By Bradford Warner
VP of Business Development, Sustainability, Farmobile
“The health of our planet” has understandably become a loaded phrase with the recent onset of the most deadly global pandemic to take place in more than a century. This extraordinary situation has generated a significant amount of interest, conjecture, political intrigue and news media coverage on matters previously only followed by professionals in infectious diseases.
While there will, no doubt, be much to gain from this new public interest in virology, epidemiology and disease control, one does not have to look far to find citizens frustrated with the lack of clear, consistent and accurate modeling of what is taking place or what is to come. Not only are differences by country or geography hard to compare, but leading indicators seem only helpful in durations of less than a few weeks.
A consistent data set matters
What we are seeing transpire through mainstream media, social media, public officials and a range of experts feels noisy because it is. While there are many legitimate sources of infection, transmission and fatality data, gauging the most accurate status of the COVID-19 pandemic remains a troubling exercise because there seems to be a fundamental lack of standardized ground-truthed data available.
In a just-published briefing on pandemic trade-offs, The Economist lays out the quandary:
“All the models are beset by insufficient data when faced with COVID-19. There is still a lot of uncertainty about how much transmission occurs in different age groups and how infectious people can be before they have symptoms; that makes the links between the different equations in the mechanistic models hard to define properly. Statistical models lack the data from previous epidemics that make them reliable when staying a few steps ahead of the flu.”
Without standardized collection methodologies, insights correlating best practices to improved public health outcomes could take much longer than needed by policy decision-makers in the middle of an outbreak.
Ag-food faces a similar data challenge
While the general public works through this noisy data environment, those of us in sustainable food, beverage and agricultural supply chains have been living in similar noise for years. For instance, what crop data can verify a natural product vs. one that is organic, non-GMO or sustainably sourced? Compounding this is the fact that very few supply chains across the globe widen upstream as broadly as those dependent on agricultural inputs.
In the United States alone, it is estimated there are still around two million farms in operation, most independently owned and operated. When faced with the multitude of factors affecting crop production (such as seed varieties, soil types, climate, water availability, topography, farming practices, equipment manufacturers and software systems), the ag-food industry has responded as best it can with individual farmer surveys, mass balance modeling for sourcing, and limited-scale pilots which typically struggle to consistently engage a majority of farmers in a region. With so many potential variables and industry players, it is high-time we directly confronted data collection and connection.
As an industry, if we want to evolve beyond limited, disparate data sets to generate statistically significant insights that guide best practices, deliver environmental results and consistently assist a farmer’s productivity and profitability, we would be well-served to look at the evolving playbooks of the best epidemiological research centers in the world right now:
- Provide better granular data
- Broaden data sets to gain confidence and certainty
- Draw on the strength and innovation of the free market to leverage this data for new and improved practices
These measures would benefit entire supply chains — from farmers who need profitable production to processors and consumer packaged goods companies that need to sustainably source to retailers who are working to meet the demands of sustainability-minded consumers.
Learnings from the industry’s playbook
Of course, creating an ecosystem of easily shareable and verified data is also a political act and one that should not be taken lightly. Individual farmers’ data is their data and they should be able to choose how and where it is shared. Organizations that don’t abide by this principle do so at the risk of generating mistrust about their data custody and alienating those creating that data.
Similarly, governments may need to examine aggregated mobile data to compare social distancing policies with viral reproductive rates, but individually identifiable data should require our direct, individual consent before it is shared. The pandemic that surrounds us should not be an excuse for privacy to go out the window — rather, it should serve as a fire underneath us to figure out this thing the right way.
On Earth Day where many of us stand transfixed on the health of the human race, let’s leverage the hard-earned insights we are generating from the first major pandemic of the 21st century towards the greater health (and food supply) of our one and only home.
Take Farmobile content on the go with you. Get extended content outside of the blog and Farmobile Talk video series. Listen now!