How Biome Makers is Remaking Agriculture
Farming is in trouble. Systemic issues such as a warming climate, over-farming, and overuse of chemical fertilizers are impacting the soil that is the lifeblood of arable farming. Biome Makers integrates soil microbiology into agricultural decision-making to optimize farming practices and reverse the degradation of arable soils. With 1M+ acres of land impacted, the company is reinvigorating soil functionality and agricultural sustainability worldwide.
Farming is in trouble. Systemic issues such as a warming climate, over-farming, and overuse of chemical fertilizers are impacting the soil that is the lifeblood of arable farming. The United Nations estimates that, “Globally, 75 billion tons of soil are lost from arable land each year and an estimated $400 billion is lost in agricultural production.” The impacts are being felt in every country. The United States, for example, “has lost about one-third of its topsoil since settled agriculture began.”
As a result, there is an urgent need to find better ways to farm. We need approaches that work with nature, rebuild healthy soils, and are sustainable for the future. Adrián Ferrero and Alberto Acedo, two lifelong friends, co-founded Biome Makers to tackle this problem.
The two founders met at the age of five while learning Judo in their hometown of La Bañeza, Spain. Over the years, each followed their respective interests, but they stayed friends throughout their studies and early careers. Ferrero received degrees in Economics and Environmental technologies, followed by time spent helping startups find funding. Acedo, meanwhile, got his PhD in Molecular Biology and worked as a researcher focused on genetic sequencing. One day, Acedo reached a career crossroads and reached out to his friend for advice on starting his own company. Out of that conversation, a business partnership was born.
Fast forward a couple of years and the friends were running an award-winning business applying DNA sequencing to cancer treatment. Then came a pivotal conversation with a local winemaker. To Ferrero and Acedo's surprise, the winemaker shared that he and other producers did not know much about the biological processes occurring in their fields or cellars.
“Farmers were making decisions about agrochemicals without knowing about what was going on in the soil. It was so inefficient because, in the end, soil biology plays the same fundamental role that digestion does for the human body,” says Ferrero.
Ferrero and Acedo realized agriculture needed the same approach they were applying to medicine. If they could find reliable bioindicators – the biological processes, species, or communities used to assess the quality of the environment and how it changes over time –it could enable farmers to move toward more effective, personalized agriculture.
For humans, eating is not just about chewing and swallowing, it is about the process that happens in the gut. The key is how nutrients are decomposed and made bioavailable for the body. In the soil, the ‘guts’ of the plants are the roots, and the microbes in the soil are the ones mobilizing the different nutrients. They protect and stimulate the plants, yet farmers did not have the adequate tools to better understand what was happening in their soil.
A NEW DIRECTION
In 2015, Acedo and Ferrero sold their DNA-testing company and immediately founded Biome Makers to attack this new opportunity. However, the duo faced challenges in getting the company going.
First, while genetic testing systems existed, those tools were not adapted to analyze microbes in soil. Even more fundamental to their challenges though was the lack of reference data. With human DNA, the human genome is a standard reference to compare results. With soils, no such references existed. So, in the initial stages, the company had to focus on developing the underlying technology and prove it worked. While in parallel, they had to build an industry-standard reference for it to even get off the ground.
Once this foundational work was complete, Biome Makers was able to take the next step. They began using supervised machine learning to identify which type of decisions or actionable insights they could provide to customers.
To do this, the system had to deepen its understanding of the different biological functions that are in the soil. It had to help unravel the complex ecosystems in soil to identify what is important, what is not, and what it all means.
This knowledge forms the core of the company’s Intellectual Property (IP) and is now coded into all its systems. In addition, Biome Makers has been able to develop what is now the world’s largest database of soil microbiome references – across geographical regions and crop species.
The company has taken this combination of assets and developed a range of offerings targeting three key audiences: farmers, ag-input manufacturers, and consumers.
Biome Makers now provides farmers with a user-friendly report on a range of soil health measures. This helps farmers address two huge challenges – input costs and efficiency. Core to the first of these is the recent dramatic increase in the cost of fertilizers. While prices are rising, farmers are also seeing reduced impacts from the fertilizers they use. According to Biome Makers, less than 30% of fertilizers put on fields will get into the farmers plants. So how can farmers save money on operations while maintaining or increasing yield? The only answer is to increase the efficiency of fertilizer applications.
“This is where we are making a difference for farmers. We enable them to activate the soil biology to help optimize the application of chemicals. This means they can apply less, spend less and, at the end of the day, grow more,” says Ferrero. “Farmers gain this double positive effect and, for the rest of us, the reduced environmental impact is fantastic.”
Biome Makers also works with input manufacturers, particularly those working with probiotics or biologicals. When farmers apply biologicals, the goal is to do more than just feed the soil. However, the developers of the biologicals often do not know the full effect of the new inputs they are developing.
Biome Makers helps them understand when and how their solutions are going to work. This enables companies to better recommend how to use their solutions, and all this leads to better soil as well as happier, more successful farmers. That said, the company has an even bigger goal in mind as well; they want to fundamentally change agriculture.
“This can't just be about sustainability," says Ferrero. “We all need food in stores, so we need farmers to be profitable and successful so they can be ongoing, long-term businesses. The challenge is to find a balance between sustainability, productivity, and profitable yield.”
This is what we are helping farmers do – to understand how to use the biology of their field to increase yield and profits. At the same time, we are helping farmers take better care of their soil for the long-term, as they need the soil to continue to be productive and sustainable.
LOOKING TO THE FUTURE
Biome Makers is not resting on its laurels. The company already has customers in 40+ countries, analyzed over 122 crops, completed cof R&D projects and built a 10M taxonomic references – largest database in the world. Biome Makers is setting the standard for soil health.
Biome Makers already helps farmers better understand their soil and helps input manufacturers understand the impact of their products. The next challenge is to simplify finding the right inputs with an automated system that matches solutions to specific soils. The intent is to make improving soils and making more money for farmers as easy as ‘swiping’ on a dating app.
Additionally, through its Fields4ever Initiative, the company is putting money into soil health research. This not-for-profit initiative gives access to researchers at over 200 different institutions across the world today. The company is sharing everything it learns about how to work with soil biology with the aim of building a broader ecosystem focused on soil improvement.
If they can do all of that, the long-time friends will certainly have earned their black belts in agriculture!