“The loss of organic matter of soil could be the most underestimated environmental crisis humanity faces.”
So Victor Friedberg, founder and chairman of FoodShot Global told me over the phone recently, and there’s a whole load of devastating evidence out there to suggest he wasn’t using hyperbole. The UN has warned there are only about 60 harvests left in the earth’s soils. Plowing and over-tilling have increased erosion by 10 to 100 times natural rates. Meanwhile, deforestation, overgrazing, and pesticides are adding to this degradation.
It’s not the most uplifting bunch of stats, but the story of our soil doesn’t necessarily have to have a tragic ending. “Let’s not get there,” Friedberg says of that ending.
That’s the mission driving FoodShot Global a collective of venture funds, banks, and foundations that have come together as an investment platform that wants to address critical issues in the food and agriculture systems. In 2018, FoodShot decided to tackle the soil issue by launching its Soil 3.0 challenge. Companies and entrepreneurs were invited to submit business, research, and policy proposals for potential solutions to revitalizing the world’s soil. And, more important, FoodShot wanted to find a few companies from the pool of entrants whose solutions could work collectively, forming what the organization calls “a new soil operating system.”
As Friedberg explained it to me, that framework will use technology, science, and farming practices to help the agricultural and food industries better understand through data the state of soil and, armed with that information, make better decisions around everything from growing and harvesting to understanding the types of microbes living in the soil to optimize crop yield.
Friedberg compares it to weather forecasting, which uses a mix of science and technology to gather data about air pressure, humidity levels, wind directly, and temperature, among other things. From that data, we can make all kinds of predictions across our lives, from someone like me deciding to hold a party indoors because of potential thunderstorms to a QSR ordering system being able to recommend a drive-thru customer hot soup on a cold afternoon.
Right now we have no such data-collection system for soil. In fact, we don’t really know much about it. We know that healthy soil teems with microbes, which interact with one another to do things like break down organic materials (e.g., dead plants and animals) and feed nutrients back into the soil. However, Freidberg isn’t far off the mark when he quotes Leonardo DaVinci to describe the state of our relationship to soil in the twenty-first century: “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies overhead than we do about the soil underfoot.”
This is where the winners of Soil 3.0 come into play.
Trace Genomics, who scooped up the main investment, has a proprietary analytics engine that does DNA extraction of the soil then analyzes it to help farmers with track the health of the soil across multiple fields (or even farms) and manage risk of disease. The company was founded in 2015 by Dr. Diane Wu and Dr. Poornima Parameswaran and is based out of Silicon Valley.
FoodShot also awarded two GroundBreaker Prize winners, each of whom receive $250,000. Dr. Keith Paustian’s COMET system guides farmers and land managers through their ranch and farm practices to help them improve their sustainability practices. “He’s creating the first platform in which you can layer soil type data, weather data, decide what crops you want to grow, what rotations you’re going to grow them in, then ultimately determine the greenhouse gas emissions from those choices,” explains Friedberg. Meanwhile, Dr. Gerlinde De Deyn, who took the second $250,000 Groundbreaker Prize, works in plant biodiversity and is creating what Friedberg calls “cutting edge tech” that will allow us to better understand plant biodiversity and the relstionship between plants and microbes in the soil.
A final investment of $35,000 was given to Dr. Dorn Cox, whose mission is to democratize farm data through his OpenTEAM platform, so it can be shared more easily amongst farmers and the agricultural industry in general.
All three FoodShot winners will receive guidance, mentorship, and capacity-building resources for maximum impact and scale.
Friedberg explains that these winners will focus both on their individual work as well as what they can do together in terms of contributing to FoodShot’s vision for the farm operating system of the future.
Soil 3.0 is just the start of FoodShot Global’s ongoing Challenge. Each year moving forward, the platform will choose a food-related topic to address. While Friedberg didn’t say specifically which area the next challenge will focus on, he did mention the platform has already considered food-secure cities, alternative proteins, and food-as-medicine as possible areas. Dates for the next challenge are expected to be announced later this year.
For now, the platform is focused on the soil. As Friedberg explains, FoodShot mapped those other topics out and came to the following conclusion: “you’re not going to be able to do any of those things if we don’t fix our soil.”