PepsiCo’s i-crop system could save farmers precious water

I-crop, a web-based program now undergoing tests, helps farmers reduce water waste by combining weather data and underground probes.

Sukree Sukplang/File/Reuters
A monkey drinks a can of Pepsi next to a colorful display of food during the Monkey Buffet Festival in Lopburi, about 92 miles north of Bangkok, Thailand. PepisCo's web-based i-crop irrigation system could let farmers grow crops using much less water.

"More Bounce to the Ounce.” In the 1950s, it was a cola slogan; thanks to a new partnership with Cambridge University, it could become the catch phrase of PepsiCo’s i-crop, a web-based program that helps farmers reduce water waste.

Here’s how it works: Data systems collect information on local weather conditions, farming activity, and soil moisture from underground probes and compiles them online. With a few keystrokes, farmers can eliminate the guessing games about water consumption, resulting in more precise and environmentally friendly farming.

In October, PepsiCo publicly announced its goal of reducing carbon emissions and water usage from their largest UK farms by 50 percent in five years. So far i-crop is testing well: Preliminary reports from 22 farms in the UK show farmers have achieved 90 percent efficiency in water usage.

"Farming is in the DNA of our business – we rely on fresh produce everyday," said Richard Evans, president of PepsiCo UK and Ireland, according to PR Newswire. "Finding ways to produce more food with less environmental impact is essential to our future." He added, "i-crop has the potential to revolutionize the way we farm, enabling our farmers to save costs and [reduce] water and carbon consumption, while at the same time improving their yields.”

PepsiCo’s potential to revolutionize water efficiencies in farming is sizable. Netting approximately $43.3 billion annually and employing more than a quarter million people, PepsiCo is the second-largest food and beverage business in the world.

Ever enjoyed Pepsi-Cola, Mountain Dew, Lay's, Gatorade, Tropicana, 7Up, Doritos, Lipton Teas, Quaker Oats, Cheetos, Ruffles, Aquafina, Tostitos, Sierra Mist, or Fritos? If the i-crop can deliver as hoped, those products will soon be made with less water waste than most competitive grocery items (and who doesn’t want something positive to hold onto after downing a bag of Cheetos?).

Although the i-crop is only accessible to UK farmers, PepsiCo hopes to introduce its technology to farms in India, China, Mexico, and Australia by 2012. However, speculation about i-crop’s availability has raised some eyebrows and provoked the question: Will the i-crop technology, owned privately by PepsiCo, be withheld from those who most need it?

Brain Pickings editor Maria Popova argues that owning such coveted technological rights will put PepsiCo in the middle of an often tense relationship between profiteering and humanitarianism.

“The technology is currently only available to PepsiCo-affiliated growers,  which raises interesting questions about the relationship between corporate interests and social good in innovation, as well as bespeaking the disconnect between the value of open-source software and the fact that the best-funded research initiatives, most competent scientists, and highest-grade technology tend to be subsidized by private corporations.”

If, how, and with whom PepsiCo shares i-crop technology has yet to be determined. In any case, PepsiCo has taken corporate social responsibility by the horns, hopefully luring other influential corporations to recognize that being green is achievable.

"Every Generation Refreshes the World," Pespi ads claim. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that PepsiCo can do so for the next generation’s water supply.

This article first appeared at Global Envision, a blog produced by Mercy Corps.

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