The Markets Institute at WWF identifies global issues, trends, and tools around the most pressing challenges of our time. Each year we release a list of what we see as the top emerging industry developments that may not be apparent to help stakeholders stay ahead of the curve, and to help us all shift faster.
The lists are identified through research, interviews, data analysis, and discussions with our Thought Leader Group. Here are the top issues, trends, and tools to keep an eye on in 2017:
Climate change as a threat multiplier
We are seeing more and more anecdotal evidence of the impacts of climate change. Nowhere more so perhaps than in the global food system. There are more pests and pathogens, weeds are healthier, seasons more variable, and there are more extreme weather events from drought to floods, hurricanes, tornados, dust bowls, fires, and more. We are also seeing the beginning of shifts in where crops are—or can be grown. Going forward, we need better systems to monitor climate impacts so we can begin to anticipate and get ahead of them.
Decentralization of global governance
Global governance systems are being undermined and replaced with bilateral arrangements and a more decentralized system. This can be seen most clearly with the World Trade Organization being moved aside by bilateral and regional trade deals. But it is also happening in several other ways. There are some issues that are truly global and that cannot be solved by one, two, or even a handful of countries. Everyone needs to be engaged. This is especially true of environmental issues—biodiversity loss knows no boundaries; neither does pollution, and GHG emissions, perhaps the biggest pollution issue of all, will not be solved without cooperation, rules of the game, measurement and continuous improvement, with everyone doing something.
It feels like zoonotic diseases have become a more regular occurrence. In fact, we have had an average of two every year for the past century. Except for the Spanish influenza, most of the outbreaks have not been global. However, it’s growing clearer that they are being caused by clearing natural habitat and forcing more biodiversity onto smaller amounts of land. New hosts are being found in the wild but also with the most common mammals—livestock and people. As we clear more land, encroach on more habitat, and raise more livestock, we can expect more outbreaks. And if hundred-year storms are now a twice-a-decade event, we can expect a big one, or more, on the horizon.
We are at the beginning of a groundswell around microbiomes, whether it is the gut microbiome of people or animals, soil or even plant microbiomes. As we understand more about the microbiomes of different species, we have a much better idea about their role in nutrition, nutrient uptake and recycling, and the production of GHGs like methane. Microbiome research and understanding how they function will be key to changing diets of people and livestock, but also in how we feed plants and take advantage of natural processes to reduce soils amendments.
Trump & Bolsonaro: Wild Cards
No two national leaders reflect the rise of nationalism, protectionism, and the rollback of environmental protections more than Trump and Bolsonaro. Unfortunately, they are not alone, and others are likely to follow suit as we experience major pushback on globalization, as well as social and environmental agendas—and the polarization that each seems intent to encourage. Their governments look less like democracies and more like a “winner takes all” strategy. And, with these two it will get worse before it gets better; each has a constituency of loyal followers.
As the movement, particularly in developed countries, toward plant-based diets gains momentum, we are seeing alternatives for anything that traditionally contained animal protein. Some of these attempts work and will begin to find market share. Most fail. But the trend is here to stay—plant-based diets will be an increasing share of the food market. The questions are how big it will become, where it will gain most tractions, how long will it take, and if they can keep the environmental impacts low if—and when—they start to scale.
Momentum from the Paris Accords
Coming out of the Paris COP, many companies have decided that they can’t wait for governments to start reducing GHG emissions. More and more companies are making commitments to reduce their own scope one emissions, as well as scope two three emissions. It is great to see this movement. The question is whether it will help drive government ambition higher.
Soil’s moment in the sun
It’s about time that the importance of soil is more widely recognized. With current farming techniques, without soil we would have no food. That is why soil (e.g. its health, erosion rates, nutrients, and biodiversity) is such an important biome for people. Regenerative agriculture, climate-smart ag, land stewardship, agroforestry, and eco-agriculture are all pushing for better soil management. Now, with the potential to pay farmers for improving soil (not for soil carbon per se, but reduced input use and increased efficiency and resiliency) rather than mining it, hopefully we will see vast improvements in productivity and reduced negative impacts.
Decline of regulation
With economic growth declining, the rise of nationalism, and the volatility of primary product pricing, most countries have less revenue and are cutting government. Many are pulling back precisely when the need to do more has never been greater, as social safety nets are disappearing and any gains for the poor are rolling back. In this vein, governments are also becoming laxer about enforcing existing regulations. This has resulted in a gradual, but pervasive increase of illegality in global food trade affecting both domestic and global food systems. It continues to go unchecked, hurting both producers and consumers, but also the planet.
Protein tradeoffs: land, sea
As people become more selective about protein sources, they are beginning to choose based not only on human health issues such as links to disease, aging, or the latest nutrition study in the news. Many are shifting from land-based proteins to those from the ocean. The real question is how does one compare proteins of different types of livestock with different seafoods, and then also production methods, e.g. free range or grain-fed and wild-caught or farmed. This trend will lead to more research about proteins and how they fit into personal nutrition plans.
Material accumulation vs. well-being
Increasingly, material accumulation is confused with well-being. This is true not just in developing countries where more people are being lifted out of poverty but also includes developed countries and the wealthy wherever they live. Displaying wealth in the form of things leads to accumulation and unnecessary consumption. It can be something as simple as having twenty t-shirts in a drawer, but only wearing three. And as things are displayed it becomes competitive and drives more accumulation. Unless people see the folly of this it only ends at the resource limits of the planet.
Crowdsourcing is increasingly being tested and used in the US for a wide variety of needs from fundraising to research. Contributions through citizen science have led to the identification of new species, species distribution and population counts, and even things like weather patterns, the impacts of climate change, and the search for criminals. However, crowdsourcing is also being used to support peer-reviewed, primary scientific research, and eventually crowds may do more of the reviewing.
Now that we can sequence everyone’s personal DNA, we can not only anticipate medical issues or inherited traits but can keep them in check if monitored. Now it is clear that it is possible to also understand the impact of diet on health and even anticipate and ‘prescribe’ personalized nutrition plans to abate certain health issues.
Precompetitive venture capital
When XPRIZE launched the space tourism prize, they discovered that many entrants didn’t have access to the capital they needed maximize their chances to win the $10 M prize. They did not win the contest, but after the prize was awarded, four of them launched IPOs and raised $2 B in venture to take their inventions to market. Realizing that they had missed an opportunity, the Foundation created BOLD Capital, a venture fund to invest in groups that qualified to compete for XPRIZEs. The goal was to create a fund that invested in all the horses in the race. This is a way to de-risk VC is going forward.
Forest carbon sequestration
As companies attempt to reduce their GHG emissions, many realize that there is no way that they can reduce their direct GHG emissions, so they are looking for other ways to make a meaningful contribution. While it doesn’t make sense for oil and automobile companies, even airlines or thermal power plants to invest in carbon sequestration, it might make sense for banks, insurance or IT companies to reduce global emissions by investing in reforesting degraded areas or forests that are being degraded or likely to be cut. This helps solve a carbon problem and rehabilitates degraded land for nature. But this should only happen in addition to setting a broader, transparent, science-based strategy to reduce emissions in their operations and across their supply chains.
Stay tuned for what else we see this year, and help us keep an eye on the horizon.
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