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Latin American researchers helping farmers globally combat climate change with big data

ABC rural/2017-11-16/big-data- farm-award-helping-to-tackle- climate-change/9156844

By Brett Worthington

In the world of modern farming, the term 'big data' is among the biggest of buzz words.

It is about taking raw weather and crop information and transforming it into site-specific advice, such as the exact date for a farmer to sow a crop to achieve its best yields.

But big data is more than the future of farming, with many hoping it will help the global effort to battle climate change.

This week, Latin American researchers received a prestigious award from the COP global climate talks in Germany for their efforts using data to help boost farmer yields and battle climate change.

"We've been working with farm organisations and farmers directly to deliver agro-climatic information, with the main purpose of helping farmers make better decisions on their crops based on what's going to be the climate over the next four to five months," researcher Julian Ramirez said.

He and his colleague Daniel Jimenez are based at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia, a centre that receives Australian Government funding to help with its research.

Their big data project with farmers in Colombia and Honduras won this year's Momentum for Change award from the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

Making decisions based on future rather than past
Dr Ramirez said one of the biggest historical barriers to providing farmers with specific advice had been a lack of regional data.

"When we went to the field we realised farmers [were] making decisions based on the past year," he said.

"So if the past year was good, then they would do the same.

"If the past year was not so good then they would do something different, but then not usually very well informed.

"What we've been able to do is change that behaviour towards decisions that are based on climate information."

Local data forms basis for recommendations
Throughout Latin America, sensors that cost about a dollar each are dotted throughout paddocks.

It means researchers no longer have to rely on information from weather stations that could be hundreds of kilometres away from a farm.

They instead have site-specific data such as soil moisture, rainfall and temperatures that can be transmitted direct from a farm to a researcher.

"Farmers right now look at what the seasonal condition is going to look like, depending on the forecast, and then they are able to make a decision based on that," Dr Ramirez said.

The researchers developed online systems to capture crop and climate information.

They then used modelling, climate forecasting and analysis techniques to make recommendations for individual farmers on the best crops to grow and when to plant them.

Dr Ramirez said he hoped the award would encourage farmers globally to embrace the use of data.

"We are fairly confident it is scalable and is really useful," he said.

"The main thing is many farmers are making decisions in the same way that farmers were doing in Colombia, so I believe they will certainly benefit from this approach."

Brett Worthington travelled to Colombia as the winner of the Crawford Fund's 2017 Food Security Journalism Award, with financial support from DFAT Council on Australia Latin America Relations.


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