, and crop quality using automated plant-level controllers.12
Standardized Measures of Soil Health
Standardized measurements power innovation opportunities by creating data uniformity, allowing scientists and researchers to collaborate more efficiently and with greater accuracy. Collaborative research across disciplines will benefit immensely from baseline data standards and sampling methodology. The Soil Health Institute worked with the Soil Health Partnership and The Nature Conservancy to address the need for such standardized measurement in soil health across the United States. Research funded by a $9.4 million grant from the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research will generate baseline data standards and sampling methodology for the immense benefit of countless disciplines.
Here, brief summaries from Soil Health Institute scientists show how they advance soil health science and management practices across their spectrum of expertise in the North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements (NAPESHM):9
An Overview of the NAPESHM Protocols
All protocols have been uploaded to the Soil Health Institute’s YouTube channel to help fellow researchers replicate studies. Proper plot assessment and consistent protocols are key for collecting NAPESHM samples. Soil was collected by digging holes that were 15 centimeters by 15 centimeters and uniform across all experiments. Each sample was split into six different bags and sent to different research institutions for analysis.
Cropping Systems and Soil Health Promoting Practices
NAPESHM oversaw 120 sites and had approximately 2,000 experimental plots, many including multiple crops and rotations. Studies were evenly distributed across the North American continent. Cropping systems included traditional fields, as well as livestock grazing, tree crops/forest, sugarcane, and vegetables. Popular soil health-promoting practices included tillage, cover cropping, organic amendments, and irrigation/water management.
Saturated Hydraulic Conductivity
The SATURO machine uses a pump and data-logger to measure hydraulic conductivity – the ease with which a fluid (usually water) can move through pore spaces or fractures, a measure of how much water gets saturated into soil.
Soil Organic Carbon and Enzyme Dynamics
Chemical residues left behind by microbial can tell us a lot about soil health. They include soil organic carbons, active carbon, 4-day C mineralization, soil protein index, and others. Carbon cycling influences the management of how its stored within soil. Extracellular enzymes can also indicate the rates of carbon cycle, nitrogen cycle, and sulfur cycle. These indicators may also reveal ratios and couplings of nutrient cycles within soil.
Identifying Genomic Indicators of Soil Function
Across the microbiome, the genomic sequences of target bacteria can inform scientists about the soil makeup. Ratios of fungi, bacteria and subsets of other genera can also provide microbial indicators of soil health. The analytical practice of shotgun metagenomics shreds and reassembles the DNA of a microbial community to identify functional genes at work in the soil.
NAPESHM Project Database
Project metadata, daily weather, soil health measurements and soil health genomics all factor into creating comprehensive data model abstracts. This data requires its own storage, management and strategies for observation and interpretation. Experimental sites and their unique units and samples are computed together to draw out observations and conclusions. Declaring a specific data model helps scientists be organized and make informed observations.
INNOVATION & INVESTMENT
Collaboration between innovators, investors, regulators, and data-driven approaches will cultivate incredible outcomes for the future of agrifoodtech. Partners at FoodShot Global are funding breakthrough solutions for a new “soil operating system” in which advances in biology, chemistry, data, genetics, machine learning, and technology will re-establish a symbiotic relationship between agriculture and soil in our modern food system.
In their inaugural foodshot, Innovating Soil 3.0, FoodShot Global consulted with soil health experts from universities and businesses around the world to determine key areas for soil health innovation and investment. After the first cycle, FoodShot Global did a “deep dive” on how to fill key soil health gaps in order to support innovations that have maximum potential for scale and global impact. The new foodshot, Innovating Soil 3.0, Deep Dive now invites new entrepreneurial applications and prize nominations for work related to soil carbon measurement, microbiome functionality, and rapid adoption of regenerative practices (due July 15, 2020).
Based on the broad criteria of mission-alignment, scalability, investability and global impact, the following prizes were awarded in 2019:
- $3 million in equity investment was awarded to Californian soil microbiome testing startup Trace Genomics to help farmers predict soil disease, soil health, and crop quality using high-throughput DNA sequencing and machine learning.
- $535,000 in Groundbreaker Prize grant funding was awarded to three research initiatives: $250,000 to Keith Paustian to accelerate the global adaptation of his COMET tool systems, $250,000 to Gerlinde De Deyn to advance her work connecting plant biodiversity in space and time, and $35,000 to Dr. Dorn Cox to support his ambitious vision of using a collaborative Open Technology Ecosystem for Agricultural Management (OpenTEAM).
FoodShot’s international cohort of applicants spanned all aspects of food and agriculture, from digital platforms and supply chains, to renewable energy, row crops and bacteria:13
Equity Applicant Themes
Equity Applicant Themes
|Digital Platforms & Supply Chains||Waste Streams, Produce, Aquaculture, & Landfills|
|AI & Cloud Computing||Plant-Based Protein|
|Minerals, Bacteria, Fungi, & Microbe||Renewable Energy|
|Cassava, Soya Beans, & Youth
Row Crops, Herbicide, & Water
Management, & Regenerative Grazing
|Renewable Energy & Neighborhoods
Medicinal Food & Cultivation Techniques
Machines & Autonomous Systems
|Cassava, Soya Beans, & Youth||Medicinal Food & Cultivation Techniques|
|Row Crops, Herbicide, & Water||Machines & Autonomous Systems|
|Management, & Regenerative Grazing|
Prize Applicant Themes
Prize Applicant Themes
|Farmers||Food Sovereignty, Diets, & the UNDP|
|Carbon Dioxide, Annual Cropping, & the Environment||Colonization, Microbe Interactions, Pathogens, & Metagenomics|
|Modeling & Management Decisions||Climate Change, & Ingredients|
|Methane Emissions, Centralized Systems, & Production Capacity|
Over the past decade, soil health innovation investments and activities have matured internationally at varying rates, with 90 companies exiting in the last 5 years alone. Investments have primarily come in the form of grants and seed funding, accelerators and incubators, venture capital early and late-stage support, or mergers and acquisitions – accounting for 80% of the $1B invested in soil health in the last 10 years.
According to Pitchbook and Crunchbase, the following key performers are provided for reference:
Top 10 Investors in Soil Health Companies by Number of Investments (alphabetic)
Top 10 Investors in Soil Health Companies by Number of Investments (alphabetic)
|ConocoPhillips Technology Ventures||Corporate Venture Capital|
|Cycle Capital Management||Venture Capital|
|Desjardins Capital||Corporate Venture Capital|
|Energy Technology Ventures||Venture Capital|
|GE Ventures||Corporate Venture Capital|
|GV||Corporate Venture Capital|
|North Bridge Venture Partners||Venture Capital|
|TPG Alternative & Renewable Technologies||Growth/Expansion|
Top 20 Investments in Soil Health Companies (by amount)
Top 20 Investments in Soil Health Companies (by amount)
|Anuvia||2014||PE Growth/ Expansion||110.0|
|Excel Crop Care||2016||Secondary Transaction – Private||93.1|
|Cool Planet||2014||Later Stage VC||93.1|
|Anuvia||2008||PE Growth/ Expansion||60.0|
|Concentric||2018||Later Stage VC||54.4|
|Excel Crop Care||2016||Merger/Acquisition||41.9|
|Cool Planet||2018||Later Stage VC||39.6|
|Midwestern BioAg||2016||Later Stage VC||26.3|
|Anuvia||2016||PE Growth/ Expansion||23.0|
|Cool Planet||2012||Later Stage VC||20.0|
|Cool Planet||2011||Early Stage VC||17.8|
|Midwestern BioAg||2018||Later Stage VC||15.0|
|Plant Health Care||2004||IPO||12.8|
|Midwestern BioAg||2016||Later Stage VC||12.8|
|Cool Planet||2016||Later Stage VC||9.2|
Top 20 Soil Health Companies (by amount raised)
Top 20 Soil Health Companies (by amount raised)
|Company||Year Founded||Headquarters||Total Raised ($, Mil)|
|Cool Planet||2009||Greenwood Village, CO||169.6|
|Midwestern BioAg||1983||Madison, WI||62.1|
|Plant Health Care||1995||Raleigh, NC||12.8|
|MicroGen Biotech||2016||Carlow, Ireland||9.0|
|Growcentia||2014||Fort Collins, CO||6.7|
|Land Life Company||2013||Amsterdam, Netherlands||6.6|
|Biome Makers||2015||West Sacramento, CA||6.3|
|Agronomic Technology||2013||Tampa, FL||2.5|
|3Bar Biologics||2013||Columbus, OH||2.1|
|Phospholutions||2016||State College, PA||1.5|
|Fungialert||2015||Harpenden, United Kingdom||1.2|
|Biolargo||1989||Laguna Hills, CA||0.8|
|Prolific Earth Sciences||2014||Montgomery, NY||0.4|
|Kind Roots||2017||Scottsdale, AZ||0.2|
In California, resources and support are provided by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) in a multi-million dollar funding and incentive program on healthy soils, and a new project on mapping soil organic carbon:
At UC Davis, key funding opportunities are curated through its PIVOT platform, managed by the Office of Research. IIFH provides a live list of international Soil Health funding opportunities below:
GOVERNMENT SUPPORT FOR SOIL HEALTH INNOVATION
As part of the State’s Healthy Soils Initiative in 2015, the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) and Environmental Farming Act Science Advisory Panel (EFA SAP) made a series of long-term recommendations. The CDFA’s interim report outlines how government agencies can be a positive influence on the overall development and protection of soil health.14
Identify sustainable and integrated financing opportunities, including market development, to facilitate increased soil organic matter
Develop and fund incentive and demonstration programs with new and existing resources such as Resource Conservation Districts and UC Cooperative Extension, to promote GHG reductions, carbon sequestration, cover crops, crop rotation and organic amendments including compost to build soil carbon, increase water holding capacity and ensure crop yields for food production through on-farm management practices (lead CDFA).
Provide for research, education and technical support to facilitate healthy soils
Identify and secure resources to contract with the appropriate academic institution to develop a user friendly soil management data base to incorporate research findings and practical applications. Identify and secure short and long term funding sources to support a robust scientific research program that will fund research on topics such as carbon farming, subsidence reversal, wetland restoration, drainage issues, salt accumulation and multi-benefit farming to support and enhance healthy soils (lead CDFA).
Increase governmental efficiencies to enhance soil health on public and private lands
Increase the generation and use of compost in California to improve soil health, by permitting 100 new composting and anaerobic digestion facilities in California by 2020 (lead CalRecycle).
Ensure interagency coordination and collaboration
Include in the regular coordination between agencies the potential for broader discussions on soil health. Such as: include Healthy Soil Initiative practices to promote groundwater recharge and groundwater quality protection in DWR Sustainable Groundwater Management Program (lead DWR); with the ARB on dust mitigation as a key element in all Climate Change work across Cabinet.
NEXT STEPS FOR SOIL HEALTH
1. Promoting soil health practices will improve global food systems and reduce carbon emissions — a net positive for the entire planet.
Food system experts at institutions like UC ANR agree: healthier soils will lead to better yields, less contaminants, and a host of economic benefits for farmers. Treating soils better and disturbing them less will help mitigate the amount of sequestered carbon that is emitted into the atmosphere.
2. Both the public and private sectors need to play a role in protecting and improving soil health.
Combining the efforts of researchers at institutions like UC Davis with regulatory support from public agencies such as the CDFA will pave the way for further progress in food system transformation through healthy soils. Non-profit organizations like FoodShot Global can help identify innovation opportunities and focus attention and resources toward ground-breaking change agents.
3. Substantial opportunity for investment, innovation, and further research exists in agrifoodtech.
As demonstrated by the Soil Health Institute’s North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements, leveraging data analytics and standardized measurements is the next step in understanding how to approach distinct soil phenotypes and optimize farm operations.
Questions or comments? Contact the UC Davis Innovation Institute for Food and Health at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Ingels, C. (2012). Soil Amendments – What’s in That Bag? University of California Cooperative Extension. ucanr.edu/sites/sacmg/Soil_Amendments/
2. Schmidt, R., Mitchell, J., & Scow, K. (2019). Cover cropping and no-till increase diversity and symbiotroph: saprotroph ratios of soil fungal communities. Soil Biology and Biochemistry, 129, 99-109. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.soilbio.2018.11.010
3. Emerson, J.B., Roux, S., Brum, J.R. et al. Host-linked soil viral ecology along a permafrost thaw gradient. Nat Microbiol 3, 870–880 (2018)
4. Davis, J. G., & Whiting, D. (2012). Choosing a Soil Amendment. Colorado State University – Extension. extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/yard-garden/choosing-a-soil-amendment/
5. Littlefield, D. A. (2019). Banking on Soil Health. USDA. www.farmers.gov/connect/blog/conservation/banking-soil-health
6. Natural Resources Conservation Service. (2018). USDA. www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/soils/health/?cid=NRCSEPRD1470394.
7. Mitchell, J., Singh, P., Wallender, W., Munk, D., Wroble, J., Horwath, W., … & Hanson, B. (2012). No-tillage and high-residue practices reduce soil water evaporation. California Agriculture, 66(2), 55-61. https://doi.org/10.3733/ca.v066n02p55
8. Abate, T. (2019). A new way to grow crops in marginal soils could help feed the world. Stanford School of Engineering. engineering.stanford.edu/magazine/article/new-way-grow-crops-marginal-soils-could-help-feed-world?linkId=70268073
9. Soil Health Institute. (2019). About the North American project to evaluate soil health measurements. soilhealthinstitute.org/north-american-project/
10. Bateman, J. B., Chadwick, O. A., & Vitousek, P. M. (2019). Quantitative Analysis of Pedogenic Thresholds and Domains in Volcanic Soils. Ecosystems, 22(7), 1633-1649. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-019-00361-1
11. Devine, S., & Anthony Toby, O. G. (2019). Climate-smart management of soil water storage: statewide analysis of California perennial crops. Environmental Research Letters, 14(4), 044021. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab058c/pdf
12. Wiggert, M., Amladi, L., Berenstein, R., Carpin, S., Viers, J., Vougioukas, S., & Goldberg, K. (2019). RAPID-MOLT: A Meso-scale, Open-source, Low-cost Testbed for Robot Assisted Precision Irrigation and Delivery. In 2019 IEEE 15th International Conference on Automation Science and Engineering (CASE) (pp. 1489-1496). IEEE. ronberenstein.com/papers/CASE19_RAPID-MOLT
13. FoodShot Global. (2020). 2019 Annual Report: Innovating Soil 3.0. FoodShot Global annual report 2019 (public)
14. California Department of Food and Agriculture. (2015). Environmental Farming Act Science Advisory Panel. www.cdfa.ca.gov/oefi/efasap/docs/Binder-EFASAP-Meeting-05142015.pdf