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Soil health affects three legs of ag
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Soil health affects three legs of ag

The role of soil health in enhancing human health will receive increasing attention in the next several years. That increased focus will affect three main legs of agriculture – research, business and production. Panelists discussed the current and future effects of soil health at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit, held March 20-21 in San Francisco.

Agricultural research – The Soil Health Institute has listed as a priority establishing and expanding the state of knowledge on relationships between soil health and human health. That priority was described in the “Soil Health Institute Action Plan,” published in May 2017. Interdisciplinary research is needed on how soil-health-management systems influence sustainable nutrition. Those systems impact plant-nutrient availability and uptake as well as the nutritional quality of food, the Soil Health Institute stated.

The Soil Health Institute is comprised of leaders from agribusiness, farms, government agencies and non-governmental organizations. It identifies and prioritizes gaps in soil-health research and develops strategies for funding that research.

Agricultural business – The increasing focus on soil health is attracting startup businesses and the investment community. As evidence, several entrepreneurs and investors attended the “Monetizing the Microbiome” panel discussion at the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit.

William Buckner, president and CEO of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation of Ardmore, Oklahoma, moderated the discussion.

“Healthy soil is becoming more of a focal point in the foundation of creating a healthy ecosystem,” Buckner said.

But currently there are limitations to the agricultural industry’s understanding of the relationships between soil health and human health, he said. Buckner also serves as the chairman of the board of the Soil Health Institute.

Those limitations are resources, technologies and – to a degree – acceptance by land-grant universities to make soil health a greater priority, he said.

Soil-sensor, mapping, and data-management and predictive-modeling technologies will be critical moving forward because of the wide variation in soil types, according to the panelists.

There’s a host of entrepreneurs looking at developing and commercializing those technologies, said Jerry Lynch, chief sustainability officer at General Mills of Minneapolis. That includes diagnostic tools to help researchers and farmers better understand soil composition.

“Individualized information needs to be carefully managed; it’s key to this work,” Lynch said.

Agricultural production – New technology platforms are being – and will continue to be – adopted by farmers but they must deliver incremental improvements at the right price point, said Don Marvin, president and CEO of Inocucor Technologies Inc. of Denver, Colorado.

Inocucor develops microbial crop inputs. Its Synergro formulation of live microbes is designed to improve root vigor and increase yield of crops such as tomatoes, leafy greens and broccoli as well as strawberries and fruit trees.

The company’s Synergro Free product is a bio-fertilizer additive that can be applied with starter or foliar fertilizers with foliar or pre-emergence herbicides in row crops.

Inocucor itself is an example of the connection between soil health and human health. It was co-founded by a medical doctor and molecular pathologist as well as an organic gardener who experimented with fermentation to develop biological products for crop production.

Animals in the soil-human connection – While it may not be readily apparent, the connection between soil health and human health also involves dairy and livestock.

The Soil Health Institute calls for more interdisciplinary research on how soil-health-management systems influence sustainable nutrition by impacting plant – and thus animal – nutrient availability and uptake. That also influences the nutritional quality of food, including dairy products.

Steve Rowe, president and CEO of Newtrient LLC of Rosemont, Illinois, said farmers have been leaders in understanding the value of soil health. They will be demanding more in the way of technologies that measure water and soil movement. Many dairy farmers already have adopted sensors that measure cow activity.

Newtrient supplies dairy farmers with information about manure- and nutrient-management technologies. It features an online catalog to help dairy farmers meet manure-management needs for their individual farms. The company also connects partners in the public sector – such as energy companies – and in the private sector for environmental asset-trading opportunities.

“Statistics will become the ‘Moneyball’ of agriculture,” Rowe said. “Farmers will be using statistics rather than their ‘gut feel’ in the very new future.”

By being able to measure soil health and nutrient uptake, farmers will be able to make better use of nutrients that will benefit animal and human health, as well as the health of the environment, Rowe said.

“Better data, equipment and planning bode well for the crossover of agriculture, human health and investment,” he said.

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Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin. Email to contact her.

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