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World Food Day, 16 October. How will we feed the world in 2050?

2 billion of the world's population is micrunutrient deficient and 805 million go to bed hungryIn the next 35 years, 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.

Yet 80% of the land that is suitable for growing food is already in use. Add in climate change, waste in the food chain (estimated to be 30%), worldwide social instability and geo-political turmoil, and the question looms large:

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

Big Data. Big Brains. Big Answers.

The good news is that a quiet revolution is taking place. Innovative thinkers are using big data and leading-edge technologies in entirely new ways.

The intersection of innovation, creative thinkers and big data technology

In labs, fields, college classrooms and urban warehouses, they 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 those 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.

Here are just a few examples of what they are doing.  For the full story, visit our interactive site:

Seed science goes global

Rice is a perfect example of what can happen at the intersection of smart people, data and tech.

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 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 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. They’re 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. This phone app enables farmers to confidentially share crop data and photos. Collectively it gives them and other farmers a very accurate, unbiased view of crop health in specific locations.

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

Edward Obropta, Forrest Meyen and Nikhil Vadhavkar from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with their revolutionary droneWe’ve all seen stories about drones in the news – from Amazon delivering products to military weapons. But a young group of aerospace engineers from MIT had a different idea.

Ph.D. candidates Edward Obropta, Forrest Meyen and Nikhil Vadhavkar from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently beat out 193 competitors to win the Thomson Reuters-sponsored 2015 MIT $100,000 Entrepreneurship Competition.

Their start-up company, Raptor Maps, is 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.

The role of securing land rights and crop yield

In one of the most startling match-ups in our report, Thomson Reuters Tax and Accounting professionals – armed with Aumentum proprietary software – are helping rural farmers in the developing world document secure their land rights. What’s the connection? Simply put, when farmers know their property is protected by a legal contract, they are willing to invest in it, assured that the food they grow is theirs to eat or sell.

Uncovering the truth

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 our neighbors and ourselves – 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.”

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