The Power of Data Analytics in Agriculture: Crop Suitability Assessments

10/19/16
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Cacao.jpeg

It’s an indisputable scientific fact that the world’s climate is changing.  Many places on the planet are becoming hotter, while others are becoming colder, wetter, and/or drier.  Storms are becoming more commonplace and more extreme.  As a recent example,  Hurricane Matthew has caused record flooding along both the eastern seaboard and hundreds of miles inland in the United States.[1] Both monumental weather events, like hurricanes, and more subtle systematic changes that are occurring all around us are making agriculture more uncertain and thus more expensive for producers and consumers.  aWhere tackles the uncertainty associated with a changing climate bydeveloping tools and insights to understand what these changes mean for particular crops, and what the agricultural earth might look like in the future, through its crop suitability assessments.

While climate change is becoming increasingly noticeable to everyone, farmers have been experiencing both the effects and the impacts of climate change for quite some time.  At its core, farming depends on a predictable climate from one year to the next.   Consistency allows farmers to determine what crops they can grow, how to best manage those crops, and what their expected yield will be in order to plan and generate a livelihood based on agriculture.  In addition to hindering farmers, climate change is also suppressing financial investment in agriculture, ranging from small scale producers (making up the majority of the world’s farmers), to the production of specialty and horticulture crops.  For example, the World Bank estimates that by 2030 Africa alone will be a $1 trillion agriculture market, with much of that value being generated by investment from abroad.[2]  However, despite this potential, investors have little information surrounding which crops will thrive in any given region, others than those that have traditionally been grown there.

While it is impossible to know for certain what future weather will be like, it is possible to examine whether today’s weather conditions have  become more or less suitable for growing specific crops in certain regions.  This type of knowledge can aid not only producers, but also investors and other lending bodies to inform their economic decisions and reveal where it does and where it doesn’t make sense to invest or provide credit.  Using a combination of agronomic knowledge, advanced data science, and best in class global weather data, aWhere Inc. has pioneered techniques to identify what the changing weather means for specific crops, and for agriculture more broadly.

Many in the agriculture community view cacao as the poster child for how climate change is impacting an entire industry within agriculture.  Cacao is the Goldilocks of agriculture - for the tree to thrive the weather must be just right: not too hot, not too cold, not too wet, and not too dry.  In short, there are major agroclimactic reasons why cacao is only grown in a few places on the planet.  Unfortunately for chocolate lovers everywhere, the weather is not changing in a way that is going to make growing cacao easier in the regions it is already cultivated.[3]

Luckily, however, the news is not all bleak.  While many places in West Africa (the most important region of the world for cacao) are becoming worse for cacao production, as shown in Figure 1, others are actually improving, such as regions in Ecuador.  The index in these figures displays locations based on changes in their expected cacao suitability, ranked from red (worsening suitability), to green (improving suitability).  

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Figure 1: aWhere’s crop suitability assessment suggests that current weather conditions have become worse for growing cacao in Ghana, due to climate change.

Using proprietary analysis methodologies developed by aWhere, the entire planet can be studied to evaluate locations that are currently viable for cacao production, and can also identify areas where viability is becoming better or worse due to the changing climate.  Importantly, this technique can be applied to all crops, not just cacao.  By comparing how places are changing in their suitability for different crops, the long term worth of agricultural investment can be better predicted.  This is necessary information for anyone trying to evaluate the return on investment associated with different agricultural investments, and for anyone trying to catch a glimpse of agriculture’s future in our changing world.


For more information on aWhere and its crop suitability assessments, contact us at beawhere@awhere.com.

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/10/us/hurricane-matthew.html

[2] http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/feature/2013/03/04/africa-agribusiness-report

[3] https://www.climate.gov/news-features/climate-and/climate-chocolate

Topics: climate change, crop suitability, aWhere, farming, cacao

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