The farmer usually knows best — for his or her land, crop, livestock, and profitability, among other things. As a girl on a Minnesota farm in the ’80s and ’90s, I was in awe of my grandfather’s ability to know just what his beef cattle needed — more water, richer pasture, better nutrients — and to have a crop rotation schedule seemingly in his head. It was as though my Granddad could feel his way through the unpredictability of weather, supply and demand, and price fluctuations to make the optimal decisions for his operation.
A couple of years ago I was with him on his farm when the cows were getting checked for pregnancy. He sat in the middle of the cattle yard while cow after cow ran through the chute. After each check, the cowboy gave a signal to indicate the cow’s status, and Granddad jotted down on a spreadsheet the results that would later that evening get saved to someone’s hard drive. What could I build, I thought to myself, that would make this process easier, and link the data that emerged from this days-long affair with other information from the farm itself, the region, and the markets to help my family make even smarter operating choices?
It’s a question that participants from across the food sector have pondered for years, and to which new information technology is beginning to provide answers. With capabilities like social media that offers instantaneous mini-reports, remote sensing that announces field-level conditions, and user-generated mapping that offers an on-the-ground view of production, merchandising, and consumption activity, we are beginning to get the tools at our fingertips to optimize decision-making with connected, real-time information, not just intuition. Farm management software, mobile applications, and web-based tools are increasingly available to farmers around the world and present an opportunity for us to understand and act on the global interconnections among food, agriculture, water, energy, soil, farm profitability, and human nutrition as never before.
I do not want farmers’ wisdom to evaporate in the face of technology. Quite the contrary, I want that specialized knowledge of acre, crop, and herd to be augmented and preserved. Agricultural and food system data is important because it lets us see what we couldn’t see before, and in a world in which the expertise to sustain our food supply lives in the minds and senses of aging farmers, I would like to see a 21st century agricultural revolution that builds on farmers’ talent and perception to capture and interpret newly available signals from the ecosystem.
Imagine, for example, that a farmer needs to decide how much to irrigate during a drought. It’s a decision that affects just his farm in the short run, but has systemic costs and benefits. If the farmer could connect historical commodity prices, weather charts, financial and environmental costs, and soil conditions to assess the trade-offs in the choice he makes, he could complement his highly refined intuition with the long-term effects that his decision has on his farm and beyond. The more widely information and tools like this are available, the more optimal decisions participants can make throughout the food system.
Opening up food and agricultural data requires an information architecture and infrastructure that does not currently exist. The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization is a leader in providing easily accessible, highly usable, and surprisingly current data, but right now it is far ahead of the pack in terms of transparency in reporting. The USDA released its Open Government Plan in April and the possibilities the agency’s data presents for developers and entrepreneurs are many. However, there exists no single platform for coordinating the numerous strands of measurements, probabilities, risks, and fluctuations in real-time. We need to build toward a high level of integration and openness in data in order to truly be stewards of the land and sustainable producers and consumers of agricultural products.
At a time when food is becoming a political issue instead of being discussed as the fundamental need that it is, we must access competing data and analysis to inform the investment, innovation, and policy behind food production and consumption. To transform data into metrics that empower decision-making across the food system, we need to get a broad spectrum of actors in the sector to communicate and collaborate. Let this essay serve as a call for a networked food system that harnesses and applies robust information through data generation, database architecture, open research and collaboration, and agile, relevant metrics, in pursuit of more efficient, more sustainable, more productive food and farming.