Is There an Algorithm to End World Hunger?

Elliott Brennan

Every day, thousands of researchers and scientists are collecting massive amounts of data about agricultural systems—from soil chemistry and germination rates to harvest indicators and market logistics. At the same time, an estimated 500 million smallholder farmers—the world’s food producers—lack access to digital technologies and these latest research insights, which limits agricultural innovation in the developing world. The CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture is a new initiative connecting these two critical sectors of the food system by facilitating widespread access to research data. In doing so, the Platform is creating an innovation space for agriculture that has the potential to usher in a new era for farming and the global food system.

Working with the cutting-edge tools and principles of Big Data, CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research) launched the Platform in 2017 as a way to unify the work being done across CGIAR’s 15 Research Centers by more than 8,000 scientists. Founded in 1971, CGIAR’s mission is to end world hunger through agricultural science. Over the last 50 years, CGIAR has led the global effort to harness research in support of food security in a dynamic, unpredictable world and, today, is the main institution for agricultural research worldwide.

The Next Agricultural Revolution

New technology has consistently been the driving force behind important transformations in agriculture. In the 19th century, the invention of the internal combustion engine led to the mechanized tractor, which allowed farmers to plant on a much larger scale. Innovations in chemistry during the 20th century led to artificial fertilizers, which drove the Green Revolution in the 1970s and played a major role in increasing crop yields in developing countries. Recently, however, especially compared to other industries, agriculture has been slow to adopt the leading edge of technologies from the digital revolution.

In the digital age of the 21st century, advances in data science are emerging as a technology that has the potential to transform agriculture.Many other sectors—from finance and politics to professional sports, healthcare, and public transit—have already begun to apply Big Data. Depending on the context, the definition of Big Data can vary widely. In general, Big Data refers to the tools and methods for collecting, organizing, and analyzing information enabled by innovations in computer technology. For the

Photo courtesy of Neil Palmer (CIAT)

Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, these tools include remote sensors for measuring soil and water and monitoring crops, drones and satellite imagery for mapping geographic information, and distributed computer networks that allow for the processing of unprecedented amounts of data.

The underlying concept for Big Data is the algorithm. In simplest terms, an algorithm is a set of directions for completing a process. One of the earliest algorithms is one that people use every day: the Google search engine. The process that drives a Google search is an algorithm that compares the text from the search to the text of all available web pages across the internet, produces a list of relevant pages, and then ranks each page based on how many other relevant pages link to it. For a person—or even a team of people—this would be a complicated, recursive, and time-consuming process. But through modern computing, an algorithm can easily execute the search. With modern digital technology and access to data, scientists can design algorithms to produce accurate, efficient solutions for extraordinarily complex challenges.

So is there an algorithm to end world hunger?

The Platform for Big Data in Agriculture represents an important opportunity for CGIAR to support developing countries to take full advantage of digital opportunities and to harness data for greater profitability, equality, and sustainability in the food system.

Turning Information Into Intelligence

The process of turning massive amounts of data into useful information for farmers, however, is not simple. Before researchers can put Big Data to use, they must standardize the massive amounts of existing data and establish a protocol so that future data can be similarly regimented. This is a central principle of the Platform, the principle of the findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable (F.A.I.R.) data. Jawoo Koo, a Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), one of CGIAR’s 15 Research Centers, and a co-founder of the Platform, considers this principle essential for the Platform: “There is no common approach for this data within the Research Centers or between CGIAR and its external partners. We want to avoid this confusion and make it easier for everyone to put agricultural data to meaningful use.” It does not matter how big the data of a Big Data platform is if the data is buried, incoherent, or only useful to one researcher.

This is the first of many steps in a long process to turn information for researchers into intelligence for farmers. A primary objective of the Platform is to democratize agricultural research data in order to stimulate broader engagement across the public and private sectors to solve the greatest challenges in the global food system. These challenges intersect with critical questions of global development, including climate change, gender equality, nutritional health, and conflict resolution. In particular, the Platform for Big Data in Agriculture is dedicated to improving women’s empowerment, both in the leadership of its research projects and in farming communities around the world.

Through a series of articles, interviews, and profiles, Food Tank will be exploring the full mission and approach of the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture as well as critical intersections with food and agriculture issues. Big Data offers a unique opportunity to engage with big ideas on a precise scale though the vast collection of very specific pieces of information. Big Data increases the bandwidth for thinking about agricultural development. This series will take advantage of that opportunity to discover what might lie ahead for the future of farming in the digital age.

This new, ongoing Food Tank series is produced in partnership with the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture.

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