Panel discussion at Davos, 2022.

Transforming Global Food Systems Through Soil Data and Nature – Positive Farming: an Experts’ Take from Davos 2022

Soil health is the basis of food production. Soil data can unlock key information to transition to a more efficient and sustainable system.

Collaboration between industry players and the adoption of digital tools can catalyse the changes needed to protect and restore our planet’s food sources and help counteract the onset of climate change.

Reading Time: 6 min

Human development in the last 50 years has taken giant steps in every sector, we’re starting to have VR meetings, testing commercial space flights and “hacking” the human genome, but there is one element that keeps us ‘rooted to the ground’, and that is soil.

The food we consume draws its sustenance and quality from the world’s soils. For this reason, discussing soil health and soil fertility is so important. During the latest World Economic Forum in Davos in May 2022, Yara International arranged the Yara Café, under the theme ‘Restoring soil, restoring trust.’ A place to discuss soil health and share valuable insights around regenerative agriculture and how digitalization can help us transition to a more sustainable food system. 

We contributed to the Café's rich agenda by organising a panel discussion on the key role of technology in collecting data that can lead to better management of farmed land and the monitoring of regenerative practices. We invited experts from business and civil society to share their experiences and ongoing projects:

  • Morgan Gillespy, Director of the Food and Land Use Coalition at the World Resources Institute,
  • Daniel Vennard, Chief Sustainability Officer at Syngenta,
  • Vanessa Adams, Vice President, Strategic Partnerships & Chief of Party, AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa,
  • Kimberly Mathisen, Chief Executive Officer, Hub Ocean,
  • Simone Sala, Director of Soil and Ecosystems Solutions at Varda – Field Data Exchange.

Varda’s CEO, Davide Ceper, opened the panel underscoring the urgency for change in the food industry:

 ‘‘Life on land depends on a thin layer of soil that is also estimated to be degraded already by 1/3. It is therefore essential that we understand more about soils, to help drive policy and the transition to regenerative farming practices, to restore this key asset.’’

Morgan Gillespy
Scaling collective action through Regen10

Morgan Gillespy, Director of the Food and Land Use Coalition at the World Resources Institute (WRI) explained a key project that the WRI is involved in, Regen10, a partnership aimed at scaling the adoption of regenerative practices in 10 years. At the core of this initiative is the search for a shared definition of regenerative agriculture, that was found to diverge from country to country.

Data is at the core of the infrastructure that they aim to build, creating a quantifiable and consistent model that can be used as an effective benchmark by governments and industries alike.

Daniel Vennard
Empowering Chinese farmers through MAP

Daniel Vennard, Chief Sustainability Officer at Syngenta, outlined the global challenge of increasing annual yields by more than 50 percent by 2050 while reducing carbon emissions drastically and preserving land resources. He shared Syngenta’s Modern Agriculture Platform (MAP) initiative, that has established modern farm centers in China where farmers can get information on how to farm sustainably, and soil health is at the core of this offer.

Across over 500 projects in China, better soil quality has delivered business productivity and strengthened traceability by monitoring farmers’ data.

Simone Sala
Unlocking the potential of soil data through the Global Soil Program

Collecting data, being able to access it and use it to make sustainably minded decisions is becoming extremely important in the agricultural sector. To this end, Varda has been working on making field-level data more accessible, globally. Simone Sala, Director of Global Soil and Ecosystems Solutions, presented Varda’s prototype for a Global Soil Program, a tool that aims to enable the data discovery, comparison and the identification of gaps in global soil data availability. Varda plans to make this tool available on a not-for-profit basis.

‘’At Varda we focus on data. We found that soil data is siloed across public and private databases. If we unlock some of this data, the visibility of the local and regional datasets is going to increase, the time needed to market products and farmer advisory services will decrease, and farmers’ livelihoods will be improved thanks to the access to tailor-made recommendations.’’ – Simone Sala, Director of Global Soil and Ecosystem Solutions at Varda.

Varda’s Global Soil Platform interface.

Through the Global Soil Program Varda wants to overcome the lack of soil data availability that is a problem shared and recognized from public and private organizations working across agriculture value chains. Managing to collect and aggregate agricultural data effectively, would bring multiple advantages to productivity and long-term resilience of agriculture. The cost of monitoring the impact of agricultural practices could be drastically reduced, thus making these practices more widely adopted by the industry and facilitating the design of green bonds.

Vanessa Adams
The need for digitalization in building resilience

The next panelist, Vanessa Adams, Vice President, Strategic Partnerships & Chief of Party, AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, spoke about the growing importance of technology for agricultural development by sharing her most recent work with smallholder farmers in Africa. Vanessa shared some examples proving that, also in developing countries, farmers are eager to adopt technologies to gain access to useful information.

Furthermore, with the rise in fertiliser prices, soil health has become even more critical for farming in Africa.  Vanessa added that environmental conditions are constantly changing, and outdated information is ineffective when trying to address production and climate challenges in the African continent. There is the need for live data that can be used for timely decisions and to achieve this, digitalisation is imperative.

Kimberly Mathisen
Building sustainable business models to revitalize our oceans

Finally, Kimberly Mathisen, Chief Executive Officer at Hub Ocean, drew many similarities between oceans and land when it comes to the pressing need to avoid further degradation and restore life to such critical natural assets. Kimberly discussed the importance of creating sustainable business models that will make ocean data accessible and create a structure for businesses, governments and scientists to share knowledge, in order to make informed decisions for the benefit of productive and healthy oceans.

HUB Ocean has been particularly successful in drawing scientists to its platform, and through contextualization of multiple data sources, both private and public, it’s been able to unlock significant impact in the understanding of KPIs affecting the oceans and climate, quickly becoming a reference point for the industry.

Addressing our shared challenge

It was really refreshing to receive further confirmation that data collection and data exchange are necessary to establish a monitoring infrastructure for natural assets through collaboration between the private sector and civil society organizations. Technology can enable data synchronization between industries, NGOs, governments and allow individual farmers to make optimal decisions, balancing short-term productivity with long-term resilience.

Our challenge is to make soil and field data collection scalable, monitor its availability, promote its accessibility, and find ways to interpret it for sustainable decision making.

The panel also agreed that data sharing is a complex endeavor as it prompts questions around data privacy and ownership. However, it’s a challenge that we need to tackle, as the combination of multiple data sets can create new ideas and approaches to strengthen production, while still protecting our natural resources.

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