Using Open Innovation To Bring The Gulf Of Mexico Dead Zone Back To Life

I don't live on a farm, or anywhere near one. So I know that my mental picture of a farmer–a guy wearing overalls, driving a tractor and consulting the Farmer's Almanac for advice–is right out of the 1950s. Today's farmers are plugged in, tech-savvy, and globally connected.

The Iowa Soybean Association has teamed up with Environmental Defense Fund to develop the next new thing in farming technology. Using a new on-line Eco-Challenge Series, EDF and the soybean growers hope to solve some real-world environmental problems, while making farming more efficient and more profitable. The series is hosted by InnoCentive and taps into the company's global community of more than 250,000 scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors, and other creative "problem solvers" in nearly 200 countries.

So what's the problem we want to solve? It sounds crazy, but there is too much fertilizer being put onto fields. Yes, fertilizer helps crops to grow–it's a good thing. But as is often the case, too much of a good thing can be bad.

Currently more than 50% of fertilizer applied to commercial crops in the U.S. is not absorbed by the plants and is instead lost to water and air, causing dangerous environmental and health impacts. Excess agricultural nitrogen (one of the main components of fertilizer) is a main cause of dead zones–literally, places where fish cannot survive–in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay. Excess nitrogen can also change forms and become a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

One "rule" for innovation is that the best ideas often come from unusual sources, so we're looking for new ideas to help us solve the problem of excess nitrogen. We've posted two specific Eco-Challenges, and are looking for "solvers" to work on them.

The first Challenge deals with tile drains–these are porous pipes that lay beneath many farm fields and are used to keep the land well-drained. Unfortunately, they also provide an efficient route for fertilizer to pollute rivers, lakes, and drinking water supplies. We're looking for ideas on how to capture or treat the nitrogen in those pipes. The second Challenge is to find new ways–including remote sensing and real-time monitoring–for farms of all sizes to evaluate the effectiveness of their fertilizer management practices for crop growth and yield.

So if you've got a new technology, and monitoring system or even just a great idea, sign up now to help compete for the cash prizes and help to solve these important environmental problems.

We hope that by showing that even tough problems like widespread nitrogen pollution can be addressed, more companies and organizations will turn to open innovation and crowdsourcing to find solutions to their toughest sustainability challenges.

This content is cross-posted on Fast Company.