NIB Career Q&A: Brooke Barton, Director Water Program, Ceres

Brooke Barton photoBrooke Barton leads Ceres’ water program, directing the organization’s research and corporate and investor engagement on the risks and opportunities related to global sustainability. We are very lucky to have Brooke join us as our VIP guest at the Net Impact Boston Member Dinner on February 25th, 2014. She will be talking about agriculture and the role of this sector on sustainable water use in the U.S. Here Brooke tell us about her career journey, what first inspired her to focus on water, and the opportunities and challenges facing the world in addressing the global water crisis.

You lead the Water Program at Ceres. Can you tell me why you chose a career with this focus?
I think it chose me. Right out of college – I was an economics major – I had a great first job working at Accion, a nonprofit microcredit lender in Boston, and became really interested in how economic principles and the market could play a role in making the world better. Then I went to graduate school at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and, following that, spent some time in Bolivia doing on-the-ground development work for the Catholic Relief Services. While I was there, I got to see firsthand the community and environmental impacts and challenges associated with increased foreign investment, in this case by extractive industries. It was then that I got really interested in the role of the corporation and how investment decisions impact communities and the environment. I was particularly interested in what I could do as an American, in one of the largest markets and capitalist societies in the world, to make a difference.

I worked for Harvard Business School as a researcher on extractive industries and corporate responsibility before joining Ceres and having the opportunity to work more directly with companies. Initially, my work at Ceres was focused on the food and beverage sector, having tough conversations with companies such as Coke, General Mills, and PepsiCo about the environmental and social impacts of their businesses, as well as their ability to make significant positive change through the power of their supply chains, operations, and marketing. As you can imagine, one of the most consistent themes that came up was water. At Ceres, we saw that water conservation was becoming a key issue in corporate sustainability and business strategy and so in 2010 we launched our Water Program. It has continued to grow ever since.

I have an unusual background for this kind of role; I don’t have a natural sciences background, though we partner with many experts who do. What we do at Ceres is unique in that we bring an economic and financial overlay to natural resource issues that are going to be pretty critical to our ability to have a healthy planet and people.

What are the top environmental and social impacts/concerns that you address in your work with the Water Program?
Ceres focuses on fresh water (versus oceans). We address the human impacts associated with the systematic over-extraction of water from rivers and groundwater and what companies and investors can do to stop and reverse these trends. We also focus on preserving water quality. Water that is polluted or made unusable for humans, agricultural, or industrial purposes is a huge part of the water scarcity issue. While a lot of work has been done in this country to reduce water pollution from industry, there is still a lot of water pollution as a result of agricultural runoff. Over the next few years, this will be a big focus area for Ceres. Lastly, we are also looking at climate change and how it is making our water woes more challenging.

What topic within the water field will you be speaking about at Net Impact Boston’s VIP dinner on February 25th? Why did you choose this topic?
I am going to focus on the sector that is the most critical to sustainable water use nationally and globally – agriculture. The industry consumes 70% of the world’s water, it is known for its inefficiency, and it is one of the major contributors to water pollution due to runoff from fields and pesticides. As the world’s population continues to grow and there is increasing demand for products like meat, Ceres is asking how farmers and corporations can meet the increased demand for food, while also dramatically reducing the water required to produce it—“the crop per drop”. One solution is to support and encourage farmers to adopt practices that reduce pollution from agriculture.

Ceres is working with corporations that have agricultural supply chains. These organizations have an incredible influence over their supply chains that, in the case of agriculture, they are only just starting to exercise. Ceres is working with a large number of companies to increase investment support for farmers to adopt more sustainable practices; to change procurement processes and contracts to incentivize sustainability among farmers; and to source products from water areas that are more abundant and less threatened.

What are some of the biggest opportunities and challenges to addressing water scarcity?
The biggest opportunities we face relate to the biggest problems. For example, water is mispriced and therefore the incentives for conservation are lacking. In most places in the world, companies are paying a nominal amount for the water they consume. They are often given good deals by governments and in many places they are able to use groundwater without metering it. That doesn’t set up the right incentives for companies to improve the management of their water supply. There is an opportunity to work with governments and utilities to raise rates and send better signals to companies.

Some companies are proactively setting shadow prices for water internally that reflect more value to the commodity. This then drives more investment into saving water across their operations.

As prices increase, as we see more of the hidden value of water use by corporations, then we will also see more investment going into water technologies – an area of clean tech that is lagging behind. Pricing is the critical barrier for bringing these ideas and technologies to market, whether it is membranes, filters, water reuse, or smarter desalination. A lot of this is moving slowly in the U.S. as a result of low water rates.

Right now, people do not have to pay for water itself, just its transportation, packaging, or cleaning. What would the world’s systems look like if all countries did monetize water? Is this a solution to water scarcity?
Monetizing water is a partial solution. There are some fundamental caveats to my observation that water prices are too low. Firstly, water is a social good and there are social aims that need to be considered, such as basic access. Secondly, food prices would be very sensitive to changes in water pricing. So there are some pretty big implications to monetization.

Are there things that can we do in our everyday lives that will make a difference?
Definitely. One of the first things people could do is look at what they eat. There are some easy ways to reduce the water footprint of your diet, for example reducing the amount of meat or dairy you eat, both of which have a high water footprint because of the amount of grain consumed by the livestock. In households, showers and toilets (unless you have a pool), are the big issue for most of us in our homes. Reducing the length of showers and having more efficient toilets or making small changes to make your toilet work more efficiently are things that you can do.

In your local area, figure out where your water is coming from. Think about how far it is traveling. You get your water report every year from the city and usually it tells you what watershed your water is coming from. Most of us in Boston are getting water from the Quabbin Reservoir near Amherst (60 miles away)! You might consider getting involved with organizations that are trying to protect watersheds and preserve local water opportunities. There are a lot of local watershed groups that are looking for support or volunteers.

For those of us who are eager to learn more about water and sustainability, are there any books or articles that you would recommend?

I wrote a blog piece on tomato growing in California. It was on the National Geographic’s Water Currents website and is a fun short read called Campbell’s Challenge: Growing Lots of Tomatoes in Water-Scarce California 

There is Charles Fishman’s book called The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water

The World Resource Institute has a project called Aqueduct. It does global mapping of water stress and there is a new data layer on agricultural crops and water stresses which is a fun tool to play around with.

Have a question for Brooke? Sign up for the VIP Member Dinner on Friday 25th and meet her in person:

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