In the face of a populace set to break nine billion by 2050, people from across the world – from smallholder farmers in Asia to politicians at the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations – have asked some variation of the question: how are we going to effectively and sustainably feed all these mouths?
It is a question made more daunting in the face of increasing agricultural instability due to climate change, soil erosion and loss of biodiversity, as well as the fact that approximately one billion people are already unable to satisfy their basic needs in terms of food energy. “If you look at the current agricultural system and the reality of our environment, it becomes quickly clear that it is a complicated and complex problem – economics, nutrition, ecological factors all have to be taken into consideration,” notes Kevin Watt, integrated land and livestock manager at TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation.
Ensconced in an 1,800-acre (7km) plot of land in Pescadero, California, TomKat Ranch is directly addressing some of the biggest issues facing the future of food production. “We are a non-profit that is really working on de-risking and investigating ways that we could produce healthy food on working land in a way that sustains the planet and inspires others into action,” says Watt. “Our primary goal is to quantify the costs and benefits of different styles of food production.”
As such, Watt describes TomKat as something more than a working ranch. It is also a learning laboratory where ranchers and scientists collaborate on projects ranging from soil carbon sequestration to wildlife and ecosystem conservation. “We want to make sure that the models we are working on are worth duplicating for the average farmer,” he states.
At the heart of TomKat’s approach is an appreciation for openness and sharing data, an aspect probably best appreciated in regards to the other hat Watt wears as co-owner of Early Bird Ranch. Together with LeftCoast GrassFed, these two businesses collaborate at TomKat, sharing both resources and data to create a powerful synergistic relationship wherein LeftCoast’s cattle and Early Bird Ranch’s pigs and poultry provide complementary ecological services that benefit each other and the coastal farmland of TomKat Ranch.
“I really see open data as our clearest and most powerful tool for creating clear feedback, as well as an accurate way to quantify the benefits and the costs of various production styles,” says Watt. “Open data can allow us to create a model that is adaptive and tailored to the realities on the ground, and it can provide the tools that farmers need to get feedback and create the best land stewardship systems possible.”
Since the beginning of our history on the planet, humans have been using data to make decisions. For hunter-gathers this data consisted of the personal observations an individual made over a lifetime, such as where and when to hunt a specific animal.
However, as humans have advanced, so too has our desire for more and better data, as well as our ability to store and manipulate it. One only has to ask Google Maps to provide directions to a new location to see how data collection and use has simplified an activity that less than 30 years ago would have required several minutes, a physical map and a pen at a minimum.
There are three different types of data: closed, shared and open. Closed data is privately owned and kept behind a digital wall. It is often reserved for data that is highly personal – such as medical records – or sensitive, such as for reasons of national security. At the opposite end of the spectrum sits open data. This is data that anyone, anywhere in the world can access, use and share as long as the owners of the data have given express permission for such use. Shared data sits between the two.