Agricultural markets operate on a globally competitive scale, but to answer the challenges faced across nations – such as feeding the growing population and the increasing cost of production – international data sharing will be required. Data sharing can link those who need information with those who have it, resulting in more productive economies and reduced poverty.
Open access has the potential to supply data not just to advanced economies, but can also help considerably in developing economies where access to data and infrastructure is often inhibited.
The UK is trying to lead by example, with government data open to the public by default. Over 40% of all UK government open data derives from Defra, which amounts to over 12,000 datasets, mostly about food and farming or environmental subjects.
With the world population projected to rise from 7.3bn at present to 9.7bn in 2050, and 11.2bn in 2100, food production will need to increase by 70% on today’s levels. In order to achieve such goals, countries which are not achieving their optimum agricultural output will need to find ways to increase production and access to big data can help with this. Agri-food businesses will simultaneously have to improve resource efficiency, resilience and profitability to meet the global food challenge.
The rapid development of emerging economies can result in short falls in food production and quality, but open data can help farmers to tackle this.
It can also help to address the rising cost of food production, which is a particular problem in developed countries. Farmers who do not work to cut costs and increase efficiencies face little prospect of a positive economic outcome.
With speculation rising about the costs and future production of energy and fertiliser, on top of restricted water resources, limitations on chemical control, consumer fears, a shortage of fertile land and geopolitical instability, agricultural production needs to be able to face challenges from every direction.
Climate change also poses an enormous threat, with adapted species of plants and animals now underperforming in environments to which they were once ideally suited, meaning farmers need to learn new methods and adopt new species or varieties.
A strong knowledge base is vital to adapting agricultural practices. Without knowledge, there is no progress; in agriculture data allows for a culture of continuous improvement.
The UK has been leading the way on ‘big data’ sharing, with the Agrimetrics centre for agricultural innovation opened at Rothamsted Research in 2015. The centre, claimed to be the first of its kind, was jointly created by the UK government with NIAB, Rothamsted Research, SRUC and the University of Reading. The core of Agrimetrics is a big data science platform, integrating data through software to suit users’ needs. It provides an overview of data from different sources, and creates models by extracting insight from those sources. It also has benchmarking platforms, lines up data from disparate sources, bases metrics on sound science and enables supported decisions in the field.
Agri-tech is a well-established and important UK sector. The entire agri-food supply chain, from agriculture to final retailing and catering, is estimated to contribute £96 billion a year or 7% of gross value added. The UK exported £18 billion of food, feed and drink in 2012 and is one of the top 12 food and drink exporters in the world, while the whole food supply chain, including agriculture and fishing, employs 3.8 million people. Agriculture and fishing contributed £10.7bn to the UK economy in 2014, with over 400,000 employed directly in farming.
Countries like the UK already have well established industries with the capabilities to analyse and share data, through universities, institutes and research centres. The EU also has a programme named Copernicus which provides free, open and accessible environmental data.
On a global scale, the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International is a not-for-profit organisation that improves peoples’ lives worldwide by providing information and applying scientific expertise to solve problems in agriculture and the environment. The target is to put information, skills and tools into the hands of those who need them. It has 48 member countries supporting the work delivered by its team of scientific staff.
The United Nations is also pushing for greater sharing of data, and sponsored a Global Open Data in Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) summit in 2016. GODAN was established in 2013 to encourage and promote open data policies and has more than 330 partners around the world, including the UK, US and Kenyan governments.
The Canadian government has recently awarded the University of Guelph in Ontario with $76.6m (CAD) of funding for its Food From Thought research project. The aim is to use high-tech information systems to produce enough food for the growing population, while also preserving and managing ecosystems. The project will create the tools needed to produce more food safely, while also protecting the environment. One particular target is to use big data to reduce pesticide use, monitor watersheds and identify crops suited to the changing climate. It will also partner up with academic institutions from around the world, as well as government agencies and industry innovation centres.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is hoping that agricultural data will one day be as accessible as weather forecasts are and has predicted that data is the ‘new oil’. It believes that digital big data will enhance food safety, reduce food fraud, result in fresher food, less waste, greater responsibility, and overall build trust.
Despite the international effort to push big data, there are a number of issues the concept faces, along with some dangers it poses. In many cases data is privately owned, meaning data released for public viewing can be biased, or have certain elements omitted if they do not comply with the vested interests of the company. In other cases, private companies can hold data to ransom or charge high prices for its public release.
Even publicly or voluntary sector owned data has drawbacks. During financially difficult periods, investment in open data may be one of the first cuts made. A government may also have vested interest in what data is released, as well as restrictions in resources to successfully convert it into useful information. The voluntary sector faces similar issues and can sometimes be forced to drive data in the direction that its sponsors desire. The issue is that someone always has to pay for it, somehow.
No matter how rigorously data may have been interpreted by experts, it may still come across as misleading or may be misinterpreted, not just by industry experts, but also by those at ground level.
One issue that Defra has reported, and which is likely to impact upon other sources, is the sheer volume of data that is collected. It not only takes vast amounts of time and resources to collect data, but considerably more to interpret it and turn it into a useable form.
Any data that is connected to the internet is at risk of infiltration from sources desiring to use it for personal gain. Therefore, it is essential that any personal data is first removed before data is openly shared, to avoid putting individuals at risk.
Data is not enough on its own. It needs to be presented in an accessible form that answers questions, meaning good case studies, illustrations and other interpreted formats are needed. Data also needs to be continually questioned, otherwise missing portions may be overlooked and undervalued.
Data is an infrastructure – similar to roads – which helps navigate to a location and to make a decision. Countries with the best data infrastructures are likely to have an enormous advantage in the 21st Century. However, the organisations operating and maintaining the data and the guides describing how to use and manage it need to be trustworthy – plus it needs to be sustainably funded.
The UK government believes that reducing the number of platforms across which data is shared is the way forward, as is encouraging more users and different interpretations of the same core information.
A global data ecosystem for agriculture and food is what GODAN has envisaged for the future. Through data sharing, governments and organisations from across the world can help agriculture to tackle many of the issues it faces.