Groundbreaking data project to support smallholder farmers and end hunger

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How can donors best invest their money to support the world’s poorest farmers to improve productivity, support their families and end hunger across the globe by 2030?

This is the question driving Ceres2030, an initiative launched at the annual global meeting of the Committee on World Food Security at FAO headquarters in Rome on October 16: How can we use the data we have now to support access to a nutritious diet for the more than 820 million people who face food insecurity, while staying within our planet’s environmental limits? And what do these solutions cost?

Ceres2030 combines state-of-the-art modelling with expert evidence to strengthen the global agricultural development community as it prioritizes investments to achieve the U.N.’s sustainable development goal of zero hunger by 2030. Launched by Cornell University, the International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) on World Food Day, Ceres2030 is supported by a three-year, $3.1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development.

“We live in an age of abundant research—and yet we don’t know how to apply it effectively to real and urgent problems,” said Jaron Porciello, co-director of Ceres2030 and associate director for International Programs’ research data engagement in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell. “As a for instance, does the research data about controlling agricultural pests by using repellent ‘push’ plants and trap ‘pull’ plants to help farmers defeat the fall armyworm that threatens the food supply of 200 million people in 44 countries justify additional investment, and, if so, how much? With answers to questions like that, we can prioritize investments to help achieve zero hunger by 2030.”

Ceres2030 will map the fullest possible range of knowledge in agricultural research, establish protocols for systematic review, create a risk-of-bias tool, and then drill down to find the most powerful interventions that can help end hunger. These tools will be freely available to researchers anywhere.

So far, Ceres2030 has used natural language processing to aggregate more than 25,000 individual articles from 3500 journals and major agency databases (e.g., FAO, CGIAR, World Bank) to see how their content addresses critical issues in agriculture. “By using natural language processing, we are able to bypass the limitations of keywords and content categories and see into the granular conversations science is having, inside and outside the peer-reviewed agricultural literature,” said Porciello. “This, we believe, is the first time anyone is able to visualize the density and relevance of research that applies to smallholder farmers. It is the first step.”

Said Carin Smaller, co-director for Ceres2030 and senior policy advisor at IISD: “Consensus is at the core of our mission. We will work with a broad range of actors, starting with the people attending the Committee on World Food Security, to build a shared vision of what interventions work best, where they work, and under what conditions.”

Farmers and policymakers need to know not just the value of the interventions but the cost, said David Laborde, co-director of Ceres2030 and senior research fellow in the markets, trades, and institutions sivision at IFPRI. “This means we need to know the tradeoffs. While the U.N. has issued a call to action to the world with the sustainability development goals on zero hunger, it has given us a critically important caveat: We must preserve the environment.”

Said Smaller, “Agriculture is a powerful tool to end poverty and an engine of economic growth, but it is also responsible for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions and almost 70 percent of freshwater use. Food is also lost to rot because crops can’t be properly stored, processed, or brought to market on time. Ceres2030 is at the nexus of so many critical problems and the path to solving them—and it will provide the donor community with an evidence based on what works, what should the priorities for funding be, and why.”

When asked why the name Ceres2030, Porciello noted that Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture, is also the goddess of common people. “So many times, the impact of agricultural research projects that have been funded for lots of money never reaches smallholder farmers,” she said. “We’re going to change that.”