Despite advancements in precision agriculture and a $7bn market for agricultural data and agronometrics, we are in the midst of a global decline in crop yields. The root cause is that this data does not probe the surface of our soil. The complex microbial ecosystems critical to healthy soil, and therefore directly proportional to crop yield, have appeared a “final frontier”. If it was possible to determine the status of soil by analysing microbe health, farmers would be able to make far more accurate soil management decisions: from which fertiliser to use to whether they ought to employ “no till” strategies. Right now, there is no institutionally endorsed measure of soil microbial health.
Using 10 years of experience in engineering plastic electronic sensors, Dr Jim Bailey has developed an ultra-portable device capable of measuring microbial activity in soil. Working in partnership with a team of scientists at the National Institute of Agriculture and Botany, one of the single most influential academic organisations in UK agriculture, Jim has received a significant amount of grant funding to run trials of the technology up until July 2018. As designed, each device can perform hundreds of tests, finally allowing farmers to gain a clear understanding of their soil health. In contrast to sequencing, PES’s technology identifies what bacteria are doing, rather than which bacteria are present, by assessing emissions of volatile organic compounds.
“We lost the whole crop from the no-till fields in our first year. A tool that could have told us the soil wasn’t ready to support the crops would have been invaluable!” – Chris Baylis, Head of Farming, Sir Richard Sutton Limited