September 2020

Soil sensing – transformative technologies or let’s transform technologies?

There is a lot of excitement about digital technologies in agriculture. Soil is the foundation of food production, and a new ‘resource frontier’ for such agricultural techno-innovation, with new forms of sensing hoping to unlock greater soil productivity. Indeed, in the research literature, soil sensing is predominantly situated as the newest element of precision agriculture. Precision agriculture follows the sustainable intensification paradigm, which sees the future of agriculture as increasing yields while seeking to minimise negative environmental incomes. Sensing technologies which can produce greater amounts of data of better spatial and temporal granularity are seen as key in achieving these objectives. However, authors rarely discuss how they expect this ‘datafication’ and ‘sensitisation’ of agriculture to actually occur. This suggests that the sensing research community assumes a form of technological determinism, expecting that as technologies such as satellite sensing become more available, user uptake and linked societal change will naturally follow. There is also no consideration of the potential issues around privacy and security of data produced by such new sensing technologies.

Funding from Ensemble allowed us to launch ‘Sense and Sensibility’, a pilot project which started to investigate firstly, how soil sensing technologies were being developed within the research community, and, secondly, what sensing practices were used by land managers in the UK. We were interested in exploring the question: What role can digital technologies play in land managers’ soil sensing? The project involved a meta-review of soil sensing literature, and a series of online interviews with over 30 UK land managers (farmers and growers), advisors, and agronomists. In this era of online research, we used a video introduction to help facilitate a conversation with our participants about the complex and often embodied practices of sensing soils.

Through interviews with over 30 UK farmers, growers, advisors, and agronomists, we found that this image of a data-led future does not sit easily with much more complex approaches to soil sensing practiced ‘in the field’. Amongst our interviewees it was not data, but sensory forms of soil assessment, such as sight, touch, and feel, which were prevalent. Such sensory forms of assessment were rarely recorded, and rarely converted into a form which would lend itself to becoming ‘data’ (such as e.g. noting down worm numbers). Indeed, both farmers and agronomists commented on the importance of and difficulties associated with interpreting any ‘hard’ data (such as e.g. soil nutrient maps) in relation to management decisions, complicating the assumed data-decision linear perspective adopted in soil sensing literature. At the same time, there was a significant interest in generating more soil related data. This, however, was not necessarily motivated by a desire to improve land management decisions, but rather to investigate particular trends our interviewees were observing, or to better evidence the success of certain strategies (such as regenerative agriculture) to peers and governance actors. Importantly, this suggested that farmers and growers were interested in sensing soil processes and characteristics which go beyond those useful to agronomic decision-making, something rarely considered in soil sensing literature. In fact, farmers and growers showed a much wider appreciation of and interest in other soil functions linked with for example hydrology, biodiversity, and soil microbes.

Overall, what our research indicates is the need for a broader conversation about the meanings and uses of data in the future of agriculture, in relation to soils and beyond. Whereas academic research on soil sensing is predominantly focusing on technological development as a route to enhanced yields, and assumes a linear relationship between data and decisions, farmer and grower perspectives complicate this picture. By starting with farmers’ soil interests and needs, the soil sensing community could contribute to the needed transformation of agriculture from a ‘production machine’ into holistic and sustainable land management.

Author: Dr Anna Krzywoszynska

Project team: Anna Krzywoszynska (Geography), Stephen Jones (Geography), Jill Edmondson (Animal and Plant Sciences), University of Sheffield