October 29, 2018

Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture Incorporates Interdisciplinary Expertise to Address Food Insecurity

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Ten billion by 2050. This is the figure that is repeated time and time again as researchers discuss the current food insecurity and how the agricultural community must be able to sustain a growing global population.

Cornell University has launched an initiative called Cornell Initiative for Digital Agriculture to address the food production concerns from several different standpoints. In the inaugural Digital Ag Workshop held earlier this month, project leaders presented their work and held sessions about how CIDA plans to help achieve food security.

Cornell’s approach stems from its background as a land-grant university and a global research powerhouse.

“A university is supposed to add to the body of knowledge … to help people and communities,” said Prof. Hakim Weatherspoon, computer science.

CIDA is made up of working groups of professors and graduate students across four colleges: the agriculture college, the engineering college, the business school, the College of Veterinary Medicine and additionally Cornell Computing and Information Science, a multi-disciplinary college-level unit.

Prof. Michael Gore, plant breeding and genetics called CIDA a “cross-fertilization between disciplines.” Gore heads the working group for Rapid Phenotyping, which involves developing technology to reliably correlate plant genotypes and phenotypes.

“It’s like Facebook for diseased plants,” Gore explained. The hope is that farmers can reliably identify infected plants using no more than an app on their phones.

CIDA came into being following several conversations between faculty members about a year and a half ago and officially launched this month, with five working projects besides the one headed by Gore.

Although the initiative began with faculty collaboration, professors hope to inspire their students with a similar drive to solve one of the most pressing global problems of the next century.

Among CIDA’s plans are a gradually redesigned curriculum that bridges the gap between the agricultural sciences and computer science by presenting agricultural problems that can be solved from a computing perspective. According to CIDA’s website, a digital agriculture hackathon is planned for March 1-3, 2019.

Agri-food systems, according to Prof. Susan McCouch, plant breeding and genetics, encompasses the production, distribution, and consumption of food and relationships between actors in all three components. She said that this is a better descriptor for the area that CIDA addresses.

Food security is not a problem for agricultural producers alone. As industries progressively become more digitized, communities of scientists, agriculturists, industry workers, and policymakers need to adapt to the changing conditions of the planet and the economy.

McCouch discussed her own questions regarding the “anthropology side” of the food security question. Rather than expecting a smooth transition, she expects that the moving toward digital agriculture will be “disruptive” and even “brutal” for many established food systems. For example, as farming becomes more technology-centered, there could be less demand for farmers, potentially displacing an entire sector of work.

There are several other questions as well regarding digital agriculture, such as how to make it accessible and how to address future concerns over land and water usage.

“I hope for a future where we aren’t just trying to grab nutrients or land, but using data-driven models for how to cohabit and live and meet requirements for food security and livelihood requirements that are so challenging,” McCouch said.