Soil Health Institute Plants Roots in RTP’s Growing Agtech Hub

Xconomy Raleigh-Durham — 

Farmers have tinkered with soil for thousands of years, using fertilizers to add nutrients and amendments to adjust its acidity. But soil is more complex than that, says Wayne Honeycutt, CEO of the Soil Health Institute in Research Triangle Park, NC.

Science is just scratching the surface of understanding soil’s biological components, the billions of microorganisms that live in soil and interact with plants. Understanding these components has implications for plant health, drought management, and water quality, Honeycutt says. And it has big implications for farmers and business.

As the new, multimillion-dollar institute settles into its offices in RTP this week, Honeycutt says his nonprofit group aims to lead the way in finding answers to looming questions about soil and soil health. “Our mission for the institute is to safeguard and enhance the productivity of soils,” he says. “It’s all going to be very science based.”

Research Triangle Park’s 1959 founding was anchored by companies in pharmaceuticals and technology. The presence of agricultural technology is a newer development; in recent decades, Syngenta (NYSE: SYT), BASF (FWB: BAS), and Bayer (FWB: BAYN) established and expanded agbiotech and crop research operations in and around RTP. And within agtech, soil research is now becoming a particular area of focus for academia and industry in the region. The Research Triangle is home to several industry-led soil initiatives studying how microbes can improve plant health and boost crop yields. Last year, North Carolina State University formed a consortium exploring the plant/soil microbiome. The Soil Health Institute is the latest addition to the Triangle’s soil initiatives, helping to stamp a region known primarily for medical and high-tech brain power as an emerging soil research hub.

The Soil Health Institute traces its legacy to the “Soil Renaissance,” a 2013 collaboration of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation and the Farm Foundation. That three-year initiative brought industry, academia, and government agencies together to develop strategies to make soil health the basis for land management decisions, Honeycutt says. Two years into the project, the foundations realized that soil needed to be part of a longer-term discussion. The Noble Foundation decided to form the Soil Health Institute, committing $20 million over 10 years.

The Soil Renaissance collaboration is continuing as a part of the Soil Health Institute. But the institute won’t conduct its own soil research. Instead, it will award grants to support academic and industry researchers who are trying to answer questions about soil health, says Honeycutt, who was deputy chief for science and technology for the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service before joining the institute. The projects could include studying the role of microbes in the soil or improving ways that soil can keep nutrients from being washed away by rain.

Before the institute can award grants, it must first raise funds. The Noble Foundation money supports the institute’s operations; grant money will come from commodities groups and agribusiness, Honeycutt says. Financial support for the institute’s grants could also come from outside of agriculture. For example, foundations that have an interest in water quality could share an interest in supporting research about ways to reduce runoff from farms into rivers, streams, and oceans, Honeycutt explains.

Honeycutt says the Soil Health Institute chose RTP because the organization emphasizes research—a requirement for the Park’s tenants. Washington, DC, was also in the running, but the institute concluded that a Beltway headquarters could cloud its mission of understanding soil health; shaping agricultural policy is not one of its goals. The institute also has Triangle ties through Bill Buckner, president and CEO of the Noble Foundation and a member of the Soil Health Institute’s board. Buckner was the RTP-based president and CEO of Bayer CropScience from 2006 to 2011. Other members of the institute’s board include representatives from the farm, organic farming, seed, and fertilizer industries.

As it turns out, cutting-edge soil projects are already underway in the Research Triangle. The largest U.S. agbio investment of 2015 was … Next Page »

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