UNITED NATIONS — A two-day global summit held this week aims to encourage governments, the private sector and universities to share and analyze troves of agricultural and nutritional data to better feed the world’s hungriest people.
“It’s an incredibly important initiative ... because the future of our capacity to meet the challenges ... of feeding an ever-increasing world population in a nutritious way is only going to get more difficult with the changing climate,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who spoke to a gathering of more than 400 people Friday at the Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition initiative in Manhattan.
“It’s necessary and important for us to have access to information, access to data so that we can determine the best course of conduct to try to meet these challenges,” he added. “The concept behind GODAN is simple: More openness and more transparency, more sharing of information will lead us to identify best ways and best practices for increasing the food supply and making sure that it’s nutritious.”
The summit comprises dozens of panels and plenaries, drew scientists and policy makers, corporate officials and farmers, all in search of the best way to share knowledge through databases to at once reduce hunger in developing countries and eliminate the waste of food in rich nations. The drive dovetails with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, the 17-point agenda launched last year that aims to curb poverty while preserving the planet by 2030.
GODAN, which launched in 2013, comprises 363 organizations worldwide. The United States is a co-founder of the drive to make data widely accessible to help nations implement sound and secure food management methods.
Vilsack used the platform to announce two new data sharing devices of the USDA: the agency’s Branded Food Products Database contains nutrition details on more than 80,000 name brand prepared and packaged foods and the Global Agricultural Concept Scheme (GACS), which he called a thesaurus of over 350,000 terms across the agriculture and nutrition fields worldwide. The thesaurus is available in 28 languages.
Ignacio Pena, an entrepreneur who advises governments on food security, told the gathering that food — or the way it is cultivated, prepared and consumed — poses its own problems.
“Food is actually not serving humanity well and it is actually destroying the planet,” he said. “Over half of our population is either hungry, obese or suffering nutritional deficiency. Food is causing massive deforestation, ocean depletion, water waste and also pollution. We need a new food paradigm.”
Pena has created a contest, the X Prize Abundance Games, to collect the best ideas to tackle the paradoxes of food surplus in some countries and shortages in other nations and the environmental damage caused by the ways people consume food that also keeps them alive.
Pena said the games, to be launched in two weeks, are “a global competition that seeks to make nutritious food affordable everywhere,” calling it the opposite of “The Hunger Games,” a movie and book series in which children fight to the death in entertainment arenas for food.
A.J. Christensen and Amy Marshall-Colon, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, shared simulation models of natural and man-made phenomena, including a Hurricane Katrina, traffic on a Chicago street, a tornado and the ocean floor — data that researchers of all kinds may use to prepare for natural disasters or city planning.
“Modern science must share knowledge across fields and across geographical boundaries to improve their own models and to enable them to better advise decision makers,” Christensen said. “Through visualization we can begin to educate the public about what hides in all of the world’s data and how it is going to help us to solve many of the grand challenges facing humanity.”