Hungry Planet: Can Big Data Help Feed 9 Billion Humans?

at NBC News: “With a population set to hit 9 billion human beings by 2050, the world needs to grow more food —without cutting down forests and jungles, which are the climate’s huge lungs.

The solution, according to one soil management scientist, is Big Data.

Kenneth Cassman, an agronomist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, recently unveiled a new interactive mapping tool that shows in fine-grain detail where higher crop yields are possible on current arable land.

“By some estimates, 20 to 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions are associated with agriculture and of that a large portion is due to conversion of natural systems like rainforests or grassland savannahs to crop production, agriculture,” Cassman told NBC News at a conference in suburban Seattle.

The only practical way to stop the conversion of wild lands to farmland is grow more food on land already dedicated to agriculture, he said. Currently, the amount of farmland used to produce rice, wheat, maize and soybean, he noted, is expanding at a rate of about 20 million acres a year.

Cassman and colleagues unveiled the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas in October at the Water for Food conference. The atlas was six years and $6 million in the making and contains site-specific data on soil, climate and cropping systems to determine potential yield versus actual yield farm by farm in nearly 20 countries around the world. Projects are ongoing to secure data for 30 more countries….

A key initiative going forward is to teach smallholder farmers how to use the atlas, Cassman said. Until now, the tool has largely rested with agricultural researchers who have validated its promise of delivering information that can help grow more food on existing farmland….

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