Building a Forest of Communicators for Ecological Stability in Agriculture

Communication: how often do you think about the role it plays for us? 

Humanity and modernization owe a huge debt of gratitude for communication. It was one of the most significant developments in the history of mankind. Communication is a set of rules that enables information to be exchanged using a symbols system that follows a structure of relations. 

In fact, the ability to communicate creates a stable biological ecosystem – ecological stability. 

Plants also communicate in different ways. One of the famous examples is in a forest, where two species of trees can communicate through the underground fungus mycelium – a third species. They can transfer food, water, and information on what is happening in the forest today. In some ways, it’s the equivalent of two neighbors gossiping! 

By communicating, they allow biological stability for the forest ecosystem. Strong high trees support smaller ones in their development when the light of the forest ground is limited due to high tree population. They do so knowing that one day the favor will be returned, transferring food or sharing information on pests, allowing them to synthesize the antigen before pest appearance. 

The largest fungus in the world is called the Humongous Fungus, is estimated to be 2000 years old. It’s spread over 10 square kilometers in Oregon’s Blue Mountains! Only imagine the amount of data it transforms over the years. Think about the age of this forest. It has survived – and thrived – for millions of years because of ecological stability, enabled by communication between organisms in the forest. 

Ecological Stability and Agriculture

Ecological Stability refers to the ability to return an ecosystem to its equilibrium state after a perturbation. This is known as resilience. A hallmark of Ecological Stability is the ecosystem not experiencing unexpected large changes in its characteristics across time. 

In the agricultural ecosystem, there are several symptoms of low stability. These include soil erosion, soil health degradation, increasing concentrations of contaminants, and more. These signs are generally connected to human activity. 

Soil erosion is the result of extended machinery usage, such as deep and frequent tillage, or removal of the natural canopy cover. Exposed soil then erodes away and can become a pollutant. 

Soil health degrades because of reductions in biological activity, nutrient deficiency, or changes in soil physical properties. A host of agricultural practices create an environment where these things occur. 

Contaminants occur in increasingly high concentrations because of chemical use and unbalanced usage of recycled organic materials.  

The ability to mitigate those changes requires a deep understanding of complex systems that includes a large number of parameters. These parameters are interconnected, affecting each other in changing environmental conditions. Addressing just one parameter will not address the Ecological Stability challenge. 

Science and Data for Ecological Stability

Solving these problems will require a holistic approach. Investigating nature requires the ability to compare the environments with the change of only a few single variables.

This is how an experiment is conducted. A field trial is the best way to collect the agronomic data that will become the basis of further research. Many trials or datasets describing the agricultural reality can help reveal mechanization and the relation of the parameters affecting Ecological Stability.

But, experiments today conducted by one group are often not shared with other groups. The amount of data labeling and number of protocols is enormous. In general, the agricultural society lacks standard methods to support agricultural data sharing. Therefore the experiment’s agronomic data stays siloed, undermining the ability to solve complex problems.

Communication in Agricultural Data Systems

This brings us back to communication. To effectively address the multifaceted issues within agriculture, it is imperative that we establish a robust system of communication. This involves creating a framework of rules and relationships that enables researchers to access and analyze comprehensive agronomic data sets, which can provide a more complete understanding of the complexity of agricultural challenges. By fostering an environment that encourages collaboration and the sharing of information, we can enhance our ability to address the diverse challenges faced by the industry and develop effective solutions that benefit all stakeholders.

For example, if we wish to reduce soil erosion while maintaining high yields to support humanity, we must investigate the practices that reduce tillage and increase cover cropping. At the same time, we have to take into consideration the crop genetic properties, sensitivity to soil disease, and the plant nutrition and irrigation needs in this system – including those needs specific to cover crops.

Or, if we all wish to reduce the chemicals used in agricultural fields, we should find solutions related to plant protection in agricultural practices, such as net houses or biological species that eliminate pests. Again, we will need to learn how these affect water nutrition consumption and what genetics can best deal with this practice. 

The interconnected agriculture systems mean data collection and sharing is even more important for fully understanding downstream impacts and holistically addressing Ecosystem Stability challenges. Connectivity – and the data collection and analysis that stems from it – is predicted to add value to the global GDP of up to $500 billion by 2030. 

Agmatix and Agricultural Data Sharing

Agmatix, an agronomy data science company, understands the importance of interconnectivity and communication in agriculture. That’s why we’re focused on creating solutions that work behind the scenes – or underground, like the fungus in the forest, to standardize, harmonize, and make data available for the betterment of the agricultural industry. 

Axiom technology enables agricultural data standardization and harmonization so different datasets – like different tree species – can communicate. Axiom uses in-house ontologies with multiple sources to create a common language, or common protocols, for datasets created using different methodologies and protocols. Agricultural data ingestion, integration, and standardization turn big agricultural data into powerful, actionable insights to support Ecological Stability. 

Through Axiom technology, it’s possible to leverage multiple datasets in a single analysis. But accessing quality agronomic data can be a challenge, too. 

Through collaboration across the industry, Agmatix is opening doors for open-source agriculture databases. These databases are designed to spur innovation and support ongoing research. Alongside the International Fertilizer Association, Innovative Solutions for Decision Agriculture, African Plant Nutrition Institute, and Wageningen University & Research, Agmatix has led the creation of two databases: the Global Crop Nutrient Removal Database and the Nutrient Omission Trial Database.

The Global Crop Nutrient Removal Database helps assess the impact of production and environmental variables on nutrient concentrations to help calculate the total nutrients extracted from the field during harvesting. This open-source agronomic database provides data that links crop nutrient inputs and outputs across diverse production settings. Through this dataset, crop nutrition practices and management can be refined to enhance sustainability and improve crop yields. 

The aim of the Nutrient Omission Trial Database provides data to support optimized nutrient management and aid in site-specific recommendations. This data allows researchers to compare crop nutrient requirements and create tailored plans that account for variations in soil fertility and other environmental factors. 

To create a standardized and open data set, the GUARDS protocol was used to consolidate nutrient omission research data from multiple sources. This simplifies the integration of the data into advanced fertilization tools and fosters better collaboration among members of the Consortium for Precision Crop Nutrition.

You may be interested in:
Agmatix and NASA Harvest Join Forces to Promote Sustainable Agriculture
Integrated Nutrient Management and its Role in Sustainable Agriculture
How Precision Farming Tools Can Help Agriculture Become More Resilient

Data Science to Support Ecological Stability for the Future

We, like the fungus in the forest, must transfer knowledge between the different ag professionals in the various domains just like different tree species must communicate in the forest to survive and maintain Ecological Stability. If we wish to build a resilient world where agriculture and nature live in coexistence, we must rely on communication to build deep understandings of ecosystems that form the basis of future innovations for sustainable agriculture. 

This post was written by Dr. Sagi Katz. Dr. Katz has been involved in agriculture since a very young age. He holds a Ph.D. in Soil and Water Science specializing in the ecosystem of the usage of treated wastewater in agriculture. He has been working in the agri-tech ecosystem area for several years and has acquired vast knowledge and experience in the field. Dr. Katz currently serves as VP of Agronomy at Agmatix. He is also responsible for the company’s Ontology engine.