Apr 19, 2022

18 min read

Our huge soil problem - How IoT can help

For all our technological might and ingenious enterprise, we are but creatures of the earth. For reasons that are well known to most of us, we have deluded ourselves into forgetting this basic fact of existence. There is a huge soil crisis that is currently underway - soil around the world is losing organic content at a rate that is ominous and catastrophic. With a rising global population, there are more mouths to feed every single day and this just creates a vicious cycle of increasing fertilizer use and diminishing organic content. Fast forward a few decades and we are looking at crippling food shortages. In this post, we examine the nature of this terrible problem and try looking at some ways in which wireless sensors and IoT technology can be used to ameliorate the situation.

You Know What? Let’s Start With A Bit of a Long Disclaimer This Time.

What is it that we do here at ONiO? The answer is fairly straightforward - we are an IoT-focused technology company. Semiconductors, silicon chips and integrated circuits are our bread and butter - however, much like the rest of humanity, we take for granted that we will have access to real bread and butter. Whatever it is that we do with our lives, however cool our pet projects and how-so-ever impactful our careers are, they rest on the premise that the essentials that make our life possible are taken care of. 

We are a technology company and we have good reasons to identify ourselves as an environmentally and ecologically focused tech company. And just as a pre-emptive disclaimer of sorts, we have always refrained from sanctimony and name-calling. Nor have we been keen to exploit fears using doomsday predictions about gruesome eventualities - As much as we care deeply about the future of our beautiful planet, we understand our station and have always respected our readers’ intelligence and emotions. However, the topic that’s on the table today is one that is deeply concerning - this earth is a legacy that is bequeathed upon us by generations past and one that we are meant to safeguard and hand over to our children and grandchildren. 

If we, as a global community, don’t sit up and take note of the massive impending catastrophe that is desertification - we risk being complicit in a crime against humanity, as a global unit - as a generation of humankind. 

At the risk of sounding defensive and cautious, we again would like to press the fact that this is not a piece written against somebody or something - it is not our intention to lambast any company, government or set of people. In fact, quite the contrary - we are here speaking about this, not from a position of sanctimony or righteous indignation - but from a position of collective responsibility, humility and concern.

Calling a Spade a Spade

As technopreneurs, we live by a code of ownership, problem-solving and utter groundedness in reality - fantasies, reveries and ideologies do not mean much in the world of tech. Results are what matter. Real world problems are what excite us - especially when we can find real world solutions to these problems and then bring those solutions to the mass-market. 

Ingenuity requires a mindset that there are no unsolvable problems - however, it also requires humility and straightforwardness to identify the problem first and see it for what it truly is. 

So, let’s use the same principles to look at this situation. The anatomy of the crisis is this - most life that we see around us, including ourselves and the trillions of microorganisms that enable our existence, come from the first few inches of soil - i.e. topsoil. Since the industrial revolution, we have been losing top soil to various factors at an unprecedented rate - the US, for instance, where studies and data are available aplenty, has seen a whopping 50% loss in topsoil. In Europe, studies show that about 75% percent of the soil has less than 2% organic matter. 

Soil minus organic content is essentially sand - desertification is one of the biggest existential threats facing humanity. The more organic matter we lose from our soil, the more we have to rely on fertilizers and artificial nutrient salts in order to grow food - this leads to further depletion - a vicious cycle straight out of hell!

If this sounds abstract and esoteric, we promise you - it is most certainly not!

Although most of us have very little to do with soil, on a day to day basis, the very foundation of our existence depends on how healthy our soil is. Food security will be a major issue in the times to come if we don’t rectify this oversight as soon as possible - the UNFAO estimates that based on the current trajectory, we only have about 60 years of harvests left - that is deeply alarming to say the least. If that doesn’t send a chill down your spine, try digesting the staggering numbers of farmer suicides around the world! These are not numbers we can simply see and go back to scrolling through our Instagram feeds. Shocking and unpleasant though it may be, something needs to be done and fast!

Food shortage is no trivial issue - we all get this intellectually - but it’s a point that needs pressing because if you are reading this, you belong to the extraordinary aberration of a time period in human history where we can take availability of abundant food for granted. This is one of the factors that makes this issue a particularly insidious one - the sheer force of action that is required to correct our course is simply not easy to mobilize because the problem is too abstract - when we’re hungry and there’s no food, it won’t be - but it will be too late to act then! This is not a problem that is going to knock on our doors today or tomorrow - there is still time left - and history shows that humans are not that great at acting presciently - we need crises to knock us down before we are moved to act. This is especially the case with issues that involve collective action. But hey! We take massive pride in being a more aware and conscious generation - and for good reason too - we are empowered by hugely powerful tools in the form of technology and global connectedness - so maybe we won’t leave it until it’s too late. 

It’s not just a matter of food availability though - another terrible effect of this crisis is that the food we are eating is simply not nutritionally dense enough to satisfy our bodies’ requirements. A study on the subject gives out a startlingly simple comparison to drive home the point - Apparently, if you ate an orange in 1920, you need to eat 8 of them today in order to draw the same amount of nutrients!

Worldwide, non-infectious illnesses like diabetes, auto-immune conditions and cancer are on the rise - look, we’re not biologists, but we surely think the scientists who point to severe nutrient depletion as the culprit do have a point - It’s pretty easy to understand really - all that we eat comes from the soil, one way or the other. Soil and water are giant living ecosystems that form the most important link in this maddeningly complex ecosystem that is planet earth. If the soil is sick and dying, the creatures that live off it are going to be sick as well. 

Not just about soil

Nature works as one giant unity - what affects the soil is not just about soil. Soil degradation has a direct influence on climate change and water security. When soil loses its moisture holding capacity, it tends to release humongous quantities of carbon into the atmosphere. But equally, healthy soil that is thriving with microbial life absorbs enormous amounts of carbon from the atmosphere - With global warming attracting as much global attention as it is, we might also be prudent in looking at the various root problems that lead to it. Soil in its capacity as the planet’s largest carbon sink has a huge role to play in our collective fight against climate change. 

Soil quality also directly affects water quality. Most of the water in our planet, the oceans aside, resides as moisture held by healthy soil. Degraded soil lacking in organic matter loses its capacity to hold on to water. Desertification leads to floods and droughts because dry, degraded soils will simply let rainwater run off. 

Over two billion people in the world today live in conditions of inadequate water supply. UNICEF also claims that by 2040, 1 in 4 children will be living in areas of extreme water stress. 

It’s not just about humans though - soil degradation causes large-scale biodiversity loss - just wrap your head around this - every year, we are losing about 27000 species of microorganisms. Again, this is where we really need to use our minds to overcome an inherent cognitive bias - the loss of microbial life doesn’t stir up quite the emotional response in us as does say the potential extinction of the tiger or the panda. But, we know that in the natural world, everything is quite literally connected - neither the panda nor humans could exist without the countless trillions of microorganisms that live both in us and around us. 

Ok, so we’ve identified the problem now and detailed it for you - like we said before, that’s the necessary first step. If this made for grim reading, we’re really sorry. All of this is deeply disconcerting and unpleasant, to say the least - but it’s the truth and we all have a huge responsibility to wake up to it. 

Again, we would like to emphasize that there are no innocent or guilty parties here - at least, as far as this post is concerned. This is just the situation, presented in its naked truth. 

The promise of wireless sensors and IoT

We have a problem on our hands. Sure. But we choose to look at this as a massive opportunity. This is the only way of framing any problem that opens up the possibility of coming up with solutions. 

Now, without further ado, let’s look at how information technology in its modern avatar - IoT, machine learning, AI and wireless sensor networks - can serve this gigantic and pressing need to restore and regenerate our soils. 

To start off with, let’s take a bird’s eye view of IoT technology and the massive boom in wireless sensor networks over the past few years - much like the dot-com revolution of the 90s, the time since 2010 or so, has seen IoT technology grow tremendously. When used correctly, wireless sensor networks have nearly unlimited scope of use and absolutely enormous potential in transforming our world for the better. Smart technology enabled by connected sensors is already making huge waves across several sectors - from healthcare, construction, manufacturing and agriculture. This trend is only poised to grow in leaps and bounds. Employing IoT technology in agriculture comes with a number of benefits - greater efficiency, higher yields, healthier crops and reduced waste of energy and water. 

To put it very simply, wireless sensors act as remote eyes that enable us to peer into nooks and crevices of various kinds of operations - they allow us to gain actionable insights by allowing us to access data on a granular level. They allow us to identify best-practices at the grassroot level, do excuse the pun. Armed with data, farmers are able to maximize their gains using the minimum amount of resources. Wireless sensor networks have already created quite the stir within the world of agriculture. Remote sensing allows us to calibrate the various natural factors that determine the success and failure of our cropping strategies. 

IoT technology is already being employed, at scale, to combat the issue of desertification and soil degradation. The first use-case we will examine is remote monitoring. 

Remote monitoring using IoT sensors has truly taken off in a big way - the premise is quite simple - deploy all kinds of wireless sensors in places that are hard to reach - in our present case, inside the soil, on top of trees, on hillocks surrounding farms and on farm animals - then, use the data gleaned from these sensors and run it through a really smart AI system and voila - you have access to real-time intelligence that can allow you to optimize pretty much endlessly.

Now let’s see how this would work with respect to soil - soil health.

What IoT sensors bring to the table here is intelligence and insight - they allow us to glean information on a granular level across wide areas. Today, we are able to manufacture highly cost efficient chips that can track variables like soil moisture content, atmospheric humidity, soil organic content (down to specific micronutrients) in real time. 

Data-gathered in real time is sent to a backend system where it is processed into usable, actionable insights that complete the feedback loop. 

Smart farming is taking off in a big way already - farmers around the world are starting to realise just how powerful IoT sensors can be in maximising yields and increasing operational efficiency. 

NPK soil sensors

The name of the game when it comes to soil regeneration is organic content - the more organic content there is in the soil, the more alive it is. When organic content in soil drops below 3%, we consider this desertification. 

Desertification leads to increase in fertiliser use - after all, the farmer does need to feed himself - oh the irony! Fertiliser use comes with its own laundry list of concerning effects. 

Again, without labouring the point, this is a dire issue that needs our immediate attention - so, what do we do about it? We can’t stop using fertilisers - that’s simply not an option. We need to be able to feed 7 and some billion people on this planet and some estimates predict that if we were to stop using fertilisers today, our food production would drop by 75%!

Instead, if we attempt to increase organic content in the soil to uwards of 4%, the soil will begin to thrive and will naturally lead to better yields. NPK sensors or Nitrogen, Phosphorous, Potassium sensors are a recent innovation that hold quite a bit of promise in this area - NPK sensors offer us a way to monitor the levels of essential micronutrients in the soil, in real-time. 

The first step in increasing the organic content in soil has surely got to be knowing how much organic matter is in the soil in the first place. Moreover, these sensors can go a long way in helping us optimise our regeneration efforts on a granular level - farmers can have access to rich data that enable them to see if their regeneration efforts are paying off and if so, how well. 

So, what can NPK soil sensors do?

Typically, combined NPK sensors can track Nitrogen content, Phosphorous content, Potassium content, soil PH, EC, soil moisture content and temperature. 

Granted, the accuracy of these sensors, in their present form, is not great. But that’s hardly a constraint that is going to last forever - Moreover, the importance of data, even low-resolution data, in helping us implement better interventions can’t be overstated. 

Using these sensors, farmers will be able to notice trends - both positive and alarming - and intervene before it is too late. These kinds of IoT-based systems will allow the farmer to balance his economic needs with those of his land and all those countless organisms that thrive in it. 

Let’s get real though

We are big believers in technology and the massive potential it has to solve some of our most pressing issues - However, in this case, we do believe that a word of warning is in order - there is a trend in today’s world of relying on technology maybe a bit too much. 

When it comes to soil health and desertification, IoT technology, machine learning and the like can definitely be invaluable tools in our arsenal but they won’t actually be to add organic content to the soil by themselves. 

The point we’re trying to make here is that the ultimate solution here is going to involve more trees, more animal waste, measures against erosion etc - technology can help us plan our interventions more cleverly, implement them more effectively and track our results precisely - and that’s nothing to sniff at but they won’t actually be able to solve the problem head-on. 

The real solution, unglamorous though it may sound, involves getting our hands dirty and finding ways to increase the flow of plant matter and animal waste into our soil. No cool piece of code can work around this basic need - we need more organic matter going into our soil. 

Crucial window of opportunity

We are standing at a crossroads as a species - the decisions and actions of this age will possibly have a huge bearing on the course of collective human destiny - If we don’t start taking action against desertification, we might be hurtling towards a disaster of epic proportions from which there might not be coming back. 

It can be enormously frustrating for individuals in today’s world - feeling almost helpless and insignificant in the face of huge global currents that shape our world - however, falling back on that excuse is going to be enormously expensive for us. 

We don’t want to be remembered as the generation who could have done something about this but didn’t.

This post was inspired by a movement called save soil, which is underway as we speak - a renowned thought leader from India has embarked on a lunatic mission to cover 30,000 km across continents on a motorcycle, in a bid to raise awareness about soil degradation and bring about policy change directed at improving soil quality.
To know more about the mission, click here.


About the author

Abishek Swaminathen

Senior Content Manager

Abishek is ONiO’s senior content manager. A medical doctor by profession, he stumbled onto a writing career almost by accident, as it were. Words have enthralled Abishek since the day he first held a book and at ONiO, he channels his inner wordsmith towards providing our subscribers with regular doses of fun and informative content.

We are using cookies to give you the best experience on our website.
You can find out more about which cookies we are using or switch them off in settings.