Re-engineering soil
Fertile soil is one of the world's fundamental resources, yet its prevalence is at serious risk from current agricultural methods. We're looking for people who could create new technologies and tools, allowing farmers to increase their yields without damaging their soil.
Why re-engineer soil?
Degradation and loss of fertile soil has major consequences. In addition to a drop in the yields of crops, forestry, and biomass production, eroded soil has a significantly reduced capacity to store CO2 and water. The costs of these losses are considerable. Carbon released from soil has contributed 5-15% of total CO2 emissions over the past 100 years, droughts and floods associated with poor soil water retention cost the global economy $500 billion each year, while estimated financial losses in crop yields start at $4 trillion a year.

There are many contributing factors to the degradation and erosion of soils. Agricultural methods and trends such as tillage (mechanical preparation of soil such as plowing), monoculture, overuse of herbicides, increasing field sizes, and overgrazing of livestock all have known impacts on the fertility and stability of soils. Other practices such as the use of artificial fertiliser can be very effective at increasing yields, but do nothing to preserve the structure of soil, potentially leaving it vulnerable to erosion.
What are the opportunities?
Techniques and methods used in farming are beginning to change. For example, physical methods such as 'no-till' farming are rising in popularity, as the benefits to soil preservation are demonstrated through research and agricultural experience. However, it is difficult to produce yields similar to those achieved when tillage is used, and equipment is currently expensive.

Other methods such as the use of companion crops or polyculture can limit soil erosion, the growth of weeds, and reduce pests by attracting protective insects and other species. There are opportunities to further take advantage of the relationships between different crop species, matching desirable phenotypes with specific environments to maintain soil fertility and structure.

Within soil itself there are increasing efforts to understand and take advantage of the bacteria and fungal communities that contribute to fertile and stable growing conditions. Knowledge of the importance of symbiotic mycorrhizal relationships in the availability of nutrients and stabilisation of soil is leading to exploration of the possibilities of artificial inoculation methods. The role of bacteria in providing nutrients that can be utilised by plants is provoking similar developments. There are significant opportunities to increase capabilities to monitor, engineer and optimise beneficial microbial and mycobial relationships.

In a similar vein, the development of soil additives, such as biochar, that can simultaneously sequester carbon and improve soil fertility have rich potential. However, there are technical challenges to optimise performance and production, or to develop other new additives with similar or better properties.

More fundamentally, researchers are working to determine the precise characteristics of healthy soil and to better understand how to monitor this. There is a great opportunity here to improve the decision support tools available to assist people in soil management practices.

Finally, it is important to be aware of global agricultural practices. Although commercial farming is the norm in developed countries, family farms produce over three quarters of the world's food. Developing innovative solutions that fit this context would be a significant breakthrough.
Who are we looking for?
We think this challenge would benefit from people with backgrounds in:

  • Microbiology
  • Mycology
  • Genetics
  • Engineering
  • Biochemistry
  • Chemistry
  • Computer science
  • Soil science
  • Soil mechanics

If you have a different STEM background, but you're keen to solve problems in this challenge area, please apply, the most interesting things happen at the interface between skill-sets!
Specific challenges
We're currently designing a number of specific challenges in this area.
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How can we improve agricultural efficiency without eroding soil? Can you solve The Frontier challenge?
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