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The statistics are alarming. Cape town is predicted to run out of water by April 2018, according to environmental expert Dr. Anthony Turton. Almost half of the world’s population is not able to eat a properly nutritious diet, while 40 percent of food is lost or wasted, says the World Economic Forum and Deloitte. The Statistic Brain Research Institute estimates that every year there are 76 million food-related illnesses in the U.S., and 5,000 food-related deaths. By 2050, feeding a planet of nine billion people will require an estimated 50 percent increase in agricultural production and a 15 percent increase in water withdrawals, says the Food and Agriculture Organization. A more environmentally conscious world that preserves our natural resources feels out of reach.

If we believe we can solve all of this in the next decade or more, we had better start work today.

2017 was the year for digitalization across the agriculture and food value chain. We only expect that momentum to increase. As we turn the calendar to a new year, advances in the integration of human ingenuity and technology will only continue to transform our industry, potentially starting to chip away at these critical issues.

Here’s what I see as five #BigIdeas2018 that could lead to a more environmentally conscious use of world’s natural resources, and thoughts on how technology could accelerate this innovation.

Need 1: Precision farming to feed our world

What if we could address pressing issues around our natural resources, such as limited arable land, shrinking water levels, volatile climate change, biodiversity and sustainable soil/land usage by improving agricultural productivity with Precision Farming?

The promise of Precision Farming is simple—equipping farmers with the insights they need to maximize the productivity of every square foot of their farm. However, one farmer can only benefit from their own experience. The agriculture and food value chain is highly dependent on key agriculture aggregators such as seed provider, equipment, governments, chemical provider and farm coops that have the ability to share data and run analytics on a set of combined data sources. If farmers can benchmark results with thousands of other farms with similar conditions, they will benefit from the collective insight. Enabling a connected ecosystem—one that shares all information and companies across the food value chain and removes barriers to data silos and formats—is now more important than ever before.

Precision Agriculture’s big idea: It’s all about the data

Data is what will connect this ecosystem and allow it to capitalize on shared insights. Leveraging all of this data, from historical, to genomic, phenotype, treatment, environmental, and weather-related can also help farmers not only predict what brings the best outcome for the current planting season, but also predict the best outcomes one, two, even five years in advance. Predictive analytics informs the best time to plant, treat and harvest, down to the individual plant level, rather than treating the entire field the same. Remote sensing data helps farmers to choose better seeds and apply more environmentally conscious crop protection processes.

Our work with Farmers Edge is a great example of leveraging data to maximize productivity and profitability. Combining hardware, software, agronomy, and support, Farmers Edge combines cutting-edge machine learning and artificial intelligence to create a new type of grower: one driven by years’ worth of aggregated field-centric data.

However, getting data from the farm is extremely difficult since there is often no power in the field, or Internet on the farm. As part of the FarmBeats project, we are building several unique solutions to solve these problems using low-cost sensors, drones, and machine learning algorithms.

We also recently partnered with Esri, as part of Microsoft’s Earth initiative, to accelerate land conservation through enhanced land cover mapping technology for organizations such as the Chesapeake Conservancy in Annapolis, Maryland. This initiative allows organizations to understand environmental data in the context of location, so they can make better decisions about protecting our fragile ecosystems.

Need 2: Quality and sustainable food for everyone

What if every year, we could cut the more than one billion tons of food that are lost worldwide down to half of that number—or even more—by using technology to ensure we have safe food, when and where it’s needed?

In industrialized nations, consumers are responsible for most of these losses: 13 percent of the food purchased in Europe ends up in the garbage, and in the U.S., that statistic is 16 percent, according to Handelsblatt Research Institute and Bayer. This is leading to lost or wasted food at a cost of US$940 billion a year globally, says McKinsey & Company.

World Development Indicators reports that agriculture is using 70 percent of our freshwater globally and is responsible for 25 percent of greenhouse emissions. Climate change is putting more and more pressure on our natural resources and in some cases, could even induce mass migrations that would leave historically populated areas uninhabitable in future years. Those regions experiencing food and water shortages are relocating to areas with better food availability and security.

Quality and sustainability’s big idea: Safe food, when and where it’s needed

For the agriculture industry to meet the global quality demands of the future, sustainability in all aspects of agricultural production is the key. It’s more than just manufacturing and distribution—being able to accurately forecast trends in agriculture, change in demand and provide better services for customers ensures the sustainable performance of the industry and that the food we need is there when we need it.

Manufacturers across food chemistry, specialty chemicals, and agrochemical industries need to reduce energy and water usage across production processes; ensure safer chemistry; prevent waste during design and creation; reduce pollution and environmental hazards; invent new, more environmentally conscious and biodegradable products, and become trusted advisors to their customers to help them produce more sustainable products and drive education and change management with employees.

We are working with companies like Mars Food to drive such quality and sustainability innovation. To enable visibility into their supply chain (with an end goal of sourcing rice more sustainably by 2020), Mars worked with SGS, Blippar, and Transparency-One to create an end-to-end supply chain transparency solution. Built on Microsoft Azure’s Blockchain Services, the Transparency-One tool manages a range of data, including: complete supply chain mapping, product integrity information, supplier compliance details, and regulatory compliance documentation. This solution allows Mars to ensure better food quality and sustainability from seed to fork by providing full transparency to the consumer in terms of where the product comes from and how it’s been transported and treated.

Advanced technologies around automation, IIoT, digital twin, predictive analytics, machine learning, dashboards and chat bots, and blockchain are also critical enablers to food quality and sustainability, as well as keys to reducing waste. Today, Microsoft uses Azure to maintain and manage 5,000 growing sites for lettuce for our Puget Sound campus. That adds up to about 15,000 pounds of lettuce and other organic greens a year, using 90 percent less water than would be used on a farm. This extremely short farm-to-table path allows us to divert at least 90 percent of food, office, and construction waste away from landfills through employee-driven reuse, recycling, and composting programs and sustainable community partnerships. And at our Microsoft Netherlands campus, caterer Hutten is using the Microsoft cloud and Power BI to combine data from multiple sources to discover insights, patterns and facts that are helping to improve operations, reduce food waste and contribute to a more environmentally conscious world.

Need 3: Food equality for a zero-hunger generation

We simply cannot ignore the growing need for food equality in 2018. What if we could connect the more than 500 million small holder farms around the world that are responsible for 50 percent of the world’s food supply to help them be more productive, collaborative and inclusive?

Ensuring that that food—and the employment opportunities food production offers—is safe, nutritious, accessible and equitable will be critical to helping to fight our food shortage. Yet, there is more work to be done.

Food equality’s big idea: Leave no one behind

Companies across the food value chain need to up their game and think about the triple bottom line: Planet, people, and profit. Market leaders need to come together with government, research organizations, non-profits and technology companies to provide education, training, as well as strategic and digitally-enabled services and tools to empower small holder farms.

An exciting example of how this kind of collaboration can have an impact is with the work we are doing with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and the Andhra Pradesh government. Following the launch of a pilot last year that tested a new Sowing Application for farmers, results showed a 30 percent higher average in yield per hectare. The Sowing App was developed to help farmers achieve optimal harvests by advising on the best time to sow depending on weather conditions, soil and other indicators by sending simple text messages.

Today, 23.4 million Americans in rural communities lack broadband Internet access. Microsoft has set a clear and ambitious goal: to eliminate the rural broadband gap within the next four years. Our strategy is to make use of what’s called TV White Spaces spectrum, the unused spectrum in the UHF television bands. This powerful bandwidth is in the 600 MHz frequency range and enables wireless signals to travel over hills and through buildings and trees. Microsoft has already deployed 20 TV white spaces projects in 17 countries that have served 185,000 users. In addition, our Microsoft’s​ ​Airband​ ​Initiative​ ​partners with companies developing solutions that enable last-mile access technologies and off-grid renewable energy solutions and verticals such as agriculture.

We are also making deep investments in artificial intelligence (AI) research and technology to help people around the world monitor, model and ultimately manage earth’s natural systems. This includes a US$50 million commitment to our Microsoft AI for Earth program, which is dedicated to advancing sustainability around the globe. Since our launch of AI for Earth six months ago, Microsoft has awarded over 35 grants in more than 10 countries for access to Microsoft Azure and AI technology. We will also provide universities, nongovernmental organizations and others with advanced training to put AI to its best use. Already, we’re seeing success around the world in projects that are putting AI to work on climate, water, agriculture and biodiversity. As these projects and our work in this area matures, we will identify the projects that show the most promise and make larger investments to help bring them to scale. Finally, as these projects advance, we’ll identify and pursue opportunities to incorporate new AI advances into platform-level services so that others can use them for their own sustainability initiatives.

Need 4: Transforming the future of water

Water scarcity is significantly threatening agricultural productivity and crop protection efforts. What if we could reimagine how we manage our water? It’s not a bottomless commodity. Once it’s used, we need to ensure those gallons of water are being recycled in safe and sustainable ways.

The United Nations says that 47 percent of the global population will be living in areas of high water stress by 2030. The United Nations says that on a global average, industry uses about 20 percent of water. The OECD also predicts that the amount of water needed for manufacturing alone is expected to rise 400 percent through 2050. With every manufactured product using water during some part of the production process, industrial water usage can go up to 59 percent per region. A United Nations­backed study says annual treated wastewater in North America roughly equals volume of Niagara Falls, but that less than four percent is reused.

Water’s big idea: Use (less), reuse, recycle

Again, it’s data that plays an important role in transforming the way businesses use water to create a more environmentally conscious future. Our predictive analytics technologies help to turn real-time data into actionable insights, so businesses can track water consumption to reduce usage, understand potential water quality issues to prevent the spread of illness or pollution, and predict potential equipment failures to manage water more efficiently. Our technology is also enabling organizations big and small to make smarter decisions about water.

To this end, we are very proud of our partnership with Ecolab around solutions powered by Microsoft Cloud technologies that accelerate how industries tackle the global water crisis. Scientists at Nalco Water (an Ecolab company) are remotely capturing real-time data, from processes anywhere around the world, and delivering the intelligence that enables their field personnel to manage those processes for more than a million customers worldwide. Striving to offer a ‘virtuous cycle’ of reducing, reusing and recycling water for better results and decreased operating cost, Nalco Water takes advantage of cloud-based services, big data, machine learning and the IoT to deliver solutions with the power and scale to meet demand.

Nalco Water also recently launched its Water University, a first of its kind, hands-on training facility for employees and clients dedicated to helping employees and customers learn how to minimize water, maximize results, and optimize total cost of operations. Ecolab’s Water Risk Monetizer tool, built on our Azure cloud, is helping companies assess water risk to make better decisions on current and future water needs.

A fascinating example of using technology to be smart about water usage is the REACH initiative, where we use sensors like the ones in fitness bands for pump handles, which are recording the up- an down motion of the handles. The vibration indicates a deep or a shallow source and machine learning helps predict the depth of water in the wells.

Partnerships with leaders like ABB are helping water utilities better manage water, such as Italy’s Consorzio di Bonifica Veronese, who successfully cut operational costs in its plants by up to 30 percent using ABB Ability solutions that connect with the cloud and send data to operators remotely, revolutionizing how they work.

SCADAfarm is also helping farmers use less water and electricity and reduce costs with a precision sprayer that only waters where needed, based on a solution from Schneider Electric and WaterForce built on the Microsoft Azure IoT platform. The mobile solution is transforming agriculture with remote controls and advanced analytics, and is empowering the global movement of sustainable farming to conserve resources. In fact, New Zealand’s Blackhills farm is realizing 30 percent savings in water utilization and 50 percent reduction in energy costs using the system.

Grundfos is also working to give more people safe water through the cloud. By connecting its 16 million pump units to Microsoft Azure and the Azure IoT suite, the company built a tracking and maintenance solution that provides real-time communication between those pumps and its customers’ monitoring consoles.

Need 5: Creating a circular economy to design waste out

What if we could use intelligent technology to not only better manage our world’s natural resources, but to use it to help us renew and reuse our resources?

The grim fact is that in August 2017, the world had already consumed all of its renewable resources for the year. Calculated since 1986, this unfortunate milestone has arrived earlier each year, according to environmental groups WWF and Global Footprint Network. And this need is dramatically increasing as does the world’s population.

We must change our current model in terms of how we produce and consume. We can’t risk any waste, no matter if it’s energy, water, resources, food, time, or resources. Can you image a world where companies would collocate their factories and the waste of one company could become the raw material for another? For example, because the quality of water that is leaving a food production company is so high, it could be used as cleaning water for transport containers of another company.

Circular economy’s big idea: Waste prevention is your new business

Circular economy is a key environmental focus area. The circular economy moves us from a linear take, make and dispose world to one focused on long-lasting design, maintenance, repair, reuse, remanufacturing, refurbishing, and recycling.

For Microsoft, working to eliminate waste and improve recycling throughout our global operations—from our on-campus food systems to our datacenters and devices—enables us to explore internal circular economy solutions for product life extension, product as a service, traditional industrial ecology in its datacenters, and circular construction solutions.

We design our products, buildings, and operations to promote resource reduction and reuse, enabling a more resource-efficient and productive economy. We use lifecycle assessments and value stream analysis to improve product and packaging resource efficiency. We are a member of more than 150 recycling programs worldwide, covering electronics, batteries, and packaging.

Externally, we aim to provide technology, analytics services and other products that will enable our customers and partners around the world to successfully deploy their own circular business models—improving efficiency, cutting costs, and eliminating environmentally harmful waste.

Microsoft aspires to work with a growing group of industry experts and peers to advance the circular economy. By deploying our own technology expertise in order to benefit our company, partners, communities, and the planet, we are working to develop valuable new tools and insights that support new business models, help drive efficiency, and reduce waste in the global supply chain.

In addition, as part of our ongoing commitment to renewable energy, we have been working with our partners at local utilities and with organizations like the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance to make it cheaper and easier to bring more green power onto the grid at large. We were also recently recognized by IJGlobal for the innovative financing model we enabled in partnership with Capital Power and Allianz Risk Transfer as part of our largest wind energy purchase to date.

Microsoft serves on the board of the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), a collaborative effort between leading IT companies and the United Nations Environment Program and International Telecommunication Union. We were a lead sponsor of a GeSI and Accenture report called #SystemTransformation. The report found that digital technology can help put all the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals within reach by enabling a broad range of economic and social opportunities worldwide.

Looking forward: Reimagining a more environmentally conscious, hunger-free world

In 2018, as we collaborate with our customers, partners and communities to feed our world and fuel our future, we have hope for a better future for our natural resources. We are committed to making advanced technologies and data insights accessible to all, so that we empower every person and organization on the planet to thrive and grow as we strengthen our resource-constrained world.

Twitter: @ClaudiaRoessler