A conversation with Henry Rowlands, CEO of Soil in Formation (SIF) about how to measure a holistic set of parameters related to soil risks and soil health accurately, in-situ and in real time by using electrochemical sensors that are set to enable the auditable measurement of soil carbon and soil health.
LISTEN TO THE CONVERSATION ON:
A 7-year research journey around the world into accurate, auditable, cheap, and real-time soil health data. And what all of that has to do with the chemical residues in our food, containments and testing the hairs of Japanese parliamentarians and their children.
TESTING THE HAIRS OF JAPANESE PARLIAMENTARIANS FOR TOXIC RESIDUES AND PERSONALISING THE FOOD SYSTEM
It would be vital to have the ability for consumers to fully connect through transparent data to the food and agricultural system.
”I find one of the biggest problems at the moment is that there’s a massive disconnection between people and how their food is grown and the systems that they’ve grown in, and what’s going into their body as a whole. So, the ability to make sure that consumers could connect and push the system in the correct direction. And this involves not just consumers, but financial institutions and everyone because when you start to make things personal, things change […] So the more personal we can make this whole process, the better. So, I’d like to personalise the food system if that makes sense.”– Henry Rowlands
”I’ll give one example of that of personalising data. I was part of one group that did testing on most of the Japanese parliament members’ hair for different toxic chemical contaminants. And so, we tested many of the members of the Parliament who had been very slow on shifting policies [..] And so we did that, and we came back with all sorts of interesting results for them, all were kept confidential, and we didn’t publish without their authority. Most of them said yes, fine to publish our results, but some of them didn’t. And then the shift in regulations after that testing came out, after lots of the consumer groups, lots of the agricultural groups in the regenerative space, having campaigned on all sorts of subjects as immediately you made it personal to each and every one of those Japanese parliament members, things moved 100 times faster.”– Henry Rowlands
THERE IS CURRENTLY NO SOIL MEASUREMENT TECH ABLE TO DO THIS AT SCALE, CHEAPLY AND ACCURATELY
Henry’s reason to do this now is purely because it’s become available and, according to him, this should have been done many years ago. A lot of focus in the ag tech world is on improving the methods that already exist. The time is now because there’s a need for scaling, accurate, affordable, auditable soil data for so many different stakeholders.
”I think the aspect of being able to imagine because it was only in the imagination, to imagine the ability to measure soil, carbon, pH, moisture, other soil health aspects, in real-time, from a point of view of leaving a sensor in the ground. So that you could almost measure the heartbeat of the soil, it was just too interesting for me […] I thought it was time to take the next step and to launch a company with my co-founders who have also been in the space for a long period of time working at the carbon underground […] So we’d all had a lot of interest in the space and hadn’t really seen anything that could create auditable soil health data for this moment” – Henry Rowlands
”They’ve been infrared and gamma and satellites around for many years in the ag tech space for looking at things. And there’s been a constant need to improve those methods. And not much looking outside of the box. And so, because this comes from the biomedical space only, and has literally not really been used in agriculture before there’s kind of a moment here that can meet what the market needs without using improving technologies that will never, in my opinion, get to where they need to be.”– Henry Rowlands
”I’d say three pieces. Accuracy is key, also affordability, so the ability to use sensors or some methods that are going to cost a really small amount of money. And also, on the ease of use. So, without the need for technicians to be involved or labs to be involved, because all of those harm scalability.”– Henry Rowlands
”There’s lots of the stakeholders building data platforms and all sorts of other things on top of a base, but the base is very weak, which is actually the measurement part of this whole picture. Right. So yeah, that’s hopefully where we fit in now.”– Henry Rowlands
WE SHOULD FOCUS ON THE CORE TECH TO BUILD OUTCOME-BASED SYSTEMS
There’s lots of work that have gone on top, but very little work has gone in investing in core technologies. And those are the ones that will allow the whole system above it to work.
”I would say the key as a whole, and this is not related to Soil in Formation necessarily, is to invest in two things: one is the core technologies that will give us a base to build outcome- based solutions, and there are many possibilities across nutrient density to contaminants to biodiversity to soil health. Every single one of those areas, and more involved in the kind of ESG space, have a really poor focus on the core technologies for the measurement of them.”– Henry Rowlands
”But there’s also, out of this raw data that comes out of these core technologists that hopefully being built at the moment, the ability to give that data context. And at the moment, there’s a lot of trying to oversimplify so that you can get things to market quicker. But all of these systems are complicated in their nature.” – Henry Rowlands
OTHER POINTS DISCUSSED
Koen and Henry also talked about:
- The difference between soil organic carbon and total carbon
- The value of historical baseline data
- How sceptical are consumers about core data on contaminants
- Adrian Ferrero on how giving farmers insights into the soil microbial community is key to regenerative agriculture
- Ichsani Wheeler and Tom Hengl – Everyone has the right and the data to know what is happening on our planet
Feedback, comments, suggestions? Reach me via Twitter @KoenvanSeijen, in the comments below or through Get in Touch on this website.
Join the Investing in Regenerative Agriculture and Food newsletter on www.eepurl.com/cxU33P
The above references an opinion and is for information and educational purposes only. It is not intended to be investment advice. Seek a duly licensed professional for investment advice.