The Innovation Institute for Food and Health (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.
We support 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. This resource center for soil health innovation outlines the issues and opportunities for ensuring our soils remain healthy into the future.
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.1
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.2 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. Source: Boughton.
Defining the exact characteristics of soil health remains a challenge for researchers, but the Century Experiment at the UC Davis Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility revealed that winter cover crops increased soil organic matter in the top foot of soil, adding poultry manure significantly increased desirable fungi and microbial biomass compared to conventional management with synthetic fertilizers, and organic management increased beneficial soil fractions.10
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
Source: Adapted from UCANR Nutrient Management Resources
External climate factors play an important role in quantifying the health of any given soil and how that influences soil carbon emissions. Cal-Adapt, a site developed by UC Berkeley’s Geospatial Innovation Facility, offers an array of charts, maps and data of observed and projected climate variables for California. Click the icons below to access useful tools that provide insight about how California’s climate will change over the next several decades, which may help inform the 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. 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
- Diversified crop farming in New York for sweet corn, alfalfa and corn
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.5
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:
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 and Soil Amendments
According to Boyce, a PhD candidate in her final year of Biological Systems Engineering, 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.
Unlocking Key Insights from Plant Genetics
An innovative Stanford research team led by chemical engineering 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 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.7
Enriching Soil through Crop Rotation and Soil Amendments
Nicole Tautges is a Cropping Systems Research Manager at the UC Davis Russell Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility. Building on the Century Experiment in operation since 1993, Tautges works to better understand how rotations of crops alter the biodiversity of a soil’s microbiome. According to Tautges, the Century 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 Research Manager 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.
Carbon Sequestration and Mineral Bonding
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 water retention and mineral-bound carbons, complex interactions that occur deep within soil to sequester carbon. The soil’s moisture content influences how carbon is stored, and determines a 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 published by Chadwick in Nature, different “threshholds” of water retention are clear indicators of how much carbon a soil compound is able to store. Increased moisture content is responsible for the presence of deep soil minerals like potassium, magnesium and phosphorus, and these minerals attach and bind themselves to carbon present within 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.
Standardized Measures of Soil Health
The interactive map linked above allows researchers, farmers, and other interested parties to explore USDA-NCSS soil survey data for locations throughout most of the U.S. Users can find out about specific geographic information and other in-depth statistics like a soil’s degree of water storage by clicking on different areas of the map. This app was developed by the California Soil Resource Lab at UC Davis and UC-ANR in collaboration with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements
Our friends at the Soil Health Institute worked with the Soil Health Partnership and The Nature Conservancy to address the need for a standardized measurement of soil health in the United States. By creating data uniformity and allowing scientists and researchers to collaborate more efficiently and with greater accuracy, collaborative 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. The group is working to advance soil health science and implement soil health management practices across their spectrum of expertise:9
Dr. Shannon Cappellazzi: An Overview of the NAPESHM Protocols
Proper plot assessment and consistent protocols for collecting samples are key to NAPESHM’s study. Physical soil samples were collected by digging holes that were 15 centimeters by 15 centimeters and needed to be uniform across all experiments. Each sample was split into 6 different bags sent off to different labs and research institutions. All protocols were uploaded to the Soil Health Institute’s YouTube channel to help fellow researchers replicate studies.
Dr. Kelsey Hoegenauer: Cropping Systems and Soil Health Promoting Practices
NAPESHM oversaw 120 sites and had approximately 2000 experimental units. Many sites included rotations and multiple crops. Studies were evenly distributed across the North American continent. Cropping systems including traditional fields but also livestock grazing, tree crops/forest, sugarcane and vegetables. Popular soil health-promoting practices included tillage, cover cropping, organic amendments, and irrigation/water management.
Dr. Mac Bean: Saturated Hydraulic Conductivity
Hydraulic conductivity measures the ‘miles per hour’ of soil and helps measures how much water gets saturated into soil. A machine called a ‘Saturo’ uses a pump and data-logger to measure hydraulic pressures.
Dr. Dan Liptzin: 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.
Dr. Liz Rieke: Identifying Genomic Indicators of Soil Function
Targeting sequences of bacterium within soil can inform scientists about the makeup over the soil micro-biome. Ratios of fungi and bacterium and other subsets of genera can also provide microbial indicators of soil health. ‘Shotgun metagenomics’ takes microbial community DNA and ‘shreds up’ the DNA to ‘reassemble the puzzle’ that can identify groupings of functional genes and antibiotic resistance.
Dr. Michael Cope: The 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.
Standardized measurements empower innovation opportunity by creating data uniformity, allowing scientist and researchers to collaborate more efficiently and with better accuracy. Collaborative research across disiplines and will benefit immensly from baseline data standards and sampling methadology.
INNOVATION AT UC DAVIS AND BEYOND
Establishing collaboration between innovators, private sector investment, regulatory oversight, and a data-driven approach to farming will cultivate incredible outcomes for the future of agrifoodtech.
In Soil 3.0, our partners at FoodShot Global identified breakthrough solutions for a new soil “operating system” in which advances in biology, chemistry, data, genetics, machine learning, and technology would re-establish a symbiotic relationship between agriculture and soil in our modern food system. FoodShot consulted with soil health experts from universities and businesses around the world to determine key sectors for soil health innovation and investment. According to the broad criteria of mission aligned, globally impactful, scalable and investable the following prizes were awarded:
- $3 million in equity investment was awarded to Californian soil microbiome testing startup Trace Genomics
- $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 Dr. 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 Applicant Table
FoodShot applicants span all aspects of food and agriculture, from digital platforms and supply chains to renewable energy to row crops to bacteria.
Other Ripe Opportunities
UC Davis supports funding review of key research topics through its PIVOT platform, managed by the Office of Research. IIFH has also curated additional funding opportunities outlined below.
GOVERNMENT AGENCIES AND PUBLIC INSTITUTIONS SUPPORTING INNOVATION
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 as part of their State Healthy Soils Initiative. The following excerpt from the CDFA’s report effectively outlines how government agencies can be a positive influence on the overall development and protection of soil health.8
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.
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’s emitted into the atmosphere.
2. Both public and private sectors need to play a role in protecting and improving soil health.
Combining the efforts of innovators like UC Davis researcher Nicole Tautges and regulatory support from public agencies such as the CDFA will pave the way for further progress in food system transformation through healthy soils. Private organizations like Foodshot Global can help identify innovation opportunities and focus attention and resources towards 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 optimizing farm operations.
1. University of California, Davis, “Agricultural Sustainability Institute” https://asi.ucdavis.edu/
2. University of California. “Introduction to Soil Health.” Solution Center for Nutrient Management, 2012, ucanr.edu/sites/Nutrient_Management_Solutions/stateofscience/Soil_Health_894/.
3. Davis, J.G, and D Whiting. “Choosing a Soil Amendment.” Colorodo State University – Extension, 2012, extension.colostate.edu/topic-areas/yard-garden/choosing-a-soil-amendment/.
4. University of California Cooperative Extension. “Soil Amendments – What’s in That Bag?” Sacramento MGs, UCCE Master Gardener’s of Sacramento County, 2012, ucanr.edu/sites/sacmg/Soil_Amendments/.
5. Littlefield, Dee Ann. “Banking on Soil Health.” Farmers.gov, 2019, www.farmers.gov/connect/blog/conservation/banking-soil-health.
6. “Natural Resources Conservation Service.” NRCS, 2018, www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/detail/national/soils/health/?cid=NRCSEPRD1470394.
7. Abate, Tom. “A New Way to Grow Crops in Marginal Soils Could Help Feed the World.” Stanford School of Engineering, 15 July 2019, engineering.stanford.edu/magazine/article/new-way-grow-crops-marginal-soils-could-help-feed-world?linkId=70268073.
8. “2015 CDFA Advisory Pannel, California Department of Food and Agriculture.” Cdfa.ca.gov, 2015, www.cdfa.ca.gov/oefi/efasap/docs/Binder-EFASAP-Meeting-05142015.pdf.
9. “About the North American Project to Evaluate Soil Health Measurements.” Soil Health Institute, 2019, soilhealthinstitute.org/north-american-project/.
10. “The Century Experiment” UC Davis Agricultural Sustainability Institute, https://asi.ucdavis.edu/programs/rr/century-experiment