To increase crop production and keep up with our growing population, farmers across the world have turned to chemical fertilization of their fields to keep soil nutrient content high. However, continuous use of soil and increasingly aggressive fertilization is destroying soil quality. Monocropping and tillage naturally loosen topsoil, causing soil degradation – the decline in quality and eventual erosion of the nutritious upper layer capable of sustaining plant growth. To supplement nutrients in lower soil layers, farmers add large amounts of chemical fertilizers. These chemical nutrients, while able to sustain plant growth, acidify soil when added in large quantities, accelerating soil degradation to dangerous levels. The result is a vicious cycle in which farmers desperately add more fertilizer, only to damage soil quality even further. Recent reports estimate that approximately 40% of soil currently used in agriculture is already degraded or seriously degraded. An investigation conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations suggests that if we don’t change the way we fertilize, all the topsoil in the world could be gone in the next 60 years. This leaves us with a difficult dilemma: how can we protect soil health while feeding an exponentially growing population? Clearly, an alternative is needed if we are to avoid a fast-approaching world crisis.
“By engineering soil microbiome, more diverse and balanced soil microbial communities are established for improved soil health and plant fertility.”
Enter: Plant B
Our project, Plant B, presents a unique approach to fertilization and soil supplementation. Instead of focusing on fertilizers themselves, we target the underlying cause of the problem – soil microbiota. The metabolic reactions of bacteria determine levels of soil nutrients, a power we harness to sustainably preserve soil fertility and health. This concept of achieving and maintaining an ideal microbial balance through microbiome engineering serves as the central theme of our project. Bio-stimulators. including fertilizers, are treated simply as soil supplements meant to be added in increments enough to benefit plant growth without disturbing bacterial distributions. By integrating machine learning and artificial intelligence, our system can accurately predict the ideal volume bio-stimulator, while our sensor device uses the internet of things (IoT) to detect when application is necessary. Plant B turns farming into a science and allows us to optimize crop productivity while guaranteeing environmental sustainability.
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3. Arsenault, C. (2018). Only 60 Years of Farming Left If Soil Degradation Continues , @sciam.
4. Bogard, P. (2017). We need to protect the world's soil before it's too late, @popsci.
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6. Ho, D. M.-W. (2018). "China’s Soils Ruined by Overuse of Chemical Fertilizers." from http://www.i-sis.org.uk/chinasSoilRuined.php.