Desert-Greening: The Next Big Thing for Green Investors

By Hazel Henderson © 2014 for GreenMoney Journal


Hazel Henderson
Desert-Greening: The Next Big Thing for Green Investors

Asset managers and investors are supposed to be rational actors, cranking in all available information leading to efficient markets and optimal resource-allocation. As market failures continue to proliferate and hidden externalities come home to roost, we find that successful investing requires going multi-disciplinary – far beyond narrow economic and financial models. As we learn from pioneer asset managers’ successful fossil-free portfolios, such as those presented at our recent Finding Ethical Alpha Conference, broadened horizons and deeper research reveal huge unexploited opportunities. Our keynote speaker, Doctor Dennis Bushnell, Chief Scientist at NASA in Langley, VA, pointed out that four abundant resources are overlooked by investors and traditionally focused development banks and IFIs: deserts (40 percent of our planet’s land); daily free photons from our Sun; 10,000 varieties of halophyte (salt-loving) plants, and seawater for irrigation (97 percent of all Earth’s water).

Doctor Bushnell’s presentation, “Halophytes for Land, Water, Food, Energy and Climate,” explained that there are two major types of plants: glycophytes which use fresh water and provide most of human food and fodder, and halophytes (salt-loving) used for food and fodder in India, China, Mexico, the Middle East and many other counties. We covered the possibilities of halophytes grown in deserts on seawater in our 2014 Green Transition Scoreboard® titled “Plenty of Water!” ( ) – where we challenge the dominant paradigm in global agriculture that ignores 97 percent of the world’s water, as well as myopic investors, focusing only on that 3 percent of fresh water – which is scarce, over-used, wasted and polluted. Reviewing most literature and research by governments, international agencies, even most academic research on agriculture, I found zero references to halophytes! Traditional narrow economics and finance focuses and channels virtually all public and private investments into better irrigation, plumbing, sewage treatment, desalination, genetically modified crops, and water and soil conservation. While important, these investments cannot address global water crises. Little investing occurs in the most promising halophytes, such as salicornia and other plants, now hybridized to substitute for wheat, soy, alfalfa, edible oils and well-demonstrated seawater irrigation. Similarly, mal-investment in biofuels continues, still buttressed by US congressional mandates for ethanol content in gasoline. As Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pointed out at my dinner table back in the 1970s, paradigm shifts occur one funeral at a time!

Today, we no longer have time to ignore these four abundant, ubiquitous resources to supply food, fiber and edible oils for our 7.5 billion member human family, expected to grow to 9 billion. As Doctor Bushnell, Doctor Mae-wan Ho, British-based epigeneticist, and co-author Professor Joe Cummins, in “Saline Agriculture to Feed and Fuel the World,” and others have shown, desert-greening’s time has come. Doctor Carl Hodges, who also keynoted our Finding Ethical Alpha conference, is president of the Seawater Foundation and has been growing halophyte crops in both Mexico and Eritrea and has several current initiatives in Texas and in Mid-East countries. (My TV discussion with Bushnell and Hodges is forthcoming on  and for educational use at ).

After the decades of mis-investment in ethanol, we have learned that burning food crops in our inefficient vehicles harms the environment and drives up food prices and often causes riots and social unrest, as our Advisory Board member Doctor Yaneer Bar-Yam of NECSI’s computer models shows. Our Green Transition Scoreboard® only counts those biofuels grown from algae on seawater, such as the aviation fuel co-developed at the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi with Boeing to power jet planes – more efficiently than petroleum distillates. Boeing and several airlines set up the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Users Group (SAFUG) in 2008. Integrating such halophyte biofuel production with traditional aquaculture (which produces polluting wastes) enables the algae to feed on the fish wastes – solving two problems at once, as reported in EnergyPost (EU) and Doctor Bushnell adds, “a goodly portion of the Sahara is capable of providing (using halophytes and seawater irrigation) sufficient biomass to replace ALL of the fossil carbon, provide requisite food, replace petrochemical feedstock, whilst returning 68 percent of the freshwater now used for conventional (glycophyte) agriculture to human use. This addresses our overall crises of overuse of land, water, needs for food, energy and stabilizing climate – since halophytes are great storers of carbon and soil enrichers.”

While water scarcity is listed by the World Economic Forum as one of humanity’s top risks, financial models are still blind to desert-greening’s huge opportunities. Just as asset managers had to learn the basics of geology in order to invest in fossil fuels and minerals, so today they need to expand their models to learn earth systems science. NASA and other space agencies collaborate in GEO, offering real-time information beamed to decision makers from the 120 Earth-observing satellites mapping the changing conditions on Earth, many caused by humans in this Age of the Anthropocene. NASA’s July 2014 launch of OCO-2 will detail how CO2 is absorbed by Earth’s oceans, lands, plants and atmosphere – now all material information for investors.

Are asset managers up to the task? We think so, judging by reports by global experts on our Advisory Board, including Doctor Mae-wan Ho (UK) on halophyte agriculture; Doctor Allan Savory on restoring deserts; biologist Janine Benyus on biomimicry; Gunter Pauli of the Zeri Institute, and Fritjof Capra, co-author of The Systems View of Life (2014), founder of the Center for Ecoliteracy. They and others can lead the way as we continue to follow Doctor Carl Hodges and the initiatives in the Caribbean island of Aruba, planning to go 100 percent renewable, with more locally sourced foods – also studying seawater agriculture. The most ambitious proto business plan is from our advisor Gijs Graafland’s Planck Foundation, DesertCorp ( ), which can be adapted for different countries’ topology, geology, ecology, politics and climates. Many top officials and major corporations are now studying DesertCorp along with high-level government officials in many countries, and now so can readers of the GreenMoney Journal!

Meanwhile, theory-induced blindness and cognitive capture are sadly still evident in recent official studies of water and desertification issues, including amazingly Drylands: Sustaining Livelihoods and Conserving Ecosystem Services, the SUMAMAD study co-sponsored by UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere program, the UN University and the Flemish government;  The Water Institute of the University of North Carolina on the Nexus 2014 conference on Water, Food, Climate and Energy;  The Economist brief on “The New Green Revolution” (May 10, 2014);  the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification global report, “Desertification: the Invisible Frontline” (2014) and their Alert No. 06/03/2014. Even the private sector report co-sponsored by the Economics of Land Degradation, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development and the Global Compact overlooks desert-greening.

We at Ethical Markets ( ) will keep up our active coverage of the huge opportunities in desert-greening we predict will be that next big thing!

Article by Hazel Henderson, D.Sc.Hon., FRSA, founded and heads Ethical Markets Media (USA and Brazil), a Certified B Corporation. She served on Calvert’s Advisory Council from 1982 until 2004 and co-created their Calvert-Henderson Quality of Life Indicators in 2000, now being updated and rebranded as the Ethical Markets Quality of Life Indicators. Henderson’s many books spearheaded thinking on strategies for the development of ethical investing and envisioned the rapid global shift now underway from the fossil-fueled Industrial Era to the cleaner, greener, knowledge-rich Solar Age.

Note to Reader: GreenMoney will be having a “Special Issue on Water” in March 2015.

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