The UK start-up has created the world’s first biological measuring system that can give in-field, real-time, and GPS-logged analysis for assessing soil health, helping agrifood businesses to make more accurate crop management decisions. Murielle Gonzalez investigates how the agtech works and why it’s important to the food industry

Soil health is arguably the most important element in producing nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables – it provides the means for crops to grow to their full potential. Well-conditioned soil is also important from an eco-friendly perspective. Healthy soil acts like a sponge and can buffer the tidal flow of rainfall, and the microscopic organisms within it help build climate change resilience by locking in greenhouse gases.

University of Colorado professor Noah Fierer is a soil health specialist who has studied the rhizosphere – the topmost soil layer where plant roots interact with a motley community of viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoa and algae, which collectively are known as soil microbiome.

His work has led to the understanding that soil microbiome is to plants what gut microbiome is to humans – it promotes germination, stimulates roots, accelerates growth, and enhances immunity to disease. Experts now believe soil microbes influence the nutritional content of the food we eat and even play a role in fortifying our gut microbiome.

The links between soil health and human health have sparked research in academia and the agrifood community alike. Farmers are increasingly turning their attention to understanding soil health to make more accurate crop management decisions.

Soil health analytics

What does it take for soil to be healthy? Measuring the quality of the soil on a farm has been a pain point for agrifood businesses. Tools in the market provide information on the minerals, whether carbon dioxide is produced from the soil, or on how much of what’s there isn’t soil. The shortcomings of these tools include lack of detail and a lengthy result turnaround time.

Today, soil health analysis is like taking a photo of a room full of people, and sending the film to be developed in a lab. The picture farmers get, however, doesn’t give away what people in the photo are doing or how they interact with each other. The handheld device that UK-based start-up PES Technologies is bringing to market is about to change all that.

“Soil is only soil because it has this whole microbiome in it. Without that, it is just dust,” says PES founder and chief technology officer Jim Bailey.

PES Technologies handheld device tests soil samples and render results in under five minutes

The agrifoodtech company has developed a tool capable of measuring microbial activity in the soil. The unit is a gas-based sensor that can analyse a 100-gram sample taken from the top 20-centimetre of soil, delivering results in under five minutes. “What we’re doing is sniffing the soil, detecting the gases coming out from it,” explains Bailey.

Founded in 2017, PES Technologies received investment from Deep Science Ventures at the pen-and-paper stage to develop its proprietary sensor technology. In 2019, Jim and Graham Bailey established the business and fuelled by grant funding, they began to run trials and develop the technology.

PES is now working across four projects with 10 different partners in academia and industry, gearing up for mass market readiness.

The shift to regenerative agriculture

Productivity is at the heart of any agrifood business, and while high yields in the developed world have been achieved in gigantic leaps, the farming practices of the past 70 years have led to the decline of soil health.

“Productivity has primarily been achieved by engineering machines and synthesised, crude oil-dependant, agri-chemicals,” says Rob Ward, founder and chief executive of business accelerator Forward Food.Tech. “Today, agriculture and land use are one-fifth of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions – addressing this in an era of dealing with climate change is an urgent challenge,” he adds.

A former fruit farmer, Ward has extensive experience in both running commercial farms and retail food businesses. “I went to agricultural college, where I was taught on how much and how often we were to use these chemicals,” he says, noting that an entire economy has been created around the development and application for this industry, now worth billions of dollars.

Ward has come on board at PES Technologies as commercial director. He explains that soil health farming is about reducing or even stopping using these environmental-damaging agri-chemicals, hence the resistance from an industry that has grown up using them. “Finally, now it feels like there is a growing change to reverse this approach to farming and the damage it has created to the environment,” he says.

Real outcomes of soil health

Jake Freestone, one of the winners of the UK’s 2020 soil farmer of the year award, concurs. Freestone manages Overbury Enterprises, a 1,600 hectare of mixed farm in the beautiful rolling hills of Gloucestershire in England, and for the past seven years, he has been trying to push the agenda of more sustainable farming with a sharp focus on soil health.

Jake Freestone. Photo as seen on Bayer Crop Science

Speaking at the Soil Health Hub podcast, Freestone revealed this approach has rendered real outcomes with promising production costs reduction.

“We’ve gradually moved to a minimal cultivation scenario, partly based on economics, so that we can reduce our cost of production,” explained Freestone, noting the healthy soil mindset began with the decision of not moving the soil around too much.

“It became a journey, sort of exploration, achievement and wonder as well,” he said. “We’re finding things like fungi growing in the middle of our fields, for instance, and mushrooms all over the farm – and that’s the sort of stuff that we never really appreciated or expected,” he noted.

Freestone argued the nub of soil health is the ability to find life in it, and recognised the big challenge for the sector is putting a number to it. “Soil health is more of a feeling, and I think that’s where the industry will have challenges going forward,” he said.

Freestone pointed out, however, that Overbury has seen key productivity gains, cost savings and profitability increases as a result of this type of thinking.

“The straightforward way to measure [the impact of the soil health farming] is diesel use. We have gone from about 52 litres a hectare to establish a crop down to 17 litres. We’re combining about 950 hectares with another 250 hectares of contract farming next door, so from an economic point of view, it has made some huge savings across the sort of acreage that we’re farming.

“Having said just now that you can’t measure soil health, one of the indicators is organic matter. We’ve moved organic matter on some of our sampling fields from 1.1% of loss on ignition in 2005 up to just under 3% in 2017. We are making changes, but the challenge we have is in the biological system – it’s influenced by very wet autumns and very wet winters.

“In terms of profitability, our costs of machinery replacement are going down. We’ve lost 280 horsepower worth with a tractor out of the system. And that is capital that can be used elsewhere in the business.”

Product-market fit

Forward Food.Tech initiative The Soil Health Hub conducted a survey in the UK to identify what players in the market believe are the best characteristics to measure soil health. From 113 farming industry professionals surveyed, two of the top three characteristics stated were organic matter and microbial biomass.

Ward argues that if this measurement were for humans, these two characteristics would be the test for gut microbiome with faeces to assess our gut health.

Organic matter and microbial biomass are precisely the characteristics that PES Technologies’ handheld device will detect from a sample soil. The company is still at the R&D stage, training and testing the sensor to recognise all the critical elements that make healthy soil.

“Our technology is like a dog’s nose, very sensitive, and we’re training it for characteristics like microbial biomass, pH, organic matter, and available macronutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium,” says Bailey.

One of PES’s ongoing projects seeks to identify the potato cyst nematode – a devastating pest for the crop worldwide.

“We’re working on a project to see if we can develop a way to detect the pest as early as possible, so farmers can decide whether it’s worth planting potatoes in the field or not.

“If we’re able to do that, and we have good reasons to think we can, then that could be a massive benefit for the potato industry,” says Andrej Porovic, chief executive at PES.

Porovic says the company has developed technology that makes the cost of production for its handheld device and test strips exceptionally low, which is critical to incentivising technology adoption.

“We’ve got mixed feedback,” says Porovic. “Some farmers are very excited about the potential of this technology, and some are a bit sceptical. There are many solutions out there at a higher price point, but because the output is quite vague, they aren’t really worth it,” he adds. Porovic says prospective clients in the regenerative agriculture space are very excited about what the new agtech can do.

PES is now gearing up to begin commercial trials in the spring, with a soft-launch planned for autumn next year. The full mass product launch is scheduled for 2023.

Porovic argues the addressable market in the UK is worth between $60 million to $65 million a year, and the global demand for soil testing is $5.6 billion a year. “We believe that soil health testing is still a growing market and that our product gives good value for money. I think the market is going to increase over time,” says Porovic.

Hutchinsons, one of the largest providers of agronomic services in the UK, is among PES’s industry partners. The company is running a series of commercial trials to assess how farms can benefit from this game-changing soil health analysis.

PES Technology is currently in a seed funding round seeking to raise £600,000 and an agtech investor to lead the round.

Date published: 22 February 2021

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