Can Big Data Feed Us All?

(3Bl Media/Justmerans) - We’ve heard a lot about how the ubiquitous and free flow of information is going to improve our quality of life, through smart phones, smart grids, smart cities and smart cars. That’s all well and good, but what about basic questions like can I get enough to eat?

Well it turns out, big data has some good news for us there, too.

Ramez Naam, in his book The Infinite Resource, described some cutting edge agricultural projects with yields anywhere from ten to a hundred times the norm. Using this as a benchmark, Naam surmises that we will have plenty of food to feed ten billion mouths. Agronomist Kenneth Cassman from the University of Nebraska, took this idea to the work boots on the ground level when he and his colleagues unveiled the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas last month at the Water for Food conference in Seattle where the theme was “Harnessing the Data Revolution to Ensure Food and Water Security From Field to Global Scales.”

The map contains site-specific data that shows where actual yields fall short of their potential due to any number of factors including drought, soil, and farming practices. Big Agro companies, like Monsanto and Syngenta, who sponsored the conference, can use their data to target development and marketing of specific products. But the data can also be used to help small farmers who number over 500 million and produce half the world’s food.

One example: Australian researcher Zvi Hochman used the atlas to compare his country's wheat yields with those in similar climate zones. He discovered that Argentina produces higher yields. Looking into the data, Hochman found that Argentinean farmers rotate wheat and corn on the same fields each year. Tailoring that finding to his local conditions, he concluded that Australian farmers could benefit from growing lentils after wheat where conditions allowed.

Roberto Lenton, the founding director of the Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska, said that this atlas “allows us to be able to pinpoint where the big gaps are and to start to gather the pieces of the puzzle to say, well, why is it that we have the yield gaps in those particular points?"

Armed with this knowledge, a farmer can prioritize his spending on fertilizer, a new irrigation system or different crop varieties, much as a homeowner looking to save energy might do after a home energy audit. In sub-Saharan Africa, the challenges are primarily nutrients and water. Both of those can benefit from the currently low natural gas prices. Gas can be used to power irrigation pumps or it can be converted in nitrogen-rich fertilizer.

Improving agricultural productivity is crucial in combating climate change, since clearing forested areas to make more room for farms is a double-edged blow, since the dead organic matter emits huge amounts of carbon and methane, while the planet’s carbon absorbing capacity is reduced at the same time.

Digital technology is helping farmers in other ways, too. Satellite imaging can now provide farmers with real-time images of their entire acreage. This allows farmers to quickly see and respond to problems such as insect infestations or the encroachment of weeds, or any other source of crop stress. Farmers will soon be able to subscribe to these eye-in-the-sky services that can be delivered by internet on a weekly basis.

At the other end of the food supply chain, there is the question of food that has been grown but is wasted before it gets to the consumer. By some estimates, as much as 40% of food grown in this country ends up in the landfill. How does that happen? A good deal of food is rejected by retailers for cosmetic purposes. Perhaps the produce is a little too ripe, or the size, shape, or color is a little less attractive than last week. Truckers need to get this rejected food off their trucks to make room for their next load. Now a company called Food Cowboy has created a network of food banks and truckers with a smartphone app linking the two. They’ve also made it far easier for retailers and restaurants to donate food that is still nutritious, but is on its way out.

Higher yields, less waste-- maybe feeding all those newcomers we’re expecting won’t be as difficult as we thought.


Image credit: Eric Reiter: Flickr Creative Commons