Are we headed for a green revolution in food and water?

Are we headed for a green revolution in food and water?

greenhouse sustainability
ShutterstockA.Krotov
It will take new approaches to production to adapt to unprecedented strain on natural resources such as food and water.

The following is an excerpt from "Beyond the Energy-Water-Food Nexus: New Strategies for 21st-Century Growth."

I don’t believe in business­-as­-usual projections. While they are helpful in calling attention to an issue to catalyze change, we seldom follow the projections; resource stress and scarcity drives innovation.

Innovation kills business-as-usual projections, and innovations can also solve the energy–water–food nexus challenge. Old ways of innovating are giving way to new thinking and tools to accelerate innovation.

One only has to look at crowdsourcing and prize competitions, for examples. We have the tools to mobilize the best minds globally to address a wicked problem such as water scarcity, low carbon energy and access to nutritious foods.

The X-Prize’s success in tapping into global talent to tackle a big challenge such as accessible space flight is just one example. The X-Prize is moving into addressing other big challenges, including education and healthcare.

Briefly, in its own words, an X-Prize is "an incentivized prize competition that pushes the limits of what’s possible to change the world for the better. It captures the world’s imagination and inspires others to reach for similar goals, spurring innovation and accelerating the rate of positive change."

The following criteria define an X-Prize challenge:

  • Sets a bold and audacious goal
  • Targets market failures
  • Defines the problem vs. the solution
  • Is audacious but achievable
  • Is winnable by a small team, in a reasonable time frame
  • Is telegenic and easy to convey
  • Drives investment
  • Provides vision and hope

If you want an in-depth view of how prize competitions, and in particular the X-Prize, can address wicked problems, read "Abundance: The Future is Better than You Think" by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler.

Another big idea to tackle wicked problems is the power of innovative collaboration. While prize competitions such as X-Prize drive technology innovation, there is the "soft side" of innovation — catalyzing change through innovative collaboration.

In the world of water stewardship, this is referred to as collective action and is an essential component in tackling water issues, including access to water, water quality, sanitation and hygiene.

"The Solution Revolution" by William D. Eggers and Paul Macmillan lays out one of the big changes in how complex issues are solved: by bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders, including businesses, governments and social enterprises.

No longer is any one group of stakeholders expected to address complex societal and environmental problems. The new model of collaboration is gaining widespread recognition as a smart and effective way forward.

Watch how prize competitions such as the X-Prize and the Solution Revolution can be leveraged to address the energy–water–food nexus challenge.

We are at a time where we can address the projections for water scarcity and provide sustainable energy and food for the current and projected global population. However, it will require accelerating the pace of adoption of innovative technologies and partnerships and public policies.

It is within reach — even if it will not be easy. It also means abandoning our business-as-usual mindset and embracing a rethinking of how we have historically managed these resources.

Abandoning the old way of thinking and moving to a 21st-century mindset powered by new technologies, collaboration frameworks and public policies is possible.

What we need is a new framework for thinking and new rules — as exemplified by prize competitions and collaboration.

A new framework

To create this new framework, I grouped initiatives into two major categories — "soft path" and "technology" solutions — similar to the soft path of the Solution Revolution and the hard path of prize competitions to develop technology innovation.

We need both a soft path and a technology path, and the two are connected. The framework is meant to focus thinking and illustrate connectivity while not creating new silos of thinking. Soft path solutions consist of collective action and public policy initiatives, while technology solutions consist of connectivity and resource productivity initiatives.

Soft paths

It is easy to gravitate to technology innovation to address energy, water and food issues.

We always look for a technology solution, as they usually don’t require behavior changes — the soft path solutions. However, one of the most exciting opportunities resides in collective action or aligned action initiatives.

Mobilizing diverse stakeholders to tackle wicked problems is a solution that shows great promise. Technology solutions coupled with public policy changes and collaboration are powerful and together can solve complex problems.

Collective action

Wicked problems such as water, managing food waste or providing energy to emerging economies can be addressed only through collective action frameworks.

Collective action as a term is increasingly used in the water sector to address how companies, NGOs and the public sector are rallying to address a range of pressing issues. There is a recognition that no single entity can solve these complex problems — the Solution Revolution described by Eggers and Macmillan.

Collective action programs include industry-specific initiatives, cross-industry initiatives, joint business planning and conjunctive planning. These collective action programs reflect the coming together of stakeholders within an ecosystem or several ecosystems to address challenging issues.

A few examples of collective action initiatives focused on water offer an overview of what is already taking place:

• The U.N. CEO Water Mandate and NGOs work with multi-national corporations, and corporations in turn work closely with their supply chain partners. The CEO Water Mandate developed the online Water Action Hub to facilitate partnerships within strategic global watersheds.

• The 2030 Water Resources Group released an online database of case studies to address water scarcity risks. It is designed to facilitate adoption of leading practices to cover a wide range of common scarcity challenges, as well as proven solutions. The group offers a free download of the full catalog of in-depth solutions.

• The World Business Council on Sustainable Development, along with member companies, developed WASH at the Workplace, a long-term vision and implementation plan to address access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene in the workplace. Among the organizations that have signed the pledge to date are Greif, Nestlé, Borealis AG, Roche Group, Hindustan Construction Company, the Environmental Defense Fund and Unilever.

Public policy

Public policy needs to change — and change fast — to address the "new normal" of water scarcity and impacts to the food and energy sectors.

In many instances, public policy changes slowly compared to how multinational companies address business issues.

For example, we are seeing public policy slowly addressing the droughts in the U.S. Southwest. This is resulting in public policy changes in water allocation and conservation, and even a re-examination of agricultural policy — for instance, asking the important question of why subsidize the growing of water-intensive crops in a water-scarce region — as well as a recognition that renewable energy has the added advantage of having a low water footprint.

The changes in public policy for water are taking the form of questioning century-old water rights laws, the relationship between power and water utilities and water use and allocations in the agricultural sector.

New funding for water projects, coupled with a renewed call for regulations and policies to address the need for energy and agricultural production, is emerging in such states as California and Texas.

The water and power utility sectors offer an interesting area for innovation.

A move to integrated and smarter operations — which overlaps with the hard-path solutions of technology and resource productivity — is occurring in the United States and elsewhere. In these sectors we are seeing a move toward "conservation synergy" and distributed generation.

Technology solutions

The big opportunities in technology have to do with Big Data and connectivity (under the maxim "you can’t manage what you can’t measure"), renewable energy generation, improved water treatment as with low-energy desalination and precision agriculture such as urban agriculture technologies.

As some of the most innovative technology solutions are in the agricultural sector, most of the examples provided below are focused on food and water.

Through digital applications the world is increasingly connected and data are available to drive smart decisions regarding the use of resources. We can collect data remotely (which is being accomplished by the NASA GRACE satellites collecting data on global water resources), in the field through the use of drones and empowering individuals with mobile applications.

Machines can communicate with each other (as in the John Deere example below) and with us (as with mobile phone apps). This connectivity is resulting in the more efficient use of resources and the creation of new business models.

Connectivity includes Big Data, remote sensing, machine-to-machine communication and digital applications such as social media.

The power of connectivity is emerging as a driver for smarter, precision agriculture. Whether it takes the form of traditional agriculture companies buying data and information companies, or agriculture machinery companies embedding smart sensors into their products, a wave of innovation in connectivity is taking place.

Three recent examples show the ways in which connectivity and Big Data are transforming agriculture:

• In 2013, Monsanto acquired the Climate Corporation in a $930 million deal. Climate Corporation built a business on evaluating rainfall and soil quality data to help farmers predict crop yields. Monsanto also plans to sell Climate Corporation’s crop insurance products to farmers internationally.

This acquisition comes on the heels of Monsanto’s $250 million acquisition of Precision Planting, a company that allows farmers to plant seeds at various depths and spacing to allow for different treatment options. The acquisitions fit into an overall plan the New York Times describes as creating "two-way farm machinery systems that took up and receive data, giving farmers better sense of what to plant and how much water and fertilizer to use."

• John Deere is using sensors in several of its products to increase farm productivity, for instance adding sensors to its latest equipment lines to help farmers manage their fleets and to decrease tractor downtime while also saving on fuel. The information is combined with historical and real-time data on weather prediction, soil conditions, crop features and many other data sets.

The company has created a Web-based platform and mobile phone apps to helper farmers figure out which crops to plant where and when, when and where to plough, where the best return will be made with the crops and even which path to follow when plowing. These tools aim to increase the productivity and efficiency of the crops and in the end result in higher production and revenue.

• In December 2013, Trimble acquired the assets of C3 of Madison, Wisconsin, to provide farmers with data and decision-based recommendations. C3 combines crop information with detailed soil data to enable a more complete assessment of the site-related factors that impact crop yield, quality and health.

C3 products include the Soil Information System, a collection of innovative tools and techniques for digital, 3-D mapping of soil characteristics; PurePixel Vegetation Mapping software, which provides processing of vegetative aerial imaging for crop health analysis; Soil Inventory, which combines multiple precision agriculture technologies to help determine field variability; Agricultural Forensics techniques for processing soil information and vegetative aerial imaging to understand complex issues; and Soil Imaging Penetrometer, a miniature soil-imaging system that views and analyzes on-site soil imagery at high resolution.

We need to do more with less. The agricultural sector is increasing productivity — less water, energy and nutrients to grow more food — that may result in a second green revolution.

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