Sunday, March 06, 2016

Can Data-Driven Agriculture Help Feed a Hungry World?

Agribusinesses are increasingly using computer databases to enable farmers to grow crops more efficiently and with less environmental impact.  Experts hope these data, detailing everything from water use to crop yields, can also help the developing world grow more food.

A woman harvests crops near Mount Kenya. Experts hope big data could help small farmers adapt as climate change rapidly alters growth conditions around the globe. (Credit: Neil Palmer/CIAT) Click to Enlarge.
[A computer app called SmartBarley] is one of many agribusiness-led initiatives to harness the bits and bytes of data that increasingly are being used in agriculture worldwide to boost efficiency and profits, while simultaneously lowering the environmental impact of agriculture.  Other agribusinesses that market data-crunching farm-management tools include seed company Monsanto, chemical company DuPont, and precision-irrigation company Valley Irrigation.  FarmLink, which leases combines, recently entered the data game with TrueHarvest, a yield comparison tool that leverages data collected by its fleet of farm machinery to help farmers fine-tune their operations to maximize yield and profit. 

For now, using big data to improve agricultural productivity is largely centered in the developed world.  But sustainable agriculture and development specialists are working to expand access to important agricultural data to the hundreds of millions of small farmers in the developing world. Already, in an effort to improve yields and profits, farmers in places such as sub-Saharan Africa and India are using mobile phones to exchange information about weather, disease, and market prices.  And these trends are only expected to grow as information technology spreads.  Meanwhile, big data advocates argue that smaller farmers stand to benefit from data-driven agricultural advances, such as improved crop varieties. 

At its core, big data in agriculture is about trying to corral the mass of increasingly available information on the environmental, biological, and human factors that govern crop growth and yield in order to provide farmers with tailored insight on how to grow crops more efficiently.  While humans have used accumulated knowledge and technology to grow ever-more food for thousands of years, modern computing power has led to breakthroughs in the ability to collect, exchange, process, and synthesize data in ways that promise to transform agriculture into a sustainable enterprise that meets the projected mid-century food demand of 9 billion people. 

But to avoid a massive expansion of agriculture into wetlands and rainforests, to the detriment of biodiversity and the global climate, this yield increase must come on existing farmland.  And here, experts say, big data can play a vital role. 

"To date, humans have not yet developed agricultural systems that can continue to raise yields and reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture concomitantly,” says Kenneth Cassman, an agronomist at the University of Nebraska.  "We have been successful raising yields, or reducing environmental footprint, but not both at the same time, and that is the greatest scientific challenge facing humankind.  Big data will be essential to bring together all the information a farmer needs." 

For now, big data is in its infancy, Cassman notes, and current initiatives and products fall well short of their potential.  Agribusinesses are primarily developing data services that promote or leverage the products they sell.  A seed company, for example, might find in the data an opportunity to sell a drought-tolerant corn variety to a farmer facing increasing irrigation costs.  An irrigation company might find an opportunity to sell that farmer a variable-rate pivot, which lowers water usage.  The farmer gains from a higher-yielding crop, along with shrinking water and power bills.  The environment benefits from water conservation and lower power-sector greenhouse gas emissions. 

But the services themselves often are built on proprietary technology that hinders the aggregation and analysis of data flowing from disparate systems.  And the quality of data available on everything from weather to soils varies widely, which raises questions about its usefulness.  

What a data-driven sustainable agricultural system is supposed to look like is also under debate. "There is not even agreement that the issue is only about producing more food," Jane Maland Cady, International Program Director for the McKnight Foundation, says.  For example, she notes, several studies suggest plenty of food is already grown to feed the world and that it just needs to be distributed differently.  Cady oversees grants made under the foundation's Collaborative Crop Research Program, which helps small farmers improve yield.  "We see data as a means to better understand and make change," she notes. 

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the world must grow 70 percent more food by 2050 to meet global demand.  But "the quantum leaps that we enjoyed with the green revolution 50 to 60 years ago are not going to be repeated," Cassman says.  The triad of improved crop genetics, increased use of synthetic products such as fertilizers and pesticides, and expanded irrigation can no longer provide the necessary gains. 

"That is why we need big data," he explains.  "An agricultural system is so finely tuned — it's responding to temperature, water, humidity, diseases, pests, insects, soil, and nutrients in time and space varying across landscapes, and there is just no other way to do it except by bringing together the data needs so that every field can be managed to bring out its best."

Read more at Can Data-Driven Agriculture Help Feed a Hungry World?

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