The 2014 Water for Food Global Conference, hosted by the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute
at the University of Nebraska in association with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, brought together experts from around the world to explore how the data revolution can help address the pressing need for global water and food security. The conference focused on how data can improve the productivity and sustainability of small and large farmers.
Dr. James Linder, Interim President of the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, opened the conference by emphasizing the importance of collaborative approaches to using big data “to help us understand the magnitude of the problem and applying technology to solve the problem.”
Mr. Jeff Raikes, former CEO of the Gates Foundation and co-founder of the Raikes Foundation, outlined several ways that “big data” can help create a more water and food secure world, including: precision agriculture which helps farmers increase their output with the same or fewer inputs; mobile technologies, such as cell phones, that give farmers in low-income countries access to information on weather forecasts and market conditions; and digital soil mapping, which allows farmers and policymakers make better decisions both now and in the future.
The conference featured the launch of the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas. Using the best available science and data, the Atlas measures the difference in what existing farmlands are producing, and what these lands could be producing—a difference known as the yield gap. The Atlas also measures the efficiency with which water is converted to food, or water productivity.
The Atlas uses a “bottom-up” approach. For four years, Faculty Fellows of the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska and their colleagues at Wageningen University in the Netherlands have partnered with agronomists worldwide to collect data about local conditions and farming methods that provide realistic estimates of potential yields and yield gaps.
The Atlas enables farmers and other stakeholders to identify regions with the greatest potential to produce more food in a sustainable manner by getting the most bang for the buck from prudent use of inputs such
as better seed, fertilizer—and water.
The conference touched on the challenges of turning “big data” into a useful tool for farmers, particularly small producers in low-income countries. During a panel on the “View from the Field,” several speakers pointed out that “data” without “knowledge” is just “information.”
Panelists highlighted the power of local knowledge should not be overlooked and suggested that communities be provided with data in a format that they can analyze themselves.
While a remarkable amount and variety of data is available, it must be useful for farmers. “We are just in the beginning stages of transforming that data into something farmers can use to improve yields,” said Mr. Martin Pasman, Farmer and President of Valmont Industries in Argentina.
Conference speakers shared several examples of the participatory process in action. Mr. Paul Hicks, of Catholic Relief Services described Mapeo-Amano, a project in El Salvador that takes satellite or aerial images to farming communities so they can identify water resources and other important landscape markers. The communities and others use the maps to generate ideas and better plan for extreme events.