As the original stewards of the land, farmers are on the front lines of one of the least understood and untapped frontiers of combating climate change – the soil. Because of soil’s massive potential to store carbon and its foundational role in growing our food and fostering biodiversity (there is more biodiversity below ground than above ground), soil presents an opportunity for farming to positively impact climate change, biodiversity and food security.
Two Paths to Change
Key opportunities for changing how we grow our food include 1) helping agriculture unlock the full potential of soil to meet growing food demands, and 2) restoring the carbon holding potential of our soil to combat climate change.
Studies show that globally, soil removes about 25 percent of the world’s fossil fuel emissions from the atmosphere each year. When soil takes in more CO2 from the atmosphere than it releases, it becomes a carbon sink – accumulating and storing carbon. The carbon sink capacity of the world’s agricultural and degraded soils is 50 to 66 percent of what it has been historically. Meaning there is an opportunity for us to improve soil quality and reverse soil degradation so it can hold 42 to 78 gigatons more carbon. Globally, 51 gigatons are added to the atmosphere each year. To put it into context, a gigaton is one billion metric tons – equivalent to 10,000 fully loaded U.S. aircraft carriers or the combined weight of more than 14 billion people (about twice of the world population).
Soil carbon also performs double duty as a resource in ensuring food security. Farmers can harness the power of carbon to ensure greater productivity of their fields. Any strategy that sequesters carbon in soil – in other words, captures and stores it – improves soil quality and land productivity by increasing organic matter.
A balance between soil carbon and soil nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, etc., is important for crop yield and quality. Soil organic carbon improves soil structure, allowing the soil to act like a sponge to increase water retention and reduce soil erosion.
This ultimately leads to improved water quality in groundwater and surface waters, and to a decreased negative impact across the entire ecosystem. In short, increasing the amount of carbon in soil also makes it more productive and resilient, which is critical for securing our food supply.
Smarter Farming with Soil Intelligence
The amount of carbon sequestered in our soils can be increased by adopting carbon-smart management practices on the farm. We know that reduced tillage, planting cover crops and organic matter amendments (e.g., compost) increase carbon retention in the soil, and help convert soil from a carbon source to a carbon sink. But every farm is unique, and there is not a one-size-fits-all approach. We need help from cutting-edge science and technology to comprehensively measure and interpret the physical, chemical and biological properties of soil – collectively referred to as soil intelligence.
Soil intelligence can help farmers “read the soil,” and uncovers which pathogens are lurking, quantifies beneficial microbes and nutrients and furthers our understanding of the carbon holding potential of soil. This information allows farmers and their farm advisors to diagnose the health of the soil and make the right decisions for maximizing their profits, while pursuing the right “carbon smart farming” practices for their farms.
Soil intelligence can also identify beneficial soil microbiome traits, which can lead to strategies for soil carbon storage and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. This is a massive opportunity for innovation – for the development of new climate-smart technologies, products and solutions that help agriculture become carbon negative literally from the ground up.
An investment in our soil now is an investment in the livelihood and health of generations to come.
The Secrets in Soil DNA
Soil is one of the most complex biological systems in the world. Each gram of soil is rich with biological life forms, most of which have never been sequenced at the level of DNA.
Trace Genomics has developed a patented, science-backed sequencing method that offers a comprehensive, consistent and quantitative DNA footprint of living soil. It’s best-in-class soil intelligence where soil science, genomics and machine learning are pushing the boundaries of what is known and interpretable from soil data.
This technology unravels mysteries for agronomists and growers – measuring the bacteria and fungi in the soil that cause disease and cycle nutrients. We then combine those measurements with soil chemical characteristics to provide growers and agronomists with a window into the health and productivity of their soil – uncovering what diseases are present in the soil before a single seed is planted.
It’s innovation that finally is unlocking the full potential of soil, giving agriculture the tools to grow more food, more sustainably and be on the forefront of tackling some of the world’s greatest challenges.
Poornima Parameswaran, Ph.D.
Trace Genomics Co-Founder
Vice President of Science, Technology and Innovation