Water remains one of the most undervalued and underinvested resources in agrifood innovation, despite its intrinsic role in the food system.
That’s according to the multistakeholder investment platform FoodShot Global, which recently announced water as its latest challenge area for entrepreneurs and researchers to respond to.
And the organization has a point. Water covers 70% of the earth’s surface but a quarter of the global population faces “extremely high water stress” and regularly use up their water supply; an additional 1 billion people will be impacted by this by 2050. In most regions of the world, over 70% of freshwater is used for agriculture. Three billion people worldwide rely on aquatic foods as their main source of protein.
Add industry pollution, including nitrogen runoff and microplastics, acidification, and warming ocean temperatures threatening aquatic food systems, and water suddenly seems less infinitely renewable and more an area desperately in need of both innovation and funding to fuel that progress.
“Through water, the future of both our land and aquatic foods are inexorably linked,” says Sara Eckhouse, executive director of FoodShot Global.
“In a world that recognizes water’s essential role in all forms of food production, it is critical to develop solutions that link water to improved outcomes on nutrient cycles, soil health, ecosystem sustainability, and human health.”
“Water: the Essential Input” is the fourth ‘FoodShot’ launched by the non-profit organization to seek out innovations that protect water as a resource for food and agriculture.
After an application process, the group then works with its consortium of venture funds, banks, corporations, foundations, universities, and non-profits to collectively award up to $10 million in equity capital to innovative companies. It also awards a ‘GroundBreaker Prize’ of around $500,000 in philanthropic capital to researchers, early-stage entrepreneurs, or policy advocates.
Water as a system
Over the last several decades, food has become recognized as a system where global production, processing, distribution and consumption networks are “intricately” connected to planetary health, labor and land rights, equity and even national security, says Eckhouse.
Water must be viewed in a similar way, she adds.
“Just as we now think about food as a ‘system,’ water should also be understood as a system. We must shift our perspective on water to connect the management of it on land, across waterways and across the ocean.”
There must also be a “greater connection” between food and water, particularly given that land-based agriculture accounts for 70% of all freshwater withdraws.
Putting a value on water
Until recently, there were only a few investment funds focused on oceans and water relevant to agrifood, explains Eckhouse.
“It can be hard for investors to get returns on investments into water because it is a shared resource that crosses private, public, and international borders,” she tells AgFunderNews. “Many of the best strategies for managing water require collaborative action (protecting groundwater sources, designing allocation systems, etc.) and nature-based solutions (revitalizing wetlands).”
But that “lack of investment is starting to change,” she adds. “In the last 18 months, more than 18 ocean-focused funds have been launched.”
Eckhouse notes that public investments are also on the rise, via things like the Inflation Reduction Act in the US and initiatives from the World Bank.
Meanwhile, the Valuing Water Finance Initiative aims to convince the world’s largest corporates to treat it as a financial risk. It currently represents 64 institutional investors with a total of $9.8 trillion in assets under management, according to Eckhouse.
Where FoodShot will focus
“Water: The Essential Input” looks for solutions that can mitigate and adapt to threats from climate change to the water cycle as it relates to food production, as well as solutions addressing overuse and contamination, and unsustainable aquatic food production.
While specific innovations are up to the entrepreneur or researchers, Eckhouse names a few examples of what the FoodShot might look for: increasing soil’s water-holding capacity, crop resiliency, waste-to-value technologies, and repurposing wastewater and fertilizer.
She notes there is also “a need for improved management of wild-caught seafood and a significant scaling of sustainable aquaculture of shellfish and seaweed that do not require any feed inputs to produce healthy food options.” Solutions might include cell-based seafood or novel aquatic foods, for example.
Finally, the FoodShot will also look for solutions offering equitable access to aquatic food and wealth creation.
“As with so many issues, the impacts of water scarcity and pollution fall heavily on those with the fewest resources,” says Eckhouse.
“In addition, many indigenous communities have long managed scarce water resources by using sustainable, nature-based, regenerative practices. We want to make sure that innovations in water management, fisheries, and aquaculture do not repeat errors of the past by ignoring or overlooking the contributions of communities that we can learn from.”
“It’s critical that over the long term, we are building a food system that improves health and environmental outcomes for all, not just the wealthy.”