Harvesting data to feed the world

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar


In the 1950s and ‘60s, the green revolution sharply increased crop yields, thanks to fertilizers, pesticides and new seed varieties. But with a billion more mouths to feed by 2025, how will we reap more food without harming the environment? Big data might help.

The global agriculture biotechnology market is forecast to grow to $46.8 billion by 2019, with the bulk focused on transgenic seeds and synthetic biology products such as DNA synthesis and biofuels.

“Technology could improve yields and reduce waste,” says David Lobell, associate professor of earth system science at Stanford University in California. “One of the biggest impacts will be to bring down input costs. That will help not so much in terms of yields but in the price of food and the environmental impact—bringing down water use and fertilizer use.”

As you have better knowledge of what you need, you can reduce the margin of error.”

Genetics: Just as big data has helped scientists tease apart genetic traits in humans, so it is doing for agriculture.

Researchers are mapping the genomes of fungi, parasites, pathogens and plants, which can speed up breeding for traits such as salt tolerance. (About three hectares per minute become too salty for conventional farming.)

“The main idea of genomic selection is that effects of abiotic stresses like heat are controlled by lots of different genes,” Dr. Lobell says. “Those types of things can be better identified by more and more data for lots of different varieties. You can start to statistically pull out smaller effects with larger data sets.”

iStock_000047221908_SmallBig data is analyzing plant populations to understand better why some plants thrive in certain environments and others don’t. The Compadre database is a collection of more than 1,000 plant population models across 600 species, while the similar Comadre database is for animals. The data are difficult to collect, with researchers visiting the sites several times, notes Yvonne Buckley, professor and head of zoology at the University of Dublin.

By looking, for example, at how big and efficient leaves are, scientists hope to be able to predict whether a species will become extinct. “It’s important for food security, which populations might be vulnerable to disappearing,” she says.

Precision agriculture: Big data can also help farmers decide which seeds to plant, whether to apply fertilizers or whether to irrigate. With sensors, they can measure conditions such as soil moisture, while drones can provide a close-up view of far-flung fields in real time. Moreover, technology required to collect this data keeps getting cheaper.

“By monitoring what’s really happening, you can give people information and boost their food security,” says John Corbett, founder and chief executive of aWhere Inc., a Broomfield, Colorado, agriculture intelligence company.

aWhere analyzes temperature, rainfall, humidity (which can affect fungus and mold), solar radiation, wind and agronomic modeling. Its high-tech methods aren’t restricted to developed countries.

Farmer or agronomist in soy bean field with tabletThe cell phone is by far the most influential technology for dispersing information,” Dr. Corbett says. “The penetration of cell phones in sub-Saharan Africa is phenomenal. Any farmer can be connected to the world’s data bank. Without changing anything like seed or fertilizer, they can improve yields 30% just by using better information.”

aWhere delivers information to farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya, for example, aWhere supplies weather data to iShamba, a for-profit agricultural advisory company that also produces a hit reality TV show, “Shamba Shape Up” (shamba is Swahili for “farm”) to answer subscribers’ questions and update commodity prices by SMS.

Cell phones can also collect data—aWhere surveys farmers by SMS. As the Internet of Things moves to the farm, tractors and other machinery will be able to transmit data from the field.

“If you can get on-the-ground information, and if you process it and push it back to the person, there’s an enormous amount of optimization and efficiency that will come to the agriculture value chain. Farmers can plan what will sell. They can form cooperatives, which make selling more efficient,” Dr. Corbett says. “If you do it across the value chain, the whole chain strengthens.”

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

Photos courtesy of iStock

Sewers paved with gold

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar

The future gold rush might be to a sewer near you. Municipal sewage contains many metals, including gold, silver and platinum. Concentrations vary by metal, but municipal sewage tends to contain about one part per million of gold. This “isn’t a lot, but for gold it’s significant,” says Kathleen Smith, research geologist at the U.S. Geological Survey, and an expert on metals in biosolids.

Biosolids (treated sewage sludge) are more commonly understood as fertilizer. “It’s high in phosphorus and slow-release nitrogen,” Dr. Smith says. Around half the roughly seven million dry tonnes of biosolids collected at U.S. wastewater treatment plants is recycled as fertilizer, including in public lands and forests.

But while copper and zinc, for example, are essential for plants and animals, these metals may become toxic in high concentrations, hence the need to monitor and regulate the chemical and metal content in waste.

It’s not just the regulated metals such as copper and zinc that now attract attention. “The presence of some valuable metals—such as gold, silver, platinum, and palladium—is [also] of interest, due to their concentration levels,” Dr. Smith says.

In the mining industry, sought-after metals are dispersed. “You have to spend a lot of money and move a lot of rock to get at the metals,” Dr. Smith explains. Recovering metals from sludge, however, is easier. It also complements traditional mining and can be undertaken in any market.

From a sustainability point of view, we’re…trying to find a way to extract metals from [waste streams] that contain large amounts of metals, versus just throwing them in a landfill and dealing with the effects of having the metals dispersed in the environment,” Dr. Smith says.

There’s also money to be made. Arizona State University researchers calculate that a million-strong community produces $13 million worth of metals in biosolids annually. The most lucrative elements—silver, copper, gold, phosphorus, iron, palladium, manganese, zinc, iridium, aluminum, cadmium, titanium, gallium and chromium—have an estimated combined value of $280 per ton ($308 per tonne) of sewage.

A 1978 analysis of incinerated sludge in Palo Alto, California found 30 parts per million of gold and 660 parts per million of silver in the city’s annual ash pile, worth some $2.5 million; since then the gold price alone has risen six-fold.

Knowing the total concentrations of metals in the biosolids is just the first step,” Dr. Smith notes.  The challenge is to release and recover the metals in the correct form to interest the market. “It’s not as easy as multiplying the concentration of the metals by their market value.”

Scientists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, for example, are working on a thermal-chemical process to decontaminate sludge, remove harmful heavy metals, and retain the phosphorus as fertilizer.

Meanwhile, JBR Recovery Ltd., in West Bromwich, U.K., has developed a commercially-viable method to recover silver and other precious metals from industrial sludge. Simon Meddings, JBR’s managing director, explains the process. First, a rotary kiln uses combustible silver-bearing waste to dry out most of the moisture. A high-carbon ash is produced—increasing the volume of metals to 10% to 15% from around 0.2%—and placed into a lead-based blast furnace. The lead collects the precious metals, and slag is dispersed through a tap hole at the front of the furnace. The alloy of lead and precious metals then goes into a cupellation furnace, which oxidizes the lead, allowing it to be poured off the top. The remaining bath of molten metal—around 98% pure silver with gold and other platinum group metals present—is cast into bars. These go into moebius cells where an electrical current refines the silver to 99.9%, and collects and refines the gold and platinum separately.

Sludge suppliers are paid according to how much precious metal is extracted and sold, less treatment and refining charges. The photographic industry and chemical production plants are major customers (photographs and x-rays in particular having high metals content).

Nonetheless, many large companies overlook their waste streams, and simply contract waste management companies to dispose of their sludge.

You’d be surprised how much ends up in landfill,” Mr. Meddings says. “People are not aware of the value in it.” They might take more interest “if they know they can get a financial rebate.”


Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.

Photos courtesy of iStock

Megacities minus mega-traffic

By Catherine

Written by Catherine Bolgar


Two-thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, according to the United Nations Population Fund. The number of megacities—i.e., those with more than 10 million inhabitants—is expected to rise to 41 by 2030, from 28 today, with most of the increase occurring in emerging economies.

Urbanization is particularly strong in China, where some 16 million rural Chinese migrate to cities every year. In addition, China also suffers from chronic air pollution, made worse by rising middle-class car ownership. With 154 million cars on the road in 2014, particulate-matter counts—a measure of air quality—regularly surpasses 500 micrograms per cubic meter, about 20 times the World Health Organization pollution guidelines.

China’s government is trying to improve the urban environment. Its six-year New Urbanization Plan includes plans for hundreds of new “eco-cities,” though existing eco-cities, such as Shenyang, Caofeidian, Nanning, Dongtan, Qingdao and Sino-Singapore Tianjin, have had mixed results.

“They’re making courageous attempts and are learning from success and failure,” says Victor Vergara, lead urban specialist at the World Bank. “If you have a situation where you have a greenfield and you have a lot of capital, you’re able to do things that otherwise couldn’t be done.”

But sometimes the cities don’t have the natural economic base to grow organically. You can’t invent a city. It has to emerge from a marketplace where people work and study and enjoy themselves.”

However, cities in emerging economies tend to grow haphazardly, with irregular settlements that don’t conform to (often unrealistic) zoning laws. Indeed, urban growth is so rapid that even cities with strong traditional institutions have a hard time keeping up, Mr. Vergara notes.

Despite these challenges, some cities are working to grow in ways that make them sustainable and pleasant places to live. That means rejecting the urban sprawl typical of U.S. and some Latin American cities, in favor of urban areas that are compact, walkable and well-served by public transport.

Such transit-oriented development prioritizes support for public transport over private cars. It aims to make the best use of land around transit nodes and stations, attracting more people and increasing land prices in the process. “It’s basically good urban planning, which puts long-term public interest before short-term private gain,” Mr. Vergara says.

One key to success is ensuring that schools, shops, health care, work, and other basic facilities are available locally. “The first thing is designing, or at least steering, their growth in ways that limit as much as possible the need for mobility,” Mr. Vergara says.

Cities have to be polycentric, with more than one area where services are available to citizens. They also have to have many neighborhood centers where people can walk to get their basic daily needs, like shopping.”

Walkable cities must also have good sidewalks and prioritize pedestrian safety, avoiding dangerous intersections and long waits when crossing broad avenues. And when longer journeys are necessary—for example, commuting across town for work—cities must ensure that good public transport is available, Mr. Vergara says.

In the past, you have had the whole thing upside down. You had roads that defined how cities grow, rather than cities that want to grow a certain way and have roads that enable that growth,” he adds.

As a result, some initiatives to limit car usage, such as car ownership quotas or odd- and even-license plates for driving on alternate days, have backfired. “In middle-income countries, people just buy a second car,” he says, and often one that’s older and pollutes more. A better way to discourage car use is by charging for driving on congested roads and through stricter parking policies.

Meanwhile, cities can make public transport more attractive: by subsidizing ticket prices; allowing single-ticket transfers between transport modes—such as from bus to metro—and reducing connection times; introducing more bus lanes to make bus journeys faster than by car; and by making buses and train cars more comfortable.


And many cities are doing just that. Curitibia, in southern Brazil, first focused on rapid-transit bus services four decades ago, later upgrading with dedicated bus lanes, level boarding, free transfers and futuristic tube-like bus stops. Despite its high level of car ownership, 70% of the city’s commuters use the bus system.

In East Africa, Addis Ababa, Nairobi and Dar es Salaam are adopting rapid-transit bus systems to improve service while shifting commuters away from unregulated, high-polluting minibuses.

“There are new ways of living that people have to understand to make large cities viable,” Mr. Vergara says. “Cities need to be both efficient and equitable in order to ensure shared prosperity and poverty reduction.”


Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.


Photos courtesy of iStock

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