Water and soil: Innovations to protect key resources in agriculture

The challenges of social and technological innovation in agriculture

The challenges of social and technological innovation in agriculture

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There are some resources whose importance remains unchanged throughout history and generations. Water and nutrients in the soil are paradigmatic examples. In the field of agriculture, both are fundamental elements for continuing to move the wheel of the sector that feeds us all. These fundamental resources are today threatened by over-exploitation and climate change. In this article, we talk to two experts in social innovation in this field to find out what challenges it faces and what opportunities innovation offers us.

In the opinion of Nicolas Wertheimer, founder of the social enterprise Agua Segura, the water challenges in Europe and Latin America are different. While in southern Europe, specifically in Spain, the main problem has historically been the lack of water, in Latin America “it could be attributed to excessive deforestation and losses of native forests, agrochemicals, the simplification of the system and the paradigm of soy, single-crop farming, and some of its results such as flooding, among other climate and social consequences. There are also peri-urban conflicts and their consequences on water tables with agrochemicals”.

Although innovation and technology do not change the fact that water is fundamental in agriculture, there are very important socio-environmental innovations that make it possible to improve its quality and rationalize its use, making it much more efficient. Some examples indicated by Nicolás Wertheimer are “the sustainable management of forests with integrated livestock, silvopasture systems for small and large producers are already being implemented, for example,” but he adds that “Innovation, the way I see it, is in the management to achieve such implementations. Possibly postponing a few steps the essential and immediate profitability towards a sustainable management, with a necessary environmental income in the short term and a balanced socioeconomic and environmental impact in the long term”.

The other fundamental factor, as we mentioned at the beginning, is the quality of the soil. Among the many socio-environmental innovations that make it possible to protect the soil, Joseph Gridley, Business Development Manager at EIT Food, highlights regenerative agriculture: “Regenerative agriculture consists of a series of simple practices that make it possible not only to stop the emission of carbon but also to reduce the existing carbon in the atmosphere and to fix it in the ground. In fact, scientists estimate that if we were to increase the concentration of carbon in agricultural soils by only 0.004% we would remove all excess carbon from the atmosphere“. Soil Capital indicates that the basic principles of regenerative agriculture are:

  • Minimizing or eliminating agrochemicals.
  • Maintain a permanent soil cover, ideally with live roots and cover crops.
  • Minimize soil disturbance.
  • Maximize functional biodiversity.
  • Adapt the design to the context.

Among its many benefits, it turns out that regenerative agriculture is not very expensive to implement. According to Joseph Gridley, “farms can remain profitable during the transition, especially if they work together and get expert advice”. You can see details of an example of regenerative agriculture in Murcia in this article by Joaquín Garralda, Dean of Academic Management at IE, which we published a few weeks ago.

Finally, we asked Nicolas Wertheimer and Joseph Gridley what it would take for these innovations to be implemented on a large scale. In the opinion of Nicolás Wertheimer “we need to unite social investment, entrepreneurial leaders and socio-environmental commitment with the tools in the market. Today, the market is opening the doors to innovators and entrepreneurs, and new economies are emerging. If we add to this the technological initiatives, we begin to generate a positive impact on the environment and, consequently, on society”. In the case of regenerative agriculture, Joseph Gridley highlights three interventions that would allow its use to be extended to the point of having a great impact: The support and training of farmers, the commitment of distributors and food companies to have fair contracts with regenerative farmers and the commitment of banks to offer favorable conditions to these farmers. Both agree that the transition to a responsible use of the main agricultural resources, water and soil, requires collaboration between farmers, entrepreneurs, innovators, companies and professionals from all areas. “This is what the SDG 17 (alliances to achieve the objectives) establishes and what I think is going to come” concludes Nicolas Wertheimer.

About the author:

Concepción Galdón is Director and Academic Lead of Social Innovation at IE, Concepción focuses on the use of technology in social entrepreneurship, as well as promoting the creation of academic content in the field of Social Innovation for both schools and a number of programs.