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Big data

Feeding the world with data

Kris Carlson  

Kris Carlson  

The critical role that data and innovation can play in global food security.

Infographic illustrates the global food scarcity problem
(Click to view full graphic)

By 2050, the world’s population is expected to reach 9 billion. To accommodate this growth we will have to nearly double the current output of food, feed and fiber. Eighty percent of the land that is suitable for growing food is already in use and our strategies to squeeze the maximum productivity from the earth to feed ourselves are diminishing the health of land, depleting soil and degrading ecosystems.

How will we feed ourselves sustainably in the future and make food scarcity a thing of the past?

Data and innovation

While new technologies come and go, disruptive technologies challenge the status quo and offer new problem-solving solutions.

A quiet revolution is taking place. Using big data and leading-edge technologies in entirely new ways, the goal is to get far better results at every link in the food supply chain. Better food, more of it, with less waste and fewer chemicals.

Are we at a point in human history where we can solve hunger?

In labs, fields, college classrooms and urban warehouses, innovators are changing the playing –and growing – field. Most of their solutions were not possible even five years ago. But today, the data is more intelligent and more connected and the technologies smarter and more accessible. Put that in the hands of creative thinkers and scientists, and revolutions happen.

9 billion bowls, a multi-media project created by Thomson Reuters, is dedicated to telling the stories of innovators in a single place. The people featured have taken highly individual paths, but all share the same essential road map: they see a problem in the food chain; they use data to understand it, to make connections and to draw new insights. Taken as a whole, the idea of eliminating global hunger suddenly seems within our reach. Together, 9 billion bowls is the report about how big data and big brains are beating back hunger. For good.

Seed science goes global

There may be no single crop that feeds more people than rice. And making rice more resilient, disease-resistant and productive is on the mind of Michael Thomson, a molecular geneticist from the international rice research institute in manila, the Philippines. His research is already leading to breakthroughs in developing climate-resilient, high-yielding rice varieties that he says can produce higher quantities of rice for a growing population.

“Feeding the world is a big challenge, but a lot of this new data that’s come online recently has really helped accelerate that process. So what we see in plant breeding, oftentimes it takes up to 10 years to develop a new rice variety. And with some of the new data and the new marker technologies, we’ve reduced that time – in just five or six years, we can develop improved stress-tolerant rice varieties that have disease resistance and improved grain quality in much faster time than we used to before,” explained Dr Thomson.

Defeating a food killer

Currently, $5-7 billion worth of global crops are lost due to a single soil-based pathogen called Phytophthora. Until now, the only way to confirm the presence of this deadly disease was after infection of the plant, by which point it was too late for treatment.

Enter FungiAlert, a new start-up created by two students from Imperial College London. Their $3 sensor fixes a multi-billion-dollar problem.

Kerry O’Donnelly, FungiAlert cofounder, explains, “Our product is unique in that it gives an immediate reading from the spores of the plant and does not require specialist labour, which can save farmers a significant amount of money in terms of testing. Furthermore, by knowing the safety of the soil they are using, farmers can be more selective in their use of fungicides, which presents another opportunity to lower costs.”

Data enables farmers to take a giant technological leap and dramatically increase crop yields

Forget the stereotype of the lonely farmer toiling away in a field disconnected from the world.

Today’s farmer is more likely to be packing a smart-phone filled with enough weather, financial and technology apps to put most millennials to shame.

One of the world’s oldest occupations is increasingly using vast amounts of digital information such as satellite imagery and historical soil samples to better manage crops. The goal is to save money, increase yields and, in turn, boost profits.

Data Share from Thomson Reuters is a perfect case in point. Larry Winger, a farmer from Benton County, Indiana, explains, “Data sharing is going to allow us to compare data with farmers and industry all over the world. When I know the conditions of what’s going on in Argentina or Malaysia, I’m going to have a better handle on how to market my crops.”

Spotting crop disease from 5,000 feet

We’ve all seen stories about drones in the news – from Amazon delivering products to the military using them as weapons. But a young group of aerospace engineers from MIT had a different idea. Why not use drones to help people?

“When people think of drones, they think of war. We wanted to do something good with them,” enthused Nikhil Vadhavkar. And so they created Raptor Maps, a sophisticated system of using drones to evaluate crops, provide data to supplement in-person assessment and help increase crop production. “We’re using drones to help feed the world.”

Their technology produces a series of images over time to show the progression of stress on crops, integrated with data from other sources like weather maps. And most importantly, the maps point out hot spots that crop scouts then assess on the ground. This perfect partnership of man and technology makes an enormous difference in protecting high-value crops such as fruits and vegetables.

Uncovering the truth

Feeding the world is about more than hunger. It’s about survival, safety and securing a stable future for generations to come.

9 Billion Bowls is ultimately a story of hope and human potential. It demonstrates that an issue that has challenged mankind since our very beginnings – feeding ourselves and our neighbors – can be addressed by the most modern of solutions: Big Data, smart technology and visionary thinkers.

Thomson Reuters sits at the center where many of these dots are connected. More than 60 Reuters journalists are being trained in data journalism that will continue to uncover new insights, connections and solutions.

Tim Large of the Thomson Reuters Foundation explains, “Data is playing a big role in helping farmers and other people across the world tackle food insecurity … Data is the glue that connects all these different dots between food insecurity, policy, climate change, economics, finance, you name it – data is the glue. And we now live in a world of open data; a world where increasingly journalists can mine deep data sets to tell stories and make connections that they couldn’t make before. So I see data as the glue that helps connect the dots.”

Learn more

Dozens of empty bowls
Experience the 9billionbowls multimedia report.

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