A leaked United Nations report made headlines over the weekend with its prediction that climate change will drastically threaten the world's food supply over the next few decades.
It's a dire report, but for entrepreneurs with ideas on how to stem the looming food crisis, it's also a big opportunity.
On Monday the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) put out a call to innovators for its annual Grand Challenge, and this year, the theme of the challenge is "Securing Water for Food." In partnership with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, or Sida, USAID is offering up $25 million in grants, ranging from $100,000 to $3 million, for big ideas that solve the water scarcity problems in the agricultural production chain.
"We think water scarcity is one of the most pressing development challenges of the 21st century," says Chris Holmes, USAID's global water coordinator. By 2050, Holmes says, global water demand is expected to increase by 55 percent, and 70 percent of global water use occurs in food production.
"The dilemma," Holmes says, "is how do you improve the sustainability of water supply to increase food security and food production as we go out into the future?"
This year, USAID is looking for applicants who have found a way to improve water efficiency and reuse wastewater, capture and store water, or reduce water salinity.
The agency has sponsored four similar challenges in the past, which have funded a total of 89 projects. One year, the challenge included $23 million in grants for people who developed new ways to scale clean energy technology for agriculture. Another year, it was a $51 million prize focused on saving the lives of women and newborns during birth in the developing world.
According to Holmes, in the past about a third of applications have come from universities, a third from non-profits, and another third from individual entrepreneurs. Among the entrepreneurs who do apply, Holmes says, many have never worked on this type of technology before. For instance, one of the most successful products in the "Saving Lives at Birth" challenge was invented by an Argentinean car mechanic named Jorge Odon. He invented the Odon device, which is used to reduce friction during obstructed births. The inspiration for the device came after Odon bet his friend that he could find a way to extract a cork from an empty wine bottle. Odon won the bet, and soon realized that his little invention could solve a massive global problem. Now the World Health Organization has recognized the device as a safer alternative to forceps.
"It's extraordinary who applies," Holmes says, attributing the variety of applicants to the informal nature of the application process. "We're not doing what we normally do in government and saying, 'We have the problem and the solution.' We're saying, 'Here's the problem. You bring us the solution.'"
USAID will begin accepting applications November 27th.