Q&A: Taiwan 'Soil Doctors’ Startup and the Future of Organic Farming

Q&A: Taiwan 'Soil Doctors’ Startup and the Future of Organic Farming
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What you need to know

Referring to themselves as ‘soil doctors,’ an interesting startup, TSBiotech, has big dreams for transforming the future of organic farming in Taiwan and beyond.

In 2014, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) called for urgent action to improve the health of the world's limited soil resources to ensure that future generations have enough supplies of food, water and energy. That year, experts warned that some 33 percent of the world’s soil resource was already moderately- to highly-degraded. The key causes given were erosion, nutrient depletion, acidification, urbanization and chemical pollution. What is more, the growing global population will put an even greater strain on land resources. Estimates are the global population will exceed 9 billion people by 2050, which will result in a 60 percent increase in the demand for food, feed and fiber.

TSBiotech founder and chief executive Sean Liu (劉祐誠) explains the soil degradation problems that TSBiotech is working to change and the challenges the team has faced since founding the company in 2015.

The News Lens: So what exactly is a soil doctor?

Sean Liu: Like doctors, we first assess the patient – which is the soil quality in this context – to find out why it might be sick - reasons for soil degradation. Then, we write up a diagnosis for our patient, along with a prescription. The prescription would include recommendations for fertilizers, effective microbes, and organic farming methods such as nets or pheromone bug trappers. If the farmer decides to use our prescription, we help them create the fertilizer mix and visit their farms to teach them how to use it.

TNL: What do you think is the reason for Taiwan’s soil degradation problem?

Liu: Poor understanding of soil science and short-sighted government policies are the two main reasons for soil degradation in Taiwan. Most farmers face soil degradation problems due to excessive use of pesticides and poor drainage. The government provides free soil assessment services and has also been promoting more soil-friendly farming methods, but the advice given are not always helpful. They often advise on pesticide use or pure organic practices, which are less profitable for farmers.

TNL: What is ground breaking about your startup?

Liu: We want to help farmers grow better crops by introducing effective microbes – academically known as Plant Growth-Promoting Bacteria (PGPB). It is a fairly new farming method and we plan to bring 36 years’ worth of academic research to the market. The research was done by National Chung Hsing University’s (中興大學) department of soil and environmental science, where I am currently studying my PhD, on approximately 7000 different microbes. Right now, we are still figuring out our business model but we hope to eventually obtain exclusive license over the research database and bring it to the market.

TNL: What has TSBiotech achieved so far in Taiwan?

Liu: We are working with one sesame contractor and 12 small-scale farmers in Taiwan. We try to pick farms of different climates and elevations to prove that our method is widely applicable. Right now, we’re working with farmers all over Taiwan, and their crops range from rice paddies, tea, grapes to tomatoes - just to name a few.

TNL: What are your greatest challenges working with farmers?

Sean Liu: As a group of young people, it is hard to gain the trust of experienced farmers. Given their decades of farming experience, many perceive new farming methods as high risk activities. To gain their trust and build our reputation, we have been providing free soil assessment services to farms. We have also taken a more educational approach by doing education tours around Taiwan and setting up booths at farmers markets to talk about the science behind soil and healthier farming methods.

TNL: Why now?

Sean Liu: Now is the best time because people are just starting to recognize soil as an important issue. Did you know that the UN declared Dec.5 to be the World Soil Day only in 2014? The government is providing many funding and free programs for startups. These reasons all add up to why now is the time for us, and if we miss it, it may never come back again.

Editor: Edward White


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