Harvesting data to feed the world

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar


iStock_000018520587_Small
 

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

Turning Icebergs into Drinking Water?

By Cedric
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This post was published in honor of Blog Action Day 2010 and its theme: water.

It’s a common mistake to confuse ice fields, which are composed of frozen seawater and populated with polar bears, with icebergs, our floating mountains composed of frozen drinking water.

And did you know that, each year, the equivalent of the world’s supply in drinking water melts away into the ocean?

Why should just sit by and let this happen?  Why not use icebergs as an alternative source for drinking water?

This is French Arts & Métiers Engineer Georges Mougin’s dream since 40 years!

At first this idea may seem too outlandish, but perhaps Mougin is a visionary?  Today while the most pessimist prospectors predict a worldwide conflict based on ‘blue gold’ in 2050, Dassault Systèmes has decided to help Mougin reexamine his project with the help of 21st Century technology.

And what if 3D scientific simulation and virtual worlds can give life to an idea that died down last century? Perhaps this was due to technology-linked obstacles and limited knowledge of our oceans and weather.  Perhaps Mougin was ahead of his times . . .

A documentary under the direction of Jean-Michel Corillion is being made to tell this story.  It’s called Ice Dream and in a few months will be broadcast in various countries.  We’ll keep you posted as the details unfold.  But for now, enjoy the sneak preview below!

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Best,

Cédric

Cédric Simard is Dassault Systèmes Project Director for Ice Dream

P.S. For more information about our water challenges, watch this video made especially for Blog Action Day 2010.

Green Oil? A View from Offshore Europe 2009

By Tom
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BP Stand at OE2009

BP Stand at OE2009

We all consume energy every day with almost everything we do. And like energy companies, we need to ask ourselves – can we be more efficient?

This week, our SIMUILA UK team has been exhibiting at Offshore Europe in Aberdeen, the second biggest oil and gas trade show in the world.  There are several hundred exhibitors and over 30,000 visitors at the week-long conference.

SIMULIA at OE2009

While protecting the environment is on everyone’s mind, the slump in oil prices means it’s more critical than ever for energy companies to tap into energy resources more cost effectively.

BP and BG announced massive new oil field projects prior to the conference. But while they must contain exploration and production costs, they can’t cut corners on safety, especially when extracting oil from greater ocean depths.

How do these companies and others know their equipment will work reliably in harsh offshore conditions without overspending and causing delays by relying solely on physical tests?

By innovating with Realisitc Simulation.

SIMULIA is helping Oil and Gas companies like Weatherford improve the design their Expandable Sand Screens and Prospect to virtually test their latest products before making a prototype. Abaqus FEA is used to analyze realistic performance of many critical parts and systems for energy exploration including filters, pipelines, foundations, pressure seals, and more. By trying out their designs virtually, they are able to evaluate structural integrity without wasting time, cost, and energy on multiple physical prototypes.

These savings can have a big influence in the price you pay at the pump when filling up your vehicle.

Iceberg gouging analysis. Courtesy J P Kenny

Iceberg gouging analysis. Courtesy J P Kenny

A topic crucial for our environment is moving oil through pipelines while preventing leaks or spills.

JP Kenny has used Abaqus on many projects including evaluating the best way to lay underwater pipelines in the Arctic while preventing them from being damaged by iceberg gouging. You can check out their case study at Offshore Magazine’s website.

It’s also worth remembering that Offshore Energy is not all about oil – with E.On launching Scotland’s first offshore wind farm this week – it seems all energy, even oil, can be green as well as black.

What do you think?

Cheers,

Tom



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