Traditional Asian farmer

Open data moving food from farm to fork

Come the middle of this century, our already teeming planet is going to become even more crowded as nearly two billion more people join the global population. Could open data be the answer to feeding us all?

In the face of a populace set to break nine billion by 2050, people from across the world – from smallholder farmers in Asia to politicians at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations – have asked some variation of the question: how are we going to effectively and sustainably feed all these mouths?

It is a question made more daunting in the face of increasing agricultural instability due to climate change, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity, as well as the fact that approximately one billion people are already unable to satisfy their basic needs in terms of food energy. “If you look at the current agricultural system and the reality of our environment, it becomes quickly clear that it is a complicated and complex problem – economics, nutrition, ecological factors all have to be taken into consideration,” notes Kevin Watt, integrated land and livestock manager at TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation.

Ensconced in an 1,800-acre (7km2) plot of land in Pescadero, California, TomKat Ranch is directly addressing some of the biggest issues facing the future of food production. “We are a non-profit that is really working on de-risking and investigating ways that we could produce healthy food on working land in a way that sustains the planet and inspires others into action,” says Watt. “Our primary goal is to quantify the costs and benefits of different styles of food production.”

As such, Watt describes TomKat as something more than a working ranch. It is also a learning laboratory where ranchers and scientists collaborate on projects ranging from soil carbon sequestration to wildlife and ecosystem conservation. “We want to make sure that the models we are working on are worth duplicating for the average farmer,” he states.

At the heart of TomKat’s approach is an appreciation for openness and sharing data, an aspect probably best appreciated in regards to the other hat Watt wears as co-owner of Early Bird Ranch. Together with LeftCoast GrassFed, these two businesses collaborate at TomKat, sharing both resources and data to create a powerful synergistic relationship wherein LeftCoast’s cattle and Early Bird Ranch’s pigs and poultry provide complementary ecological services that benefit each other and the coastal farmland of TomKat Ranch.

“I really see open data as our clearest and most powerful tool for creating clear feedback, as well as an accurate way to quantify the benefits and the costs of various production styles,” says Watt. “Open data can allow us to create a model that is adaptive and tailored to the realities on the ground, and it can provide the tools that farmers need to get feedback and create the best land stewardship systems possible.”

What makes data open?

Since the beginning of our history on the planet, humans have been using data to make decisions. For hunter-gathers this data consisted of the personal observations an individual made over a lifetime, such as where and when to hunt a specific animal.

However, as humans have advanced, so too has our desire for more and better data, as well as our ability to store and manipulate it. One only has to ask Google Maps to provide directions to a new location to see how data collection and use has simplified an activity that less than 30 years ago would have required several minutes, a physical map and a pen at a minimum.

There are three different types of data: closed, shared and open. Closed data is privately owned and kept behind a digital wall. It is often reserved for data that is highly personal – such as medical records – or sensitive, such as for reasons of national security. At the opposite end of the spectrum sits open data. This is data that anyone, anywhere in the world can access, use and share as long as the owners of the data have given express permission for such use. Shared data sits between the two.

Like Watt, Juan Valero Gonzalez – the head of public policy and sustainability at the Swiss agricultural company Syngenta – sees open data as a highly powerful tool that has the potential not only to secure the future of agriculture but also sustainably increase food production by 70 per cent, the growth the FAO says the world will need to achieve in order to feed itself in 2050. “Innovation is data-hungry,” he says. “The more data we have around agricultural production that is available and really open, the better chance we will have to improve and speed up the innovation patterns necessary to adapt to global agricultural challenges.”

It is because of this appreciation for open data and the power it offers that Syngenta has incorporated it into its Good Growth Plan. The plan aims to address global food security challenges via six commitments that focus on boosting resource efficiency, rejuvenating ecosystems and strengthening rural communities. Specifically, Syngenta is using open and shared data to benchmark how well it is doing in achieving its commitments, and to offer others the opportunity to use their data to spur environmental, social and economic benefits.

Syngenta has opened up the results of surveys into the practices of 800 farms across 41 countries so that farmers can compare things such as water and pesticide use and crop yield, and thus benchmark their performance and learn from each other.

In time, Syngenta hopes to combine its data with other farming organisations’ research projects. As such, it has paired with the Open Data Institute (ODI) to make sure that its Good Growth Plan data follows best practice – mainly, that it is presented in a structured, reliable, traceable and shareable format.

Reducing food waste

Data can tell us where our food was produced, how much of it we buy and when, how weather impacts our purchasing decisions and a myriad of other details. It can also make us better eaters. Using mobile devices, we can track how much we are eating and when as well as how food is affecting our health. However, one area where data – especially open data – has the opportunity to drive real change is in food waste.

According to the FAO, nearly one-third of all food produced worldwide is lost or wasted on its journey from farm to fork – that equates to 1.3 billion tonnes per year. This waste happens at every point along the food production chain, from vegetables that are not harvested on a farm to milk, bread and eggs that end up in the bin because people don’t eat them by their ‘best by’ date.

One way open data can tackle this problem is by joining up communication between organisations that have food that is about to be wasted and those who need it. Take the Sur+, a Netherlands-based start-up, as an example. It won the 2014 Hack Food Waste hackathon with its targeted communication system that joins producers and farmers who often experience a food surplus with a Dutch food bank that frequently falls short of being able to feed its 85,000 weekly visitors.

The World Food Programme (WFP), on the other hand, is using open data at an earlier point in the food production value chain by opening up data on global food deliveries. It has been hosting a comprehensive database since 1998 that integrates data from a range of users including governments, NGOs and WFP field offices to coordinate and monitor the shipments of food aid.

Caleb Phillips is a food waste activist from Boulder, Colorado, who is using open data to reduce global food waste by making publicly available food sources transparent. He has launched Falling Fruit, a global platform that maps out fruit trees and other sources of free food that exist in an urban context, such as so-called diveable dumpsters – dumpster diving is taking things that other people have thrown out. “There is a tremendous amount of food if you go out and look for it,” says Phillips, who co-founded the site with Ethan Welty. “While I am not convinced that we could feed everyone in a city using these sources, our cities can definitely produce a lot of food and feed a lot of people locally.”

With its roots as a source that mapped the food sources in the cities of Boulder and Denver, Falling Fruit exploded in popularity when the pair started incorporating open data that they scrubbed from municipal sources, such as tree inventories. Falling Fruit now not only runs on open data from municipal sources in the US, but also from people across the globe who update the database directly when they find a food source that doesn’t already exist on the platform.

Challenges to overcome

While it is clear that open data has much to offer, there are many issues standing in the way of widespread adoption. One of the biggest issues, says Phillips, is transparency. “I am a data scientist, and nothing bums me out more than having really useful data locked away somewhere,” he says.

Though there are legitimate reasons for some data to be closed, Phillips points out that many governments are rife with data that sits in a silo, often due to legacy issues – specifically, open data wasn’t an option when the data was collected, and the data hasn’t been published online since. “There is a huge amount of data that we haven’t had access to because it is sitting on some computer in a basement in a city somewhere,” he notes.

One way that Falling Fruit has started to overcome this issue is by pushing citizens to take the data into their own hands. They have had many volunteers walk into their local city governments to make copies of the data and then process it for use on the platform.

Another challenge that open data producers and users often encounter is that not all data is useable because of the format in which it is presented. “Syngenta is an innovation-driven company, but we are not data experts. When we started to look into how to make the data for the Good Growth Plan available in the public domain, we had to ask experts, which is why we started working with ODI,” states Gonzalez. “Data needs to be put into the public domain in a readable, transparent and comparable way.”

Watt of TomKat is more interested in addressing the challenges of how best to use open data once it has been sourced and properly presented, as well as how to encourage others to do the same. He is fierce in his belief that there is no ‘cookie-cutter’ model for food production that will fit all situations, believing that ranchers and farmers should use open data and the opportunities for dialogue that it enables to find methods that fit their particular activities. “I am hoping that these open data platforms will enable the open sharing of the benefits and shortcomings of different styles,” he says. “For example, if a rancher sees his neighbour getting 20 per cent more forage each year than his operation because she is using an open-data-inspired tactic, then hopefully this will inspire conversation and change.”

It is examples like these that best showcase the major challenge that Sarah Smith, a research manager at the Food Futures Lab of the Institute for the Future (IFTF) in Palo Alto, California, sees facing the future of open data. “I think the real challenge with open data is the application,” she says. “No matter what part of the food system you are applying it to, be it microbes or nutrition, unless data is being applied in interesting ways then it is not worth much.”
Smith and her colleagues at IFTF think that the best way to address this challenge is via more data literacy and helping people understand how and what to do with data once it is open. “I think that the open-data movement itself is strong enough and that sourcing the data will not be much of a problem compared to teaching people how and what to do with it,” she says. “The technology we need is human literacy.”

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