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Is growing food the next green-tech innovation?

Nicholas Parker, founder and chairman of the Cleantech Group, says investors and entrepreneurs are underestimating the need for technology to solve environmental problems.

WELLESLEY, Mass.--As the person who coined the term "clean tech," Nicholas Parker has been around the industry as long as anybody and he thinks people underestimate the potential of green business.

To most people, green technology means renewable electricity, fuel efficiency, and perhaps water purification technologies. But to Parker, those technologies--most of which focus on addressing climate change--are still just a sliver of the innovation needed to address the world's environmental woes.

"We are going to have to face the fact that climate change is one of several monumental environmental problems our generation will face," Parker said during a keynote talk at the Entrepreneurial Energy Expo at Babson College here on Thursday. Parker is chairman of the Cleantech Group, which provides data on green-tech investments and organizes events.

The increase in temperature from the existing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere--never mind anticipated increases in emissions--will cause disruptions in many industries in the coming years, he argued.

"If we are going to have to adapt to a temperature increase of 2 percent Celsius or more, then we are going to have to reimagine how we produce food and water," he said.

Extreme weather events will affect agriculture as well as other industries, such as shipping. Another area not fully addressed are the health problems, such as rising infertility rates and cancer, caused by everyday chemical products like plastic.

In short, Parker sees a need for technical and business solutions under the overall rubric of sustainability.

"In a way, this is a design revolution. It's not about doing things more efficiently or doing things less bad. It's about redesigning everything from scratch," he said.

His list of promising technologies includes renewable energy, efficiency, embedded controllers, energy storage, distributed water treatment, and synthetic biology.

One example of synthetic biology is algae designed specifically for biofuels. Another is finding ways to growing food in desert areas or synthetic forms of protein, he said.

Parker said that in the first quarter of this year, the level of venture capital investment in green tech has fallen to 2006 levels after growing at more than 40 percent per year the last few years.

He said that government stimulus packages around the world will help propel green-tech industries, but a "price signal" in the form of a tax or carbon-trading system is still needed.

"Other countries are being as aggressive (on clean energy) if not more aggressive as we are here," he said. "Whether we like it or not, China is coming to this space."