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Can Big Data help feed 9 billion people?

With billions of mouths to feed by 2050 and sustainability challenges galore, Big Data could be the game changer we've been looking for.

Global food production levels will need to rise by 70 percent to feed the 2.3 billion extra mouths that the United Nations expects by 2050.

More specifically, food production in the Global South will need to double within the same timeframe — no simple feat given the plethora of sustainability challenges facing the agricultural sector. Those include rising energy prices, depletion of underground aquifers, loss of farmland to urbanization and climate change-related drought and flooding.

The complexity of these interrelated issues long has been difficult to overcome, but the rise of advanced information communication technologies to collect and analyze new types of data offers a glimmer of hope.

By a offering a harmonized and science-based approach to measure and communicate sustainability in agriculture, these technologies could help meet the demand for a rapidly growing population while also conserving natural resources.

In recognition of this, Field to Market: The Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture and The Sustainability Consortium have signed a memorandum of understanding to work toward common metrics in overlapping product categories, encourage data platform interoperability and collaborate on innovation projects.

With the partnership, Field to Market’s metrics and benchmarks will be available for use in reporting against TSC’s key performance indicators on corn, cotton, rice, potatoes, soybeans and other crops related to a number of sustainability indicators.

“The partnership with The Sustainability Consortium is an important step in Field to Market’s efforts to create a common framework to measure the sustainability of U.S. agriculture,” said Rod Snyder, president of Field to Market. “This move toward alignment will help the agriculture value chain communicate more clearly to consumers while creating a foundation to advance sustainable outcomes in U.S. crop production.”

Field to Market says it hopes to leverage its diverse membership of grower organizations, leading companies, academia, conservation groups and public sector partners to create opportunities across the agricultural supply chain for continuous improvement in productivity, environmental quality and human well-being. The organization comprises more than 65 members representing all facets of the U.S. agricultural supply chain, with member companies employing more than 3.9 million people and representing combined revenues totaling over $1.3 trillion.

The organization's sustainability strategy focuses on using a "Fieldprint Calculator" tool to benchmark and collect data on current sustainability outcomes, hopefully catalyzing improvement at the field and landscape level and supply chain sustainability claims through data aggregation.

TSC, meanwhile, has experience translating raw science into business insights and developing transparent methodologies, tools and strategies for new products and supply networks that address environmental, social and economic imperatives. It comprises more than 90 members, including NGOs, civil society organizations, scientific experts and corporations from all corners of business.

The partnership will play on the strengths of both organizations by allowing them to openly share information and coordinate approaches to measuring the sustainability of key agricultural crops.

When organic isn't enough

More broadly, the agriculture industry has been locked in a battle of semantics over how to view sustainability. Is it about radically changing how we think about farming literally from the ground up? Or is it more about a constant evolution of what we would deem to be “conventional agriculture”?

Negative ramifications of conventional agricultural techniques include 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, use of nitrogen that pollutes soil or waterways and thin financial margins paired with high overhead costs that cheat many farmers out of a decent livelihood.

Food production also competes with power generation for scarce water resources, accounting for 60 percent of global water consumption. Power plants and other water-intensive industries are often in areas with significant a agricultural presence, which leads high competition for limited supply. This is creating mounting problems related to water stress, intensified by rampant drought in many regions of the county.

When it comes to improving current operating procedures in the agricultural sector, there is a common misconception that “organic” is synonymous with "sustainable." Organic standards, for example, don’t address water use or greenhouse gas emissions. Yet agricultural solutions that actually can be deemed sustainable are typically difficult to scale.

How do we support the vitality of the farm ecosystem while making sure that the economics work? Part of the solution could lie with Big Data that helps better illuminate areas for improvement and then catalog incremental progress.

But technological solutions will need to be applicable to small farmers, who produce more than 70 percent of the global food supply. This means they will need to be affordable, easy to use and accompanied by appropriate training.

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