Do you know the connection between global soil & climate change and transformation in agriculture? In our 1st part of the Innovation Insights, the focus is on sustainability and the importance, threats, and protective measures of soils. Do you know why more and more soil is simply disappearing? Innovative companies are researching and developing to recover vital nutrients, produce environmentally friendly products and processes, and sustainably preserve soil using digital technologies in agriculture. The Swiss investment analytics company ALPORA gives you an insight into the extreme changes in our soils and their dependence for our future.
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THE SECRET OF OUR SOIL
Without soil, there would be no life! Soil is a limited resource and a highly complex structure of mineral nutrients and organic substances. Soil, air, water, or light form the natural basis of life for plants, animals and humans. As an important component of the essential cycles of ecosystems, soils also play a central role in the protection of groundwater with their filtering and buffering properties. It is a task for society as a whole to protect and sustainably preserve our soils.
Using the Big Data software Netculator (learn more under ALPORA Methods), we analyze current and topic-specific scientific publications for each Innovation Insight. This allows us to draw conclusions about future innovations based on basic research in the respective fields. Most publications on the topic “Soil & Innovation” have been published in the following journals:
- SCIENCE OF THE TOTAL ENVIRONMENT
- JOURNAL OF CLEANER PRODUCTION
- JOURNAL OF ENVIRONMENTAL MANAGEMENT
- ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE AND POLLUTION RESEARCH
- JOURNAL OF HAZARDOUS MATERIAL
SOIL & CLIMATE CHANGE IN CORRELATION WITH AGRICULTURAL TRANSFORMATION
There is an inseparable link between soil health and climate change. In a reciprocal exchange of energy, the climate influences the soil on one hand and the soil influences the climate on the other. Global changes in land use are either accelerating or slowing climate change. After the oceans, soil ranks as the second-largest natural carbon sink, surpassing forests, and other vegetation in its ability to sequester carbon dioxide from the air. Increasing tillage, over-fertilization, and over-cultivation of agriculture intensifies the release of greenhouse gases bound in the soil. In addition, climate change with extreme weather events impairs the ability of soil to provide basic ecosystem services and results in soil erosion. Climatic and agricultural influences both lead to consequences for soil fertility.
Agriculture needs intact soils to produce healthy food, guarantee clean groundwater and meet the world’s growing demand for food, animal feed, and fuel. However, the intensity of soil stress in agriculture correlates with the activity of soil life. This means if the soil is intensely stressed, the more it negatively affects its life activity and quality.
Thus, adapting to a changing climate and coping with the climate crisis requires vital and fertile soils together with sustainable land and soil management.
OUR SOIL IN DANGER: WHY IS MORE AND MORE FERTILE SOIL DISAPPEARING?
Depending on the region, soil losses vary in magnitude due to changeable weather conditions and soil components. Unvegetated fields shortly before or after sowing, and fallow land after the late summer harvest until the next sowing in spring, are particularly vulnerable. In these phases, the soil surfaces are particularly fine-crumbled and dry and thus exposed to soil erosion without protection. The overuse as well as the strongly one-sided cultivation of a crop over several years are further factors that promote soil erosion. It leads to the soil being depleted in the first instance, and as a result, the fertility of the soil decreases sharply. In addition, the natural lee of the arable land has been stolen by the so-called land consolidation (merging of land units) and as a result, cultivated land is more susceptible to wind erosion. Changes in precipitation patterns and rising temperatures due to climate change also increase the risk of erosion by wind and water.
The consequences of soil erosion also affect biodiversity and the climate. The deficit of fertile soils leads to more and more forests being cleared. Soil nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen enter open waters (through wind and water erosion) or escape into the atmosphere. If the soil lacks essential nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphates, these are introduced into the soil in the form of fertilizers, and as bound pollutants, they can become dangerous for the ecosystem in large quantities.
For an ideal soil, a mixture of sand, clay, loam, and humus is crucial. In addition, a well-aerated soil that contains sufficient nutrients can store enough water and in turn, is easy to work with. For example, volcanic rock serves as a starting point for the formation of extremely fertile soil.
SOIL COVER & MULCH SEEDING IS AN EFFECTIVE METHOD AGAINST SOIL EROSION
To minimize the risk of erosion, various measures have already been proven effective. In particular, dense soil cover over plants provides the best prevention against wind and water erosion. Suitable field crops, improved crop rotation, dense forests, and meadows support soil stability and increase its resistance to climatic conditions. Mulch sowing is one of the most soil-friendly methods in agriculture. In this method, the soil is not plowed, and the new seed is sown directly into the crop residues of the previous plants to cover the soil. Thus, the mulch forms a protective layer against water and wind erosion. Furthermore, windbreak hedges ensure that wind energy is mitigated on the ground, reducing damage from wind erosion.
Other measures such as the cultivation of crops with low susceptibility of erosion, intercropping, no-till, preservation of grassland, riparian strips, humus, greening of slope channels, and avoidance of soil compaction help to reduce the risk of erosion.
CARBON FARMING FOR CARBON SEQUESTRATION IN SOIL
As one of the largest contributors to climate change, land management has the potential to move from being a net CO2 emitter to a net CO2 sink. Carbon farming aims to sequester more CO2 in agricultural soils. The reason is that common agricultural practices such as tractor driving, tillage, overgrazing, use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers result in a significant release of carbon dioxide. In principle, carbon can be stored in soils over a very long period of time. The method of carbon farming improves the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and transformed into soil organic matter and plant material.
HUMUS BALANCE PER APP
Soil ecologists and software developers have developed an app called Carbocheck that can check the humus content of arable soils. Based on a soil photo, the software can determine the current carbon content of the soil and calculates whether humus is degrading or building up. If further farm data is available, the software can predict the development of the humus balance of the field. Humus buildup makes an important contribution to climate protection because it binds carbon from the atmosphere, reduces greenhouse gases, and preserves yields.
Carbo Culture is a carbon tech company founded in Finland and headquartered in San Francisco. The company produces functional biocarbons from waste to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere and amend the soil.
Yara is an international company from Norway providing crop nutrition and precision agriculture solutions. Their sustainable environmental and industrial solutions such as various apps, digital tools, analysis systems, computer programs, sensors, and many more contribute to reducing emissions and improving air quality.
SOIL AS THE BASIS OF LIFE: HOW CAN NUTRIENTS SUCH AS PHOSPHORUS & NITROGEN BE RECOVERED?
The world’s most abundant waste stream is generated from sewage sludge, manure, bio waste, and food waste. This makes it the most important potential resource for the recovery and recycling of mineral nutrients such as phosphorus (P), nitrogen (N), and potassium (K). These three macronutrients are the main essential nutrients for plant growth.
The plant nutrient phosphorus is an indispensable and finite resource whose global reserves are limited to a few countries on earth. In addition, the expensive resource phosphorus is on the list of critical raw materials. In the case of the plant nutrient nitrogen, soil bacteria convert atmospheric nitrogen into mineral nitrogen which is essential for plant growth, reproduction, and leaf green. Humans, plants, and animals depend on the indispensable resources’ phosphorus and nitrogen because without these minerals there would be no life and no food. In agriculture, phosphorus and nitrogen are processed into fertilizer and secure farmers’ yields. Phosphorus mining and its development are directly linked to increasing costs and energy expenditures as well as environmental pollution.
Various processes and products for nutrient recovery of phosphorus and nitrogen are currently being researched. Phosphorus is recovered from sewage sludge, liquid manure, or animal and bone meal. For more insights into nutrient recovery from sewage sludge, see our next Innovation Insight.
SILICON ACTIVATES PHOSPHORUS IN SOIL
Scientists and researchers have found that using silicon as a fertilizer, the vital mineral phosphorus is activated and mobilized in the soil. This means that regular phosphorus fertilization could be dispensed with in the future and replaced with silicon, which is almost available in unlimited quantities. Through targeted fertilization with silicon, the availability of phosphorus in the soil could be controlled and managed in the long term. It is an environmentally friendly process that does not release any greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
NUTRIENT RECOVERY FROM SLURRY
Liquid manure has a high phosphorus content and, together with fermentation products, is even considered a potential source of phosphorus. Nitrogen is also a valuable component of manure. In agriculture, it is a waste product that is produced on a large scale. As an excellent fertilizer, it maintains soil fertility and promotes plant growth. The use of manure without any pre-treatment leads to the formation of nitrous oxide which drives global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer. Similarly, nutrient-saturated soils lead to the accumulation of nitrates in groundwater with serious consequences.
UK-based Azotic Technologies is developing natural nitrogen technologies as a sustainable solution to the overuse of fertilizers. At the same time, modern technologies can increase yields and enhance overall agronomic benefits. In this sense, the company is committed to greater sustainability in agricultural production.
The German engineering company Alltech Dosieranlagen GmbH is a manufacturer of customized dosing systems together with water and wastewater treatment components. Their development of a slurry treatment plant aims to recover phosphorus through a crystallization process and create a secondary raw material.
HOW DOES THE AGRICULTURE OF THE FUTURE LOOK LIKE?
Where there once was hard, physical labor, today we have self-driving vehicles, drones, sensors, and high-tech agricultural machinery to manage our farmland and barns. Precision agriculture and Agriculture 4.0 are on the rise. In the coming decades, agribusiness will undergo profound changes and become more important than ever before. Agriculture is facing a transformation and daunting challenges. This is directly related to the three global megatrends of globalization, sustainability, and digitalization. These challenges can neither be viewed in isolation nor solved by themselves. This is because the unchecked growth of feeding the world’s population is suddenly increasing the pressure on the climate and biodiversity.
Regarding globalization, agriculture will continue to be responsible for securing food and renewable raw materials or energy crops in the future. In the course of climate change, agriculture must cope with increasing drought, dryness, and other weather extremes. At the same time, soil degradation must be curbed, the climate protected and biodiversity preserved. In terms of ecology, global agriculture has an enormous amount of catching up to do. In view of digitalization, smart farming involves the integration of information and communication technologies, which is one of the most respected innovations of the century. Cutting-edge technologies are leading to a complete transformation in agriculture and giving rise to a modern workplace. In the future, blockchain technology could also play a significant role in agriculture by storing substantial data about crops for tracking and improving food quality.
AGRICULTURE GOES DIGITAL: SMART FARMING & AGRICULTURE 4.0
The future of agriculture is digital: satellite-guided steering signals make tractors, seeders, and harvesters perform by themselves. Sensors measure the nutrient content of the soil, drones map farmland, smartphones monitor the harvest, and robots milk cows. In smart or digital farming, machines, devices, and systems are networked with each other and thus form the basis for all data exchange. In the future, these networked digital technologies will help optimize production processes and information flows and will use resources more efficiently and manage farmland more ecologically.
It can be stated that Agriculture 4.0 is far ahead in autonomous driving. Modern agriculture is relying on Industry 4.0. Thus, on the one hand, digitalization is leading to amazing technologies for sustainable agriculture, but on the other hand, digital integration in agriculture is progressing very slowly. There is a lack of technical infrastructure. Fiber optic networks need to be expanded and developed so that fast Internet is available on the field or in the barn and machines can communicate with each other.
INNOVATION WITH A POSITIVE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT: PRECISION FARMING & – AGRICULTURE
Precision agriculture, also known as precision farming, allows for the targeted management of farmland with the help of technology and electronics. With the use of Big Data analytics software, sensors, or robots such as drones, valuable information can be obtained about the needs of individual plots, soil types, and crops. This helpful data enables pinpointing of appropriate crops, plant growth, amounts of fertilizer needed, and irrigation requirements. Precision farming grants more targeted seeding, fertilization, and irrigation.
Sensors installed in the fields and their evaluation programs are able to determine the growth phase of a plant. This means that fertilizers and environmentally harmful pesticides can be saved and used only where they are really needed. Furthermore, detailed maps of the topography and variables such as soil acidity and temperature can be determined. This, in turn, is intended to protect the soil from overfertilization, protect the environment in the long term and enable environmentally friendly production. In addition, farms benefit from lower production costs and losses, and in parallel, it increases their earning power, profitability, and competitiveness.
AGRICULTURAL DRONES IN USE FOR ANIMAL AND PLANT PROTECTION
Today’s GPS-controlled agricultural drones are equipped with state-of-the-art cameras and special color filters. In a very short time, they can capture a wide range of data, perform field analysis and generate real-time data. They are on their way to becoming an indispensable tool for farmers. Since soil and plant condition can be determined and monitored, arable farmers are able to react in time in the event of plant diseases, water shortage, overfertilization, or nutrient deficiency, etc.
Similarly, young animals such as fawns seeking shelter in tall grass can be located early and animal lives can be saved. As part of biological crop protection, drones can fly over cornfields and apply ichneumon flies (beneficial insects) which protect against the European corn borer caterpillar. In some cases, drones can replace the use of heavy machinery and tractors and perform their work more quickly and efficiently. It is estimated that drones can spray fertilizer 40 to 60 times faster than by hand. When it comes to the future of agriculture, labor time, fuel and money can be saved, while soil life and plant growth also benefit from the light flying machines.
John Deere is the main brand of the US company Deere & Company and is one of the leading manufacturers of agricultural technology. With its three core technologies of electrification, autonomy through automation, and artificial intelligence, the company is equipping its product portfolio for the agriculture of the future.
Swiss company Gamaya develops AI-based systems and solutions for farms. With the help of hyperspectral cameras attached to drones and other remote sensing devices, more detailed insights regarding plant and soil condition are possible. Gamaya has already been awarded the Prix Strategis, one of the most prestigious Swiss prizes for start-ups.