Big data: big hope or big risk?

ID-100236071Hailed as the latest technological advance that could revolutionise development and agriculture (along with other sectors), “big data” has been the focus of several recent articles, most notably a series of articles published by SciDev.Net. In June 2013 a UN High level panel called for a “data revolution” emphasising the need for better data to track progress towards development goals. But what is big data and how can it aid poverty and hunger eradication?

Big data is not just large amounts of information but rather it’s about integrating infrastructure to collect data at every step of the development process and designing new data collection methods that can track development goals effectively. In particular, big data is being hailed as the big fix for the lack of reliable official statistics in developing countries. But there is no clear (agreed upon) definition of big data, one article stating “it is data generated through our increasing use of digital devices and web-supported tools and platforms in our daily lives”. Due to our increasingly digital society, the amount of data (from social media platforms, mobile phones, online financial services etc.) has grown enormously. A much quoted statistic states that up to 90% of the world’s data was created over just two years (2010–2012). The aim for big data is to use this sizeable knowledge source to add value to society. Driving interest in evidence-based policy making, big data is also being termed a movement, one that aims to turn data into decision making.

In May 2012 Global Pulse published a White Paper entitled Big Data for Development: Opportunities & Challenges, which highlighted the opportunities big data provides. In particular they explore the role of big data in describing what is happening, predicting what may happen and explore the reasons behind why things happen.

For agriculture, big data means information can be collected along the whole supply chain including from supermarkets, weather sensing equipment, digital images, and research papers. These data sets can then be transformed through analytics into actionable information. But this conversion is rife with complexities in terms of managing, processing, sharing and using huge amounts of data. [Read more…]

ODI research: Climate change mitigation is development

cover-zero-poverty-stripes-blueIn 2015 the international community will come together to discuss action that needs to be taken to address climate change and global development. The Overseas Development Institute has undertaken research on the impacts climate change will likely have on development efforts and the news is not good.

 
The progress the world has made in reducing poverty and hunger, improving access to water and health is at risk of being reversed. Between 1990 and 2010 the number of people in poverty declined by 700 million but many face the risk of falling back into poverty under conditions of climate change. As sea levels rise, temperatures increase and more frequent extreme events occur crops yields will decline and whole areas important for agriculture, many heavily populated, such as deltas in Bangladesh, will be lost. In Africa, crop yields are projected to be reduced by some 90% by 2080 and wheat production will disappear altogether. These changes to agricultural productivity are estimated to increase food prices, increase hunger (by an estimated 250 million people) and exacerbate poverty. Meeting the needs of a growing global population is an urgent challenge made significantly harder by these projected productivity declines. A 55% increase in global crop production would be required to meet increasing global population demand by 2030. By 2050 to 2100, an additional 165,000 to 250,000 children could die each year compared to a world without climate change.

 
Access to drinking water, which has been improved for some 2.1 billion people in the world in the last 20 years, will become more of a challenge. In Africa 350 million to 600 million people will be exposed to water stress by 2050. An extra 2.5 billion people will be at risk of dengue fever and an extra 40 to 60 million people in Africa alone will be at risk of malaria under climate change. Migration will also increase and by 2100, it’s estimated that climate change will cause annual economic of losses of between 5 and 20% of global GDP.

 

Much hope for the future rests on agreements met by the international community at the next Conference of the Parties in Peru of the United Nations Framework Convention of Climate Change, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last Friday, and in the Post-2015 development agenda. Mitigation is urgently needed if temperatures are kept below a 2C threshold, we are currently on a trajectory that will see far higher temperature increases, as too is adaptation, since we are committed to some degree of impacts of climate change.

 

A recent report explored options for how climate change could be included in the post-2015 agenda, in particular through mainstreaming climate change amongst all development goals or having a standalone climate change goal. How climate change will be addressed is important. That it will be addressed is vital, to the health, wealth, welfare and survival of people around the world.

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

 
Food Security and Nutrition and the Post-2015 Development Goals, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation

 
Food Giants Want ‘Sustainable’ Beef. But What Does That Mean?, The Salt

 
FAO: ‘Revolution’ in Agriculture Vital to Meet Food Targets, Voice of America

 
Meeting the Food Challenges of Tomorrow Through the Legacy of Borlaug, Roll Call

 
Climate Change Could Delay The Fight Against World Hunger For Decades: Report, Huffington Post

 
Ending hunger – the rich world holds the keys, The Ecologist [Read more…]

Rethinking Global Food Security

weforum-logo.db90160d8175c5a08cdf6c621e387d18At the World Economic Forum, held in Davos in January 2014, experts on food security, Ellen Kullman, Chair of the Board and Chief Executive Officer of DuPont; Michel M. Liès, Group Chief Executive Officer, Swiss Re; Shenggen Fan, Director-General, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI); Ajay Vir Jakhar, Chairman, Bharat Krishak Samaj (Farmers’ Forum India) and Akinwumi Ayodeji Adesina, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development of Nigeria came together to discuss how we can produce enough healthy food for everyone.

Moderator, Rajiv J. Shah, Administrator, US Agency for International Development (USAID), began the discussion by stating that the global population is at 7 billion, 850 million of which don’t get enough to eat. By 2050 the population will rise to over 9 billion and we need to find ways of producing sufficient food for this enlarged population whilst also coping with environmental changes. Every economy that has developed and reduced poverty significantly has transformed their agricultural sectors. Each speaker began by introducing actions we needs to take to ensure agricultural transformation addresses global food insecurity.

Akinwumi Adesina began by reflecting on the fear of the 1960s, that population growth would outstrip our ability to feed to the world. What we failed to understand then was the power of science and technology in meeting global challenges. So we need to invest in research and development as a matter of priority.

65% of the world’s arable land is in Africa. A major hurdle for Africa in reaching its potential to become the breadbasket of the world is the way agriculture is viewed in the continent. We need to view agriculture not as a development activity but as a business. We need to improve the marketing systems so that they provide safe, healthy and affordable food. We also need to build more resilient agricultural systems that can cope with shocks such as floods and droughts. Finally we need to address malnutrition, which is a huge problem and one that prevents children from reaching their full potential.

Ellen Kullman discussed the importance of a common understanding of food security. Agriculture differs between regions and countries so to create a shared framework of language around food security, DuPont worked with The Economist’s Intelligence Unit to create the Food Security Index. The hope is that by revealing differences between areas industry will be better able to target their work and make programmes more location appropriate, leading to more meaningful outcomes. Programmes such as the USAID’s Advanced Maize Seed Adoption Programme, with which DuPont work, which aims to facilitate hybrid seed distribution to smallholder farmers (over 35,000 to date). DuPont have also signed an MOU with USAID to extend this programmes beyond Ghana and Ethiopia, where it is currently in operation. We need an understanding of what’s happening on the ground to have positive impacts. This starts with understanding the different dimensions of food security and then designing projects for specific locations.

Ajay Vir Jakhar began by discussing some of the problems we face. Food security is like a jigsaw puzzle, he said, but most of the pieces don’t reside on the farm, they reside elsewhere. A lot of people (over 5 to 6 billion) by 2050 will live in cities and it is these people, rather than farmers, that influence food and agricultural policy. Urban populations want lower food prices and governments want to keep urban dwellers happy to be assured of their vote. Ajay gave this as one reason why governments in developed countries don’t even discuss the removal of subsidies, which would increase food prices, civil unrest and perhaps lower their numbers of supporters. But farmers want to (and should) influence policy, so how can this be facilitated?

Farmers also don’t think in terms of global food security but rather in terms of the food security of their household (localised thinking common to us all). If we help small-scale farmers become self-sufficient, we solve 60% of the food insecurity problem (because around 60% of the hungry are small-scale farmers). However, policy makers and others tend to think in terms of global issues despite farming being local. Localised solutions and help from the public and private sectors are needed. As Rajiv Shah agreed, the bulk of farmers may farm small plots of land but they have a critical role as engines of food productivity growth and social development. [Read more…]

The rise and rise of the infographic

HungerIn the policy and advocacy sphere finding the best way to communicate to a broad audience is a constant challenge. As we have seen while following the COP19 in Warsaw, urgent messages, such as the importance of including agriculture in climate negotiations, do not always get through to those making decisions.

The challenge is to unravel complex data and present it in an accessible and powerful way. Enter the infographic, which lays out hard hitting facts and figures in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Just this week, we’ve stumbled upon several new infographics, which help to explain how the world works and where we’re heading in the future.

Despite (or perhaps because of) agriculture remaining side-lined at the COP, it may be that agriculture groups will need to refocus their efforts on other UN processes instead.  The post-2015 agenda, for instance, offers such an opportunity, as a new infographic by Farming First illustrates.

The infographic, entitled Food and Farming in 2030, presents a range of trends and data for the year 2030 (when the Sustainable Development Goals or post-2015 agenda is set to expire).  In essence, it lays out where we need to be by 2030 and how can agriculture help us get there. For example by 2030, agriculture will have the potential to mitigate around 7.5% of the world’s carbon emissions (3% currently) and so excluding agriculture from climate change talks is a major missed opportunity to tackle climate change.

Farming First, a coalition of multi-stakeholder organisations that come together to “articulate, endorse and promote practical, actionable programmes and activities to further sustainable agricultural development worldwide” have produced a whole range of infographics on: Agriculture and the Green Economy; the Female Face of Farming; and the Story of Agriculture and Climate Change. Aside from their awareness raising and policy influencing work, Farming First have amassed over 100 case studies from around the world, which demonstrate best practices in sustainable agricultural development. They also list the food and nutrition security initiatives occurring across the globe and in one of their recent blogs discuss whether social media can change the world.

For policy advocates they have also produced a Guide to the UNFCCC negotiations on agriculture, to help communicate and campaign on the importance of agriculture.

Given the outcomes of COP19, we have much work left to do if agricultural greenhouse gas emissions are to be curbed and smallholder farmers supported in adapting to climate change. Although infographics alone are unlikely to be a driver of change, their images can be powerful and they can raise awareness, communicating important information quickly and ultimately driving societal pressure for decision makers to take notice.

Here are some other infographics that caught our eye:

Hungry Planet: Consumption around the globe, International Business Guide

Business is Booming – in Africa, International Business Guide

You Are What You Eat, and You Eat What You Earn, Businessweek

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

The global food fight: can agribusiness avert a crisis?, fDi Intelligence

While Global Bee Colonies Struggle, European Politicians Seem Determined To Kill Them Off, Forbes

Chief EU scientist backs damning report urging GMO ‘rethink’, EurActive

Is getting out of farming the best bet for smallholder farmers?, IRRI

Economic rewards of better land management: Estimated 2.3 billion tons of crops worth $1.4 trillion, EurekAlert

The Urgent Need for African Leadership in Science, Engineering and Technology to Transform African Agriculture into Agri-Food Value Chains, African Journal of food, agriculture, nutrition and development

Satisfy Your Curiosity with Our New E-Book, Can We Feed the World? The Future of Food, Scientific American

New technology and agriculture: A sluggish uptake, The Africa Report [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Smarter Food: Does big farming mean bad farming?, The Washington Post

Are Engineered Foods Evil?, Scientific American

FAO study profiles benefits of school feeding programmes linked to family farms, FAO

Golden Rice: Lifesaver?, The New York Times

Solutions for Micronutrient Deficiency, Scientific American

Spread of crop pests threatens global food security as Earth warms, University of Exeter

Global food prices continue to drop, FAO

Study estimates cost for new conservation practice, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Farming and knowledge monocultures are misconceived, SciDev.Net [Read more…]