dimanche 11 mai 2014

How big data is going to help feed nine billion people by 2050

A lire sur: http://www.techrepublic.com/article/how-big-data-is-going-to-help-feed-9-billion-people-by-2050/#ftag=RSS56d97e7
To feed the world's rapidly-expanding population in the coming decades, agriculture must produce more. Big data holds one of the keys for farmers, but it's also a weapon that could be used against them.
Dusty wooden stairs lead up to the barn office, which overlooks miles of green fields and giant combines parked on gravel drives. It's a cool April day in Palmyra, Indiana, and there is a high chance of rain. Six men huddle around a table, hunched over computers.
A transaction is finishing up. Jeff McGee, an independent farmer from across the Ohio River, is handed a thin cardboard box with a crop yield monitor inside. He nervously eyes it before tucking the package under his arm, quietly asking questions about how to set up an account, where to buy his new iPad. He hands over a credit card to the Climate Corporation salesman, watches as the numbers are punched into a digital form. In the background, fingers type quickly, entering soil test results gathered earlier this week. Tablets on the desk buzz, notifying they're finished syncing cloud data. An infrared map of a nearby field glows on the computer monitor, showing precipitation trends from the past week.
McGee looks around. Skepticism lines his face, but confidence fills his voice. "I didn't want to be the first one over the fence, but I sure didn't want to be the last one," he says.
Congratulatory handshakes are offered before McGee walks out the door. Robert Jones, the owner of this large-scale farm operation who informed McGee about the technology, adjusts his overalls and sits back down, looking satisfied. This is a big day for the agriculture industry.
McGee just stepped into the world of modern farming.

An industry in transition

A farmer knows his every acre. Each inch the crop grows. Each species of bug that may destroy it. The wind, the rain, the snow, the frost, the heat, the dust. He knows the effects of it all.
But he is limited. More often than not, a farmer doesn't have the manpower or the capital to do anything with the data he collects. Frankly, he doesn't have the time. So he uses tools that have been around for over a decade: walkie talkies, Excel spreadsheets, USB drives to transport what he can to an agronomist, who studies the science of producing food.
During the tech boom of recent decades, the agriculture world has quietly been introduced to data aggregation technology. John Deere built data systems into their machinery, farmers started enabling Wi-Fi in barns and in combines, and larger farms started using software to manage their operations. Adoption has been slow, and systems are often unwanted because they create lock-in to the software, incompatible with the variety of other tools and brands used on the farm.
Jeff McGee buys a Climate Corporation subscription to monitor his fields in Brandenburg, Kentucky.
 Image: Lyndsey Gilpin/TechRepublic
"There were the pieces of the puzzle and nobody had the wherewithal to pull them together, so a false hope was provided and there was frustration on the part of farmers and managers," said Dennis Buckmaster, who teaches in the Ag and Biological Engineering department at Purdue University. "This led to nowhere, so what good was that. Some used it in limited ways, but it didn't deliver the punch that was initially promised."
Now, with the burden of figuring out how to feed the 9 billion people that will be on this planet by 2050, farmers are in a state of flux. While they live every day knowing threats to food security are looming, they are caught in a profession that is often viewed as archaic and they have struggled to progress in the 21st century.
And then Monsanto caught on.
Monsanto considered big data in agriculture to be worth multi-billion dollar investments, evidenced by their acquisition of several farm data analytics companies between May 2012 and February 2014. The technology has the potential to increase yield production, and as we near an era of history wrought with more people and less resources, this makes farming one of the most important careers in the world.
"There were the pieces of the puzzle and nobody had the wherewithal to pull them together, so a false hope was provided and there was frustration on the part of farmers and managers."Dennis Buckmaster, Purdue University
The power of farming data is insurmountable, and it is also dangerous. If someone knows the data of an operation, they also know when and where the crops are, how much yield, how much it costs, and the farm's profits. The overwhelming fear is that it falls into the wrong hands, be it a neighbor, a seed retailer, a fertilizer company, or a big ag corporation. And then that data is used against the farmer by being sold to a competitor or undercutting a neighbor for a better deal on land prices.
Farmers and big ag companies are racing to find the holy grail of precision agriculture. Precision technology is a farming management concept that measures and responds to field variability for crops, often using satellites and GPS tracking systems. It has become more and more prevalent in recent history because of the advanced technology systems available on farms. A survey of soybean farmers in 2012 showed a rapid payback using these technologies -- a 15% savings on seed, fertilizer, and chemicals. Another study, cited by Raj Khosla, a professor and senior science advisor for the Department of State, found that farmers using only one type of precision technologies increased their yield by 16% and cut down water use by 50%.
If farmers take it seriously enough -- and harness the power of precision agriculture appropriately -- farmers stand a chance to double their output to feed those 9 billion people and shift societal perceptions of the ag industry.
And if they choose not to heed these warnings, there's a general consensus about the world we'll live in in 50 years. Ask any of these farmers that are trying to be proactive rather than reactive -- they'll tell you bluntly: it looks bleak.

Big ag, little trust

Douglas Hackney is the president of Enterprise Group, Ltd., an author, and public speaker. Like many others trying to educate the public on this pressing topic, speaks with a strong sense of urgency. To him, everything is happening so quickly, he can't spread the word fast enough. Being a farmer and a data scientist, he knows how this issue will affect both worlds.
"Farmers are unlike other business people...people rarely bet a whole company on [one decision]," he said. "A farmer does that every spring, and he's putting that much on the line every year."
Trust is a currency in this world. Farmers need people they trust to inform the many decisions they make every year, Hackney said. The agricultural world has evolved to rely so much on seed sellers, weed killer-sellers, fertilizer sellers, local tractor dealers. And now, data aggregation and predictive analytics. And if that trust is broken, they need an alternative.
The 1940s to the late 1960s spanned the Green Revolution, a time when research and technological initiatives spurred the growth of agricultural production worldwide, particularly in developing nations. Norman Borlaug is credited as the father of the Green Revolution, and some say he saved millions of people with these initiatives because it increased agricultural production and food consumption in these nations so much.
Some of the technologies included advanced irrigation systems, pesticides, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, and improved crop varieties that were modified to become hybrid species so farmers could produce higher yields.
These advances had a tremendous effect on global agriculture. One study showed that people in the developing world consumed 25% more calories after the Green Revolution.
Since then, the major advancements in crops have surrounded genetic modification of crops and plants to make them resistant to insects, especially the monocrop fields on large-scale farms, as well as stronger pesticides (think DDT) and fertilizers to protect the plants.
These pesticides and other innovations to make the farming process more convenient and efficient and paved the way for the world of agriculture we know today. And now, what often comes to mind when someone mentions farming?
The company has become demonized as a face of corporate greed and evil, but they also completely revolutionized the agriculture industry, and they weren't even in the field to begin with.
Monsanto was founded in 1901 as a a chemical company that sold DDT, cow hormones, PCB, and Aspartame. But in the 1980s, Monsanto started buying seed companies and investing in biotech research, strategically transitioning into an agriculture company. They created their first genetically modified product: the "Round-up Ready soybean," in 1996. Though it took off in the US, the product didn't go over well in Europe, who called the company out for its GMO use.
GMOs -- and the way Monsanto has marketed them -- have everything to do with big data and the next phase of agriculture, as we'll see.
Monsanto acquired Precision Planting, a maker of hardware and software that assists farmers with seed space, depth, and root systems in fields, in early 2012. In October 2013, the company bought Climate Corporation, a weather data analysis startup in San Francisco, for almost a billion dollars. Then, in February 2014, Climate Corporation bought Solum, a soil testing service based in San Francisco.
Monsanto's primary software product, FieldScripts, works with all of these systems to determine soil productivity and yield.
"As we've expanded the last five years and delved deeply into agriculture, it has helped farmers fundamentally protect their operations, and that may just sound like words, but they really need something very specific," said Greg Smirin, COO of Climate Corporation. The two main parts of Climate Corporation, he added, are to protect farmers' from drastic weather events with crop insurance and improve yield through data analytics.
Monsanto's toxic image has been formed by the company's lawsuits, alleged illegal lobbying, defense of GMOs, and the public's occasionally misconstrued perceptions about all of these things. This lack of trust for the biggest seed retailer in the world with the biggest monopoly over the ag industry is important.
"We expect the precision agriculture space to continue to grow quickly as data becomes cheaper to store and easier to move from platform to platform," said Brett Begemann, Monsanto's president and COO. "We are just beginning to explore all the value we can create for farmers with these tools."
The company saw the opportunity in this industry long before the public did, and they bet on it. Whether or not anyone trusts Monsanto, it's undeniable the company has a way of capitalizing on trends in agriculture, and data is their new target.
"From the brand management standpoint, the next big thing is data, so how to win in market? With a toxic brand, it makes a lot of sense to buy another brand and roll up everything in that." Hackney said.

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