Using a Data-Driven Approach to Address Global Hunger

In the struggle to feed an ever-growing population, American university scientists are working to use a data-driven approach to the global problem.

by / February 1, 2017

When it comes to addressing issues of global hunger, American institutions of higher learning already have a head start.

“A lot of the green revolution, the prevention of widespread starvation in places like South America and India, has come from American land grant schools and local universities,” said Paula Gray Hunker.

Hunker is looking to leverage that expertise, to turn data into global asset in the struggle to feed an ever-growing population. As operations director for Presidents United to Solve Hunger (PUSH), she urges university presidents to sign a pledge making hunger a priority for their schools. Since its launch in 2014, PUSH has brought almost 90 schools on board.

The organization seeks to build a hunger infrastructure: To coordinate research efforts and ensure scientists across different institutions know what their peers are working on. Such efforts could help bring a more data-driven approach to a global problem. Some 795 million people in the world, or one in nine, “do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life,” according to the World Food Program.

PUSH promotes a number of data-centric efforts to address the problem.

How data helps

The group is working with GODAN, an international collaborative advocating for open data in agriculture, in an effort to build a cohesive picture of food research across academia. “Right now there is no holistic view into all these research projects and what the different universities are doing,” Hunker said. Benchmarking could highlight areas of overlap, and also spur collaboration “to close some of the gaps in data.”

The partners envision that effort having international impact. “We want to help relevant stakeholders, including our organizations, in shaping a road map that they may adopt and implement within their data infrastructure projects,” said Odile Hologne, a lead scientist with the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, which is helping coordinate the effort.

PUSH also is working with the Agriculture Data Coalition to develop a shared storehouse for farmers’ technical information.

“There is a tremendous amount of data created by highly technical farm equipment, tractors and other machines that can constantly monitor fields to analyze moisture content, to analyze pests,” Hunker said. “This precision agriculture is very nuanced and can deliver very effective results. We want to aggregate this data, clean it and make it available as a global public good.”

Big data also may play a big part as researchers strive to ferret out meaning from the masses of food-related information presently available.

Scientists at the University of Illinois Champaign, for instance, are using supercomputers to pilot an effort that would collate satellite pictures, crop-yield data, market information, pest infestation data and precision agriculture, in a search for patterns and common threads. 

“There are huge amounts of data that nobody but nerds can make heads or tails of,” Hunker said, adding that big data analytics could help bring order to the chaos, which in turn could have a direct impact on food production.

“Just like you and I can hit a button on our phones and see what the weather will be in any city in the world 10 days from now, farmers should be able to see their relevant information in that same way," she said. "If something like that could be realized, the implications are huge."

The same techniques might be employed to make nutrition information readily accessible. The International Life Sciences Institute and others have been working on this, trying to gather and disseminate information that might help farmers and even consumers leverage their resources to maximize nutrition.

“The private sector collects a huge amount of information on nutritional content, but it is very focused just on the types of crops grown by U.S. commodities growers,” Hunker said. “If you have this depth of information on soybeans but you don’t know a lot about beets, for example, you get a very skewed picture.”

If more data were readily accessible, growers might find systemic fixes to local hunger issues. “Maybe sweet potatoes have more nutritional value than cassava but right now that data is invisible to the people making decisions about what to grow,” she said. “That’s a problem we can do something about.”

Other organizations meanwhile are working along similar lines. Label Insight, for example, tracks product data on some 350,000 products. The company announced recently that it would be making food data available to a range of partners, including Healthy Food America, the George Institute for Global Health, the University of Virginia, Ohio State University, Duke University, Sustain Hawaii and others.

“The ability to access accurate, timely and representative label information for foods on sale in the USA is critical for our research,” Neal Hooker, professor of Food Policy for the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University, said in a press release. “We are better able to determine the impact of food policy and to monitor the voluntary actions of firms whether targeting food safety, nutrition or sustainability.”

Adam Stone Contributing Writer

A seasoned journalist with 20+ years' experience, Adam Stone covers education, technology, government and the military, along with diverse other topics. His work has appeared in dozens of general and niche publications nationwide.