Dirt to Dinner is pleased to have Renée Vassilos contribute to our site. Renée is The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Agriculture Innovation where she manages investments in companies practicing regenerative agriculture. Previously, Renée worked at John Deere, including several years in Beijing, building global market product strategies, design and manufacture equipment, and marketing and sales. She also led her consulting firm, Banyan Innovation Group, advising growth-stage agriculture technology start-ups and investors. Renée has a BS and MS in agricultural economics from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana and University of California, Davis respectively.
Probiotics: For Our Body and Our Soil
As you’re walking through grocery store aisles, I suspect you’ve seen items labeled as ‘prebiotic’ and ‘probiotic’. Much of this push comes from a compelling and growing body of research around the critical role our complex gut microbiome plays in our immune system. Our immune system’s role is to protect our body from outside invaders, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi. This system is made up of different organs, cells, and proteins all working together. We can either support or hinder our gut health by what we consume.
David Montgomery and Anne Bikle’s book, The Hidden Half of Nature, puts it simply:
“It’s not only how much we eat, but also what we eat and what lives within us that matters.”
In parallel to this growing body of knowledge around the role of our gut microbiome, there is a growing and compelling body of research around the critical role of the soil microbiome.
We are learning a tremendous amount about the role the soil microbiome plays in healthy environmental ecosystems. The soil microbiome is a complex group of microorganisms that can be found in soil, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other microbial forms of life. At the farm-level ecosystem, the benefits of improved soil microbiome include higher rates of productivity and profitability over the long term. At the societal level ecosystem, the benefits of boosting the soil microbiome are even more profound, including improved water quality, filtration, and storage; richer biodiversity; and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, mitigating the impacts of climate change.
It is because of these profound ecosystem benefits we at The Nature Conservancy have a critical body of work focused on rebuilding the U.S. soil microbiome. We refer to this as rebuilding soil health, the equivalent of rebuilding gut health. Since 2016, TNC scientists, economists, and policy experts are focused on executing our roadmap to soil health and getting us closer to our audacious goal: 50% of U.S. cropland under adaptive soil health systems by 2025. The core focus of this brilliant team is to scale four critical practices we know are part of adaptive soil health systems: maintaining a living root in soils, minimizing tillage or disturbance, increasing crop diversity, and optimizing nutrient application.
This critical work towards our goal continues with our team of scientists, economists, and policy experts at the national level and at the tactical, boots-on-the-ground level. In 2019, however, it was acknowledged that we were not moving fast enough towards our goal. We needed to think about other ways to expedite change. How could we tap into innovation to drive farming for soil health?
Taking a Seat at the Venture Investment Table
We believe there is tremendous opportunity to drive progress towards adaptive soil health systems through innovation. We believe that TNC’s investments in those innovations will send a critical signal to other investors around the opportunity to invest for returns and impact. To date, TNC has invested in five companies. Their solutions are wide-ranging:
- Kula Bio is developing an organic alternative to synthetic nitrogen with the potential for localized production.
- Swarm Farm is developing an autonomous tractor that will provide farm enterprises a cost-effective way to practice precision application of inputs. This eliminates unnecessary treatments.
- Growers Edge is a financial technology company that is using warranties to help de-risk the adoption of new technologies on-farm. We are working with them to develop a warranty to de-risk the practices we know build soil health.
- Stony Creek Colors provides the enabling services for farmers to diversify crop rotations with crops that can be used for plant-derived dye.
- Pattern Ag provides soil microbiome analysis and recommendations for input optimization on farm.
Our work continues to support the transformation towards large scaling farming of adaptive soil health systems.
What can you do to support the transformation?
Start with your own microbiome. What foods foster your healthy gut microbiome? How do you see these efforts improving the overall health of your immune system? Then you can make that intellectual leap to the microbiome needed in the soil for it to thrive and support plant growth. The better our collective understanding and appreciation for our gut microbiome, the easier it will be for all to make the connection to the soil microbiome and a recognition of how critical it is to move the needle on soil health for our collective planetary ecosystem.