Does big data mean big progress? by
Climate Edge

Does big data mean big progress? / Published November 30, 2016 by James Alden

James Alden

Does big data mean big progress?

Developing an agricultural system that is both productive and sustainable is one of the most pressing tasks that we collectively face. Unfortunately, breakthroughs seem to be few and far between; demand is growing and the pressures faced by farmers are continuing to worsen. As a result there is a risk that any sign of progress may be heralded as the answer to all our problems. Big Data is a key example. In this blog post we discuss the merits and disadvantages of Big Data and try and pick a path that benefits farmers rather than analysts.

During a press release at Expo Milano 2015, Rabobank presented a fascinating and insightful report that examined the role of data in our farming system.

Rabobank argues that business as usual is simply not a viable option and that innovative solutions must be at the heart of development. Fred van Heyningen (Global Head Food and Agri Banking at Rabobank) explains the need for a ‘smarter food system’ supported by data and technology to be able to begin to tackle these drastic issues:

“A smarter food system is more productive, less wasteful, and more profitable… It combines technology and data to change the way, as well as the speed, at which decisions are made and to optimise the use of resources to produce and deliver the food consumers need and where they need it.”

I believe that the most important message of this report is that Data is used to support farming. Regrettably, in so many cases Big Data becomes the centre of attention, obscuring farmer needs. An example of selling the tool rather than the solution. It is easier to jump on the back of the tremendous progress in the tech industry and directly apply it to farms rather than building integrated solutions from the field up. This is particularly acute for farmers with fewer resources, such as smallholders, who end up being provided with shiny new technology when the biggest gains may be made if they had access to a cheap strimmer rather than a machete.

A major issue that can be perpetuated through a focus on Big Data is the concentration of funds at a high level. Money ends up being poured into teams working to develop new communication systems, new sensors and new analytical methods. Unfortunately, unless they make tangible progress at this high level the support never makes it to a field. Ultimately this increases the cost of farming rather than decreasing it.

Big Data is also not without inherent dangers. An important concern is who owns the data and what is it used for. In the wrong hands data can be used to cut farmers out of a supply chain based on flawed assumptions of future change (similar to the issues observed with flood risk mapping). There is no right answer as to how to manage these privacy concerns and we welcome your opinions in the comments below.

So given these potential pitfalls why do we still believe that Big Data is a necessary component of a farming system that works for farmers, corporations and consumers.The final section of this post highlights just some of the benefits of creating a large database of high resolution data.

First and foremost we believe that Big Data has the potential to work at a small scale. Collecting data enables best practice farming techniques to be tailored to individual farmers. This helps prevent a single adaptation technique, such as shade trees, being touted as the answer for all farmers.

Secondly, the analysis of Big Data can help close the knowledge gaps that currently limit progress. As long as the data is taken in a standardised rigorous manner we can begin to address some of the limitations that currently fill the literature.

A third key benefit is that Big Data can be used to measure success. Without long term, high resolution data on individual farms there is no way of assessing the efficacy of adaptation techniques. This means that currently some adaptation techniques are being promoted in the absence of any evidence that they improve farmer welfare.

The final benefit we wish to highlight is the way Big Data can be used to open the doors to other services to farmers. Currently the use of micro-insurance and micro-lending is limited in the realm of smallholder farmers due to the uncertainty of return. Big Data can be used to help understand this uncertainty and thereby facilitate the use of these vital services.
So does Climate Edge think that Big Data mean Big Progress? We believe that it will, as long as it remains a tool to facilitate progress rather than the destination itself.