Global Topsoil Loss & Solutions in AgTech
The Soil Crisis in a Nutshell
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN reports that around a third of the world’s soil is already degraded, and that if the current trajectory continues 90% of global topsoil will be gone by 2050. These alarming figures place in perspective the soil crisis the world is now facing. It is particularly pertinent for agriculture as 95% of food is grown in topsoil, and it takes about 1000 years to create just three precious centimeters of it. Without healthy topsoil the inability for farmers to grow nutritious food is not the only fallout; healthy soil systems sequester huge amounts of atmospheric carbon and act as a filtration system for our global water supply, and without a balanced soil system climatic impacts are forecasted to be severe. With the clock ticking, many AgTech companies are innovating potential solutions that could address the problem, with the aim of preventing the global food and climate crisis that will certainly occur if degradation continues at this rate.
To effectively evaluate solutions addressing global topsoil loss, we first have to identify the main causes. Deforestation and industrial farming practices that intensively till the soil and douse the land with synthetic pesticides are both primary concerns. Forests act as natural windbreakers and flood barriers that protect soil by having deep, established roots that secure its structural integrity. Exposed, bare soil that is not cover cropped is highly subject to erosion by wind and water that can wash away valuable topsoil and contribute to desertification. Intensive tilling exacerbates this effect by churning up valuable microorganisms, and the overapplication of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers strips soil of nutrients and fertility.
AgTech Solutions: What is being done?
Globally, AgTech companies are combating the soil crisis with a few different approaches depending on which cause is being targeted. Reforestation, especially of desertified areas, is considered to be a highly impactful solution to a number of environmental crises, soil included. The EU has funded technologies that are streamlining reforestation projects in Europe with robotics and solar power in zero-emission indoor growing chambers for young tree seedlings. The growing conditions can be monitored remotely with sensors and cameras, and databases store comprehensive information about which native species need to be planted for different regions. As tree-planting is typically very labour intensive, robotics has the potential to do the work of thousands at a fraction of the cost. Similarly, companies are using drones to create detailed, 3D blueprints of planting sites to maximize tree survival rates. With detailed information on the planting sites, trees can now be planted in biodegradable packages of nutrients and water which allow the tree to be self-sufficient for a year. This means trees can be planted in already degraded areas and survive with little to no maintenance. Over time remote sensing data is then used to monitor tree growth and the corresponding impacts on land regeneration. Other technologies are targeting water systems, aiming to increase the efficiency of agricultural irrigation systems to prevent the washing away of topsoil and leaching of essential nutrients. Pioneering technologies are being developed that change the molecular structure of water in irrigation systems to increase absorption and dissolution of fertilizers in soil. This two-in-one solution mitigates flooding and the washing away of topsoil, but can also greatly reduce the amount of chemical fertilizers farmers need to apply to their soil since it is better absorbed. Taking an offensive approach are AgTech companies who recognize the enormous amount of topsoil that has already been lost and are aiming to replace it faster than the 1000 years the earth needs to make it. Multiple companies are using aerial application processes with planes and drones to add microbiologically rich soil amendments to commercial farms. These man-made soil remedies can be designed for greater carbon sequestering capabilities and water and fertilizer absorption properties, significantly increasing yields for farmers in degraded regions.
The deterioration of global topsoil, along with most environmental issues, is being amplified by climate change in a destructive feedback cycle. Breaking this feedback loop is especially important considering the potential of soils to mitigate climate change with carbon sequestration and reverse the cycle. Any technology targeting climate change and greenhouse gas reduction will benefit topsoil second hand (and vice versa), but direct intervention is also necessary. Like most complex, systematic issues a combination of many approaches is needed, and the socio-ecological impacts for farmers must be prioritized. Particularly as the effects of topsoil loss are being felt most extremely in tropical and desertifying regions in developing nations. The AgTech industry has high potential to address the complexity of these issues, and if we can use robotics, remote sensing, and innovative soil amendments to restore degraded land, we might yet be able to save our remaining topsoil. But looking forward, we must also embark on the slower process of shifting away from the paradigm of destructive, industrial agriculture that brought us to this point. If we can use regenerative technologies to mimic biological processes and produce food whilst stewarding the land and soil, then a resilient and sustainable food system is in sight.
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1 FAO. (2019, May 15). Global Symposium on Soil Erosion: Key Messages. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/about/meetings/soil-erosion-symposium/key-messages/en/
2 Cosier, S. (2019, May 30). The world needs topsoil to grow 95% of its food — but it’s rapidly disappearing. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/may/30/topsoil-farming-agriculture-food-toxic-america
3 “A cover crop is defined as a close-growing crop that provides soil protection, seeding protection, and soil improvement between periods of normal crop production” (Soil Science Society of America, 2008).
4 Besnainou, J. (2019, September 3). Is Profitable Reforestation Possible? Land Life Company Makes the New 50 to Watch List. Cleantech Group. https://www.cleantech.com/is-profitable-reforestation-possible-land-life-company-makes-the-new-50-to-w atch-list/
5 Cosgrove, E. (2018, April 21). Six Startups Using Technology to Improve Soil Health. AFN. https://agfundernews.com/startups-using-technology-improve-soil-health.html