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Catherine Woteki

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Scientists Unite to Share Ag Data and Feed the World

Posted: 04/22/2013 8:30 am

In the United States, we haven't worried about food security since the Dust Bowl days of the 1930's. In fact, our farmers have become so productive we have a thriving food export sector that has returned a positive effect on our economy for over 40 years. Unfortunately, many other countries can not make that same claim.

Over 870 million people are malnourished or hungry according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. As the world grows more interconnected every day, it is imperative that we reach across borders to help other countries solve issues as fundamental as the ability to feed their people.

As Chief Scientist of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), I am on the front lines of agricultural innovation. Thousands of scientists funded or employed by USDA at universities and research institutions across America have been working for decades to understand the genetics and other aspects of plants and food animals to increase productivity. Among their successes: the development of crops that can withstand the devastating effects of climate change, from drought to flood to insects; and helping to breed more productive dairy and beef cattle, which has increased the economic vitality of breeders and ranchers, and lowered methane emissions.

Now, through an initiative of the G-8, the world's scientists are ready to take the next step, and they will take it together. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will lead the U.S. delegation to the G-8 International Conference on Open Data for Agriculture on April 29-30th in Washington, D.C. The conference is an opportunity to advance President Obama's call to openness and transparency in government on an international stage. Recently, his Administration directed all federal agencies to develop policies and procedures to provide open access to publicly funded research and the publications resulting from it - something only Canada and the United Kingdom have already done. This conference takes that concept to the next level, as a starting point to move scientific collaboration into the 21st century, both for global food security and economic stability.

What is commonly meant by "open data?" Open data is often referred to as the concept that information should be freely available to the public, without restriction or charge for its use by others. In the food and agricultural realm, open data is an essential piece of finding the answers we'll need to feed the world. Right now, most of the cutting edge scientific research being done on agricultural issues is being done in developed countries. The countries can, and often do, share their findings with researchers in other countries by way of collaborations and educational opportunities. Opening that data without restriction to every scientist in the world would democratize access and accelerate innovation.

By convening the world's leaders in agriculture, we hope to launch a movement that will close the gap of scientific achievement between the developing and developed nations. We will empower farmers and agricultural producers from Uganda to Bangladesh with the knowledge gained by those in other countries so that they can be as fruitful and productive as producers anywhere. And together, we hope to build a future of economic prosperity and food security that we only dream of today.

 
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