Agri Kultuur December / Desember 2018 - Page 30

Big data shows big promise for feeding the world Juergen Voegele Digital innovations are set to transform a global food system in crisis. T hese innovations, however, are reliant on large sets of data to help farmers make informed decisions and predict crop outcomes. From soil moisture to weather patterns and historical yield, countries like the United States and the United Kingdom have a lot of “big data” to put to work. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, has over a century of farm and public data to draw from. But why does this matter? Ask any farmer, from California to Colombia, and they will tell you that unpredictable weather patterns are making farming harder. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned that global warming of 2 degrees will cause corn yields to shrink by 15 percent. In Africa, this could reach 20 percent if temperatures rise by 3 degrees, causing corn production to entirely collapse in some regions. Crunching huge datasets, however, is increasingly allowing farmers to visualize this uncertain future, and prepare for it. The University of Minnesota, for example, has used advanced computer modelling to predict a number of future scenarios for corn production, using Iowa as a microcosm for global production. The study showed that globally, corn yields could drop between 15 and 50 percent due to warmer air and cycles of drought followed by heavy rain. This is likely to occur when the world’s population hits 9 AgriKultuur |AgriCulture billion, leading to an increase in as much as 60 percent for food needs. This knowledge is power. Farmers can now act to protect yields, investing in technology such as heat-tolerant crop breeds. This type of work has huge to potential to benefit the rest of the world, where more people are going hungry. Most nations in the developing world, however, face a “black hole” when it comes to farm data. This makes predictions and preparations like those carried out at the University of Minnesota impossible. Public research networks like CGIAR are working to bridge this data gap in collaboration with universities and companies. The first stumbling block is that sophisticated technologies—such as smart sensors and cameras that farmers can use to collect and analyse data—are priced out of reach for small-scale farmers in poorer countries. They may also live in remote areas, without an internet connection. That is why companies like Microsoft are working on solutions to slash the cost of digital farming technologies and coming up with alternative ways to get small farmers connected. The FarmBeats project, for example, has developed a low-cost alternative to a drone that can capture farm data from the sky. “Tethered Eye” helium balloons are used to act as aerial sensors, generating images of farm 30