Farmers embrace Big Data to reduce pollution

So-called Big Data -- the collection and use of gigantic data sets -- is much in the news these days. Often, the subject comes up in relation to personal privacy, as with the collection of personal emails and other data by the National Security Agency, or by businesses capturing records of our online activities to improve their ability to get us to buy whatever they are selling.

But Big Data is also a huge deal for the food system and for farmers. As a recent article in the Southeast Farm Press explained, the collection, analysis and use of data is changing how farmers grow our food. This is creating huge opportunities to improve efficiency and generate sustainability benefits, and it's relieving farmers “of much of the day-to-day guesswork associated with farming.”

Today, farmers can get real-time information about everything from the nutrient status of their crops to emergence of weeds to moisture levels in their soils. Other examples include:

  • Field samples from corn stalks or leaf tests can provide a snapshot or a report card on how much nitrogen a corn crop is taking up or needs.
  • High resolution spatial maps can lay out soil moisture levels to guide efficient use of irrigation.
  • Farmers can get detailed maps of pest damage to target more precisely pest control applications.
  • Aerial imagery or satellite imagery can show a farmer how a crop is growing and help identify problem areas and facilitate specific management decisions.
  • New models help farmers adjust their nutrient applications based on recent weather.

By gathering and using more data about the nutrient needs of their own fields, for example, farmers can become much more efficient in applying fertilizer, reducing what is lost to water or air and saving themselves money. This benefits all of us, because nutrients that are not taken up by crops can lead to water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, once they have detailed information about how water moves across and through the agricultural landscape, farmers and watershed managers can be much smarter about where to put filters such as buffers and wetlands that capture nutrients that run off fields. This, in turn, improves water quality in the streams, rivers and lakes that the nutrients otherwise would wash into.

Ultimately, data-smart farmers will be able to keep more land under production, because they won’t have to guess where to maintain buffers and wetlands. This kind of precision filtering also will save society money, because buffers and wetlands are a much less costly way of assuring clean water than water treatment plants.

This story originally appeared at EDF Voices. Image of field by marfis75 via Flickr

To learn more about Big Data and the convergence of sustainability and technology, be sure to check out VERGE SF Oct. 14-17.