Big data’s vital role in solving urgent food safety problems

The analysis of large volumes of data collected from fields, warehouses, trucks – and even animals’ stomachs – may be key to preventing widespread hunger in the coming decades.

Agricultural Production Index
The world's population is projected to grow to 9 billion by 2050, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations believes that food production will have to increase by 70% in the next 35 years to prevent widespread hunger.

But the increasing use of farmland for biofuel production means that there is less land available for food, and about half - or two billion tonnes - of the food that is produced is wasted, according to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

Technology and data analysis could help improve the situation.

Cloud farming

Big data analysis can also increase crop yields by helping famers make better decisions about when to plant, manage and harvest their crops.
A US farmer checks the latest hyper-local weather forecast on his tablet computer
For example, the Climate Corporation, a company founded by two ex-Google employees and acquired by agriculture giant Monsanto in 2013, operates a cloud-based farming information system that takes account of weather measurements from 2.5 million locations every day.

It processes that data, along with 150 billion soil observations, to generate 10 trillion weather simulation data points. Using this information, the company claims it can provide US farmers with temperature, rain and wind forecasts for areas as small as one-third of a square mile (about 200 acres), for the forthcoming 24-hour and seven-day periods.

Accessed from a web browser, this information enables farmers to work out when best to spray large areas of farmland, because they can ascertain when the land is dry enough, when the wind speed is low enough to permit spraying, and when there is a long enough time window before the next rainfall to ensure that the spraying is effective.

The system also uses daily weather data from the past few months to provide farmers with yield estimates for their crops in individual fields, and it allows them to explore historical data from the last thirty growing seasons to provide an accurate estimate of the value of fields they may be considering buying.

War on waste

But even if crops, dairy products and meat can be produced more efficiently by making use of big data, it's a major undertaking to get it from the farm or abattoir to the dining room table. That's because most food has to be transported hundreds or even thousands of miles on pallets in containers loaded on to trucks, ships and even aeroplanes, stopping at warehouses and distribution points on the way.

Changes in temperature, humidity and even oxygen levels in the containers can all affect the condition of the food when it arrives at its market destination. About 10% to 15% of food that is transported chilled spoils during transport, according to some industry estimates, costing around $25bn. Food worth billions of dollars is spoiled in transit each year before it ever reaches our plates

Food worth billions of dollars is spoiled in transit each year before it ever reaches our plates

Tech Mahindra, an IT service company based in Bangalore, India, offers a system called Farm-to-Fork which aims to monitor containers centrally, sending alerts out whenever the conditions in a container deviate from their ideal ones.

Sensors in each container measure temperature, humidity and other parameters, communicating over mobile data networks while the containers are in transit, and via wi-fi when they arrive at distribution centres. Global positioning system (GPS) data also keeps a track of where the containers are.

In some circumstances problems can be rectified automatically, according to Mahesh Vasudevanallur, a practice head at the company. For example, if the sensors indicate that oxygen levels in the container have fallen too low, more of the gas can be released from an on-board tank.

If automatic adjustment isn't possible, humans can intervene. "For a ship on the high seas, an alert message goes to a technician to see what action can be taken," Mr Vasudevanallur says. "With a truck, a driver can go to the nearest depot to get things fixed rather than driving on to his final destination."

All this recorded data can be used to improve food transport conditions, he adds.

"Big data scientists can do freshness and nutrition analysis at each part of the value chain to improve food longevity. That will do wonders getting the products to stomachs instead of being wasted."

Bees are dying in droves. Why?

Leading apiarist Dennis vanEngelsdorp looks at the gentle, misunderstood creature’s important place in nature and the mystery behind its alarming disappearance

Dennis vanEngelsdorp is Acting State Apiarist for Pennsylvania's Department of Agriculture, studying colony collapse disorder — the alarming, worldwide disappearance of worker bees and Western honey bees.

Why you should listen

"Imagine if one of every three cows died. The National Guard would be out." It's a grim premise, but a favorite of Dennis vanEngelsdorp, who in 2008 watched the same percentage of bees vanish in North America. A leading apiarist, vanEngelsdorp knows the disturbing consequences of the bee die-off. Colony collapse disorder (its official name) is complex and mysterious, driven by pesticides, toxins and disease, and threatens not only the existence of the insect but also the food they pollinate -- a third of what we eat.

But vanEngelsdorp is not a pessimist, however worrisome the situation. Since finding his love for bees in an undergraduate beekeeping course, he's steadily chewed through new degree programs, becoming an outspoken bee crusader, generating global buzz -- sorry -- for the fascinating critters: their workers' dance, their convenient chronic case of static cling ...

To fight recent losses, he's now advocating urban beekeeping and honeymaking (sadly, illegal in some cities), drive-by-night repopulation programs, and emergency queen bee delivery by express mail (legal -- really).

Pesticide linked to three generations of genetic damage

Pesticide linked to three generations of genetic damage

The Verge
By Russell Brandom on July 24, 2014 02:00 pm

No one's used the pesticide Methoxychlor for more than a decade — but according to a new study, it may be harming people for generations to come. A group of researchers at Washington State University have discovered new effects from the pesticide that reach into a subject's epigenome, affecting children and even grandchildren of the initial subject. That ancestral exposure can contribute to adult onset kidney disease, ovarian disease, and obesity in later generations.

Published today in PLOS ONE, the study is part of the growing field of epigenetics, which studies how the body chooses which genetic code to read and which to ignore. Methoxychlor doesn't alter the genome itself, but after exposing rats to the toxin, researchers discovered the subjects' descendants were more likely to express the harmful genes. The effect was particularly pronounced in the female germ line, indicating Methoxychlor is particularly harmful for the descendants of female subjects.

But beyond a single pesticide, the results suggest that ancestral exposures may be a more powerful factor in a person's health than the medical community had previously realized. "The idea that your ancestors' exposures influence your disease has not been seriously considered in our ideas of how disease develops," says Michael Skinner, a WSU professor who led the research team. "Now we need to start considering that as a factor."

Plan Your Space

How to start

Urban gardens

City gardens have to tick lots of boxes, providing outdoor space for planting, relaxation, play and entertaining. Usually in a relatively small area, they need clever designs to make them work well. Most urban gardens become either functional spaces or plant-filled havens into which you can escape hectic city life. They often feature minimal design and repeated patterns for maximum effect.

Wildlife-friendly gardens

Wildlife-friendly gardens feature plants and structures that attract native wildlife, such as birds, beneficial insects and small mammals. Log piles, hedgehog boxes, bee hotels and more all help to bring wildlife that is interesting to watch, and which will help the gardener by keeping down pests such as slugs and aphids. Many plants are attractive to pollinating insects and you can have a wildlife-friendly garden however big or small your outside space is.

Cottage gardens

Abundant planting that spills over onto narrow pathways, masses of colour and scented flowers, this is a quintessentially English style. Originally, cottage gardens came about as a means for people to grow lots of fruit, veg and flowers in their countryside plots, but their romantic style captured the hearts of city dwellers, and this style can certainly be easily adapted for an urban garden.
The traditional simple, rectangular layouts are softened by the profusion of plants. However, cottage gardens still need the discipline of repeated colour and planting, with hedging to provide a framework.

Visit Royal Horticultural Society
Visit BBC Gardening Advices

Food Transportation Cost

Food study reveals hidden £9bn costs of transport

Felicity Lawrence, consumer affairs correspondent The Guardian, Friday 15 July 2005 02.40 BST

Food "miles" have risen dramatically over the past 10 years, are still rising, and have a significant impact on climate change, traffic congestion, accidents and pollution, according to a report published by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on Friday 14 July 2005.

Food miles increased by 15% in the 10 years to 2002. The average distance we now drive to shop for food each year is 898 miles, compared with 747 miles a decade ago. Food transport accounts for 25% of all the miles driven by heavy goods vehicles on our roads. The use of HGVs to transport food has doubled since 1974.

The dramatic increase has resulted in a rise in the amount of CO2 emitted by food transport: 19m tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted in 2002 in the course of getting our food to us, a 12% increase on 1992, the report says. Airfreight, the most polluting form of food transport, is growing fastest.

The report also attempts to put a cost on the social and environmental impacts of food miles. Taking into account the time lost to traffic congestion, wear on the roads, ill health caused by air and noise pollution and accidents caused by food transport, its authors suggest the cost of food miles is £9bn a year to the UK. This is greater than the total contribution of the agricultrual sector to GDP (£6.4bn) and half the total value of the food and drink manufacturing sector (£19.8bn).

Researchers identified the factors driving the rise in food miles as increased global trade, concentration of power in the hands of supermarkets with centralised systems of distribution, greater car use to shop (particularly in urban areas), and a rise in packaging and processing.

The study shows that the concept of food miles is more complicated than just the distance food travels. What sort of transport is used and how food is grown make a difference.

Local sourcing helps as long as transport for local food is efficient. Organic food reduces environmental damage, but does not deliver a "net environmental benefit" when flown in from abroad. In simple energy terms, out-of-season British tomatoes needing artificial light and heat produce more emissions than those trucked from Spain.

Launching the report in London, the food and farming minister, Lord Bach, said the government would work with the industry to achieve a 20% reduction in the environmental and social costs of food transport by 2012.

He added that the report offered clear pointers to consumers: "Internet buying and home delivery can reduce road congestion and vehicle kilometres. Organic and seasonally available food can reduce environmental impacts, but these can be offset by the way they are transported to the consumer's home."

Tim Lang, who coined the phrase food miles in 1992 as part of the Safe campaign for more sustainable food, and is now professor of food policy at London's City University, said: "This report confirms that our so-called efficient food supply system is grossly wasteful. If the government doesn't take action to tackle this, all its proposals on climate change will be so much nonsense."

The Food and Drink Federation, which represents manufacturers, said it was concerned about the focus on food miles in the government's strategy for sustainable food.

"As food miles eat into profit, companies have already created an extremely fuel-efficient supply chain, and will therefore find it difficult to make further reductions," it said. Andrew Opie, the policy director of the British Retail Consortium, which represents leading supermarkets, said: "A sustainable policy on this issue is one that balances the demands of consumers for a broad range of all-year-round, high quality, affordable foods with any impact this may have on the environment through transport."