Regenerative Agriculture Technology and Innovation – Part 2
We are seeing a technological convergence in agriculture. Farm management and decision support software are being built on the back of data streams which are often being collected for the first time. This is being combined with an increasing use of:
- Automation and robotics
- Biotechnological tools
- Genetic engineering breakthroughs
- Soil monitoring and measuring systems
All of which are enabling a much greater understanding of what is going on in the soil and how to increase its productivity
Agriculture and food is a $5 trillion global industry. The next thirty years will see a 70% increase in demands on our agricultural system while also battling yield stagnation and deforestation to provide new acres. The current system requires changing, and requires focusing on soil health, regeneration of degraded soils, and a new operating system for growing crops. A key to a successful future will be leveraging the decision support software technologies to provide the knowledge required to drive the use of regenerative practices.
Key Technology and Business Models
Foodshots Global launched their Soil 3.0 acceleration program in 2019. The challenge outlined three key areas where innovation was required to increase soil health:
- Soil Carbon Measurement
- Microbiome Functionality
- Rapid adoption of regenerative practices
Soil Carbon Measurement
Leveraging data to accurately model soils enables new business models in regenerative agriculture. The United States Department of Agriculture set up Comet Farm, a greenhouse gas accounting system for farms. Using this free tool, farmers can begin to model greenhouse gas emission reductions and savings. The structure of the tool is also being leveraged to measure carbon content, soil health, nitrogen retention, and other potential sources of ecosystem service payments. Combining this measurement tool with the decision support tools above will ensure farmers can make measurable environmental impact, and potentially get paid for doing so.
Robotics are increasingly be used to make these measurements. Companies such as Aker Technologies and Small Robot Company are developing below canopy survey and mapping robots. One key goal in increasing soil health is to increase biodiversity in the soil. If you can command a robot to target specific weeds after a specific threshold of the that weed has appeared in field, it means you can leave all the non-harmful flora alone which increases biodiversity and therefore improves soil health. This per-plant, high definition view of a field could see the end of ‘spray and pray’ chemicals and promote biodiversity with targeted weeding programs.
Once you have your soil sample you can start to map what is going on in the soil. A company like Trace Genomics can offer a full microbial fingerprint with a fast turnaround time. Our understanding of the functionality of microbes in the soil is still early-stage. Increasing the understanding how various microbes affect plant health, nutrient cycling, disease susceptibility, and other traits and functions will accelerate the efficacy and adoption of biological crop inputs and better soil stewardship.
Key Software – Decision support software to facilitate adoption
Soil Capital is developing a software-based model which analyzes a farm’s data and gives a projection of future profit/losses if certain regenerative practices are installed on the farm. The model compares a farm’s performance to neighboring farms in the region, making the potential gains more demonstrable for the farmer while exerting ‘peer’ pressure. The company is working with food and agriculture companies and cooperatives as a sales channel to offer their tool to their suppliers. Using another tool, Soil Capital Carbon, the company also enables companies (in and out of food sectors) to pay farmers for actions to improve their climate impact.
The Green Data are a decision support tool for agro-food manufacturers, cooperatives, agri-banks and insurers, and other service providers. Its software aims to model regenerative decisions on the farm to de-risk investment and promote regeneration. This service aims to look across the agricultural supply chain as well as at the individual farmer, to deploy regenerative solutions as broadly as possible.
While there are plenty of technologies that are reaching the market that contribute to regenerative goals (robotics, soil sampling, biotechnological crop inputs…) the technologies that focus on the adoption of regenerative agriculture practices are still relatively early-stage. The data ‘engine’ required to prove the efficacy of regenerative practices is growing, helped by initiatives backed by the USDA as well as companies such as Danone with their Farming for Generations pilot working with Connecterra, a developer of decision support software for dairy farmers, or General Mills initiatives, to build up a body of training data for regenerative practices.
New markets for ecosystem service payments and new financing models are required to finance the transition and de-risk the change for farmers both in their minds and in their pockets. In part three of this series we will look at new business models and financial innovations that are delivering transition finance solutions.