Published online 30 September 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.566

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Scientists push for agricultural monitoring

Network would collect environmental and socioeconomic data from around the world.

maize farmerScientists want to monitor agriculture in Africa and elsewhere to learn how humans are affecting the planet.ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

A global agricultural monitoring network moved a step closer to reality this week with a meeting between a small group of academics and potential patrons at Columbia University in New York City.

Human agriculture has transformed the face of the planet, changing the flow of fundamental nutrients like nitrogen, and the pressure is only going to grow as the population rises in coming decades. Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs told the meeting's attendees that scientists simply do not have the data they need to properly explore this dynamic.

"We want to understand ecosystems and the people who are living in them," Sachs said, warning his colleagues not to count on their governments for funding or leadership. "It's up to us."

Sponsored by Conservation International, the Earth Institute and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the meeting brought scientists together with big businesses and various philanthropic organizations to discuss ways to track both ecological and socioeconomic trends in agricultural areas. Participants spent most of the meeting discussing what such a network might look like, how existing resources could be used and how to get the network off the ground quickly.

Sandy Andelman, an ecologist with Conservation International in Arlington, Virginia, discussed her work setting up a pilot project that began two years ago in southern Tanzania. In addition to basic environmental data about soils, nutrients and land cover, the project tracks agricultural practices. It also incorporates data about income, health and education that is maintained by the government. Andelman says that all the data she collects can be broken down to the level of individual households, and that initial results from the project have already prompted the Tanzanian government to adjust the way it zones agricultural land in the area.

Andelman says that a similar system could be set up to begin monitoring across Africa, Asia and South America for a total of about US$12 million a year. "This is an incredible bargain," she says. "We're at a point where we have to stop talking and start working together."

Getting the ball rolling

Representatives of philanthropic organizations were generally enthusiastic. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation of Chicago, Illinois, has already put up funding for Andelman to set up a second site in Rwanda, and the Gates Foundation, headquartered in Seattle, Washington, expects to make a decision on three additional sites in Africa in the coming months. Meanwhile, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, based in Palo Alto, California, said it would consider folding in three new monitoring sites that it is planning to fund in South America next year.

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Scientists are also hoping that global food companies will play a large role both in financing and contributing data to the new network. Robert ter Kuile, a senior director for environmental sustainability issues at PepsiCo, based in Purchase, New York, says the network could provide valuable information for industry. PepsiCo is always looking for data to evaluate its supplies of corn, potatoes, oranges and oats, he says, including everything from water supplies and soil conditions to income and agrochemical use at the level of individual farmers.

Some attendees said that, even with broad support, setting up such a vast network will take time. "It's unrealistic for us to expect we are going to come up with a global system in the next few months or the next year," said Prabhu Pingali, the Gates Foundation's deputy director for agricultural development. "Let's think about a dozen or so sites that we can start with and let's just get the ball rolling."

But Sachs is more optimistic – and aggressive – about the timeline. He is also focused on ways to incorporate existing research sites and monitoring networks maintained by scientists and businesses. If the group can attract industry support, as he believes it must, Sachs sees no reason why the network couldn't achieve something on the order of 500 sites within two or three years. "We need to get this thing up and running," he says, warning of the perils of endless organizational meetings. "I don't want to spend ten years on this." 

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