Over the last few years, there has been much fretting about the ability of farmers to feed and clothe a booming world population, expected to hit 9 billion by 2050. One solution to keep bellies full: share knowledge now that will, hopefully, drive new agronomic methods and technological breakthroughs in coming years.

Towards that end, following up on earlier commitments, the G8 countries (France, United States, United Kingdom, Russia, Germany, Japan, Italy, and Canada) are now providing open access to government-funded research that impacts agriculture. This week, the countries – along with representatives from Africa – met to kick-start the process.

The countries involved “are interested in making (agriculture research data) available so useful applications can be developed,” said USDA Chief Scientist Catherine Woteki on Tuesday (April 30). “We’ve been meeting for the last two days at the World Bank. We’ve heard a series of presentations on all the different kinds of data that are being made available through the use of the Internet.

“The United States made a big announcement: we’ve created a new community for data that relates to food, agriculture, natural resources and rural communities. There are now 350 data sets available.”

The site and data can be accessed at www.data.gov.

Woteki said already there’s been an “enormous amount of interest” in the project and “a lot of excitement about applications already being made with these data – helpful to farmers, helpful to decision makers, helpful to policy makers.”

One example of how technology is aiding developing countries is increasing cell phone use by African farmers. The information the farmers are able to access – such as weather reports and market prices – provide a much better chance for a successful cropping season and healthy bottom line.

More on cell phone use by farmers in developing nations here.

Data spectrum

“We expect that by sharing this information – and because we have access now to climate models and satellite that help in developing predictive models – that we’ll be able to do a much better job of anticipating climate change and its effects on agriculture,” said Woteki . That will lead, “to building climate-resistant agricultural systems around the world.

“The expectation that (Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack) has … is that making agriculture data open and accessible is going to really be revolutionary.”

The “wide array” of data includes that “from our plant and animal research programs where we’re mapping the genomes of important crops and animal species for agriculture. That genetic sequencing information (includes) the identification of the genes that have important quality traits or convey drought- or pest-resistance.

“We’re also including all of our agricultural statistics data. Traditionally, that has been available but now it will be easier” to access.

Also available are datasets from the U.S. Geological Survey and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that take advantage of Earth-observing satellites. “Those provide information about vegetative cover, water and topographical characteristics. All of that is important for agriculture.”

Woteki continued: “The big deal here is that by making these data available, a lot of applications will be developed that the farmer will be able to use…

“When you buy a John Deere today it has 10 million lines of computer code in it. The GPS system that is the basis of precision agriculture is a good example of an application many farmers are taking advantage of…

“Already we’re seeing applications that are helping farmers to identify specific pests or diseases earlier.”

A “myriad” of other applications will be developed “that farmers will appreciate. Those will come from entrepreneurs, from Extension agents, from larger companies or government scientists. The beauty of open data is that by getting it out there, people with an idea, people who have talent, will develop those applications.”

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