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Open data can secure our food supply – Dr Panagiotis Zervas

Dr Panagiotis Zervas wants to make European agriculture data available to all researchers. Image credit — Dr Panagiotis Zervas

We live in an era where open data can pave the way to a more sustainable, secure and safe food system, according to Dr Panagiotis Zervas, senior project manager at Agroknow, a company that finds, connects and delivers agricultural and food information worldwide.

Where does agricultural data come from and what can it be used for?

‘There is a lot of data in the agricultural sector. It’s produced by different types of connected objects such as farming equipment, sensors in the fields or even microchips in animals. There are also trials in specific farms about how different commodities are being produced or how different plants are being grown.

‘All this data was initially stored on a computer for limited use, but now there is plenty and it’s creating a demand to make this data available to the wider public and for researchers so they can improve their understanding (of agriculture) and decision-making.

‘Whether it’s for writing research papers, for farmers to improve the performance of their yield, or for policymakers to see production in specific areas – all these aspects can be supported by opening up agricultural data.’

What exactly does it mean to open up agricultural data?

‘Open data for agriculture means it is open to the world and enables researchers to share their data so it is reusable for other purposes. In the past one of the problems for researchers was that they didn’t have access to data from other researchers, but thanks to data sharing, they can now perform new experiments.’

Considering there are over 12 million farms in Europe, is it difficult for scientists to make sense of such a huge source of data?

‘This is an emerging problem that is becoming even bigger. The amount of data is huge and coming at such a high velocity while also being very heterogeneous (diverse). This creates a problem of how to store it, how to manage it and how to process it in an effective way so any party, either researchers or policy makers, can extract the information they need.’

You are also the project manager of the EU-funded AGINFRA PLUS project, which aims to process this data and share it in useful ways, how are you doing that?

‘The aim is to exploit core (open data) infrastructures that are already put in place (through EU funding) – these are EGI.euOpenAIREEUDAT and D4Science. We work with research communities in the agriculture food sector and try to customise and extend these existing infrastructures to provide services to conduct research in a more efficient and effective way.

‘The data we gather could also be used by companies, like start-ups, to develop additional applications. In the end we want to create a central hub of agricultural and food data that can be further exploited by any stakeholder.’

How will your open data help agriculture and food researchers?

‘We are working with data from three specific research communities within the agrifood sector in terms of providing them with data management, data analytics, and data visualisation. The first is related to global agricultural modelling, which is related to short- and long-term food production within climate change conditions. It is being led by the Wageningen University (in the Netherlands), one of the biggest agricultural research centres in Europe.

‘The second area addresses specific problems in food security, the need to analyse data produced by plant phenotyping (information regarding growth, resistance, physiology and other traits) and its correlation to crop yield, which is being led by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), another one of the biggest institutes in Europe that performs agricultural research.

‘The amount of data is huge and coming at such a high velocity while also being very heterogeneous.’

Dr Panagiotis Zervas, Agroknow, Greece

‘The final area is related to the design of high performance food safety workflows that extract data models from scientific literature and provides insights on generating and maintaining food safety models. This is being led by the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR).

‘(Researchers) have a lot of data from the traditional (day-to-day) work they are doing, but sharing this information put us in a good position to experiment with different data sources to develop more understanding.’

What’s been the biggest challenge when accessing and processing this data?

‘The agriculture and food sector is very fragmented and has different data sources which make it quite difficult to combine and create meaningful services.

‘We are using technologies that identify semantics of the data and connect these different sources using existing standards. For example, we try to interconnect terms that are being used from different data sources, ones that can easily be linked with other terms and then be organised by specific technologies. This allows data to be analysed easier and provide appropriate results for decision making mechanisms.’

How can AGINFRA PLUS future-proof Europe’s food supply?

‘We hope to address bigger challenges (by offering data services), like climate resilient agriculture and food security, as well as specific social issues that are being set by the European Commission.

‘One of the impacts we want to achieve at the end is to contribute to the European Open Science Cloud. We hope to open up agriculture science, and that means all the data being gathered and collected within the project will be accessible to anyone. This means they will be able to reuse data from different sources and research communities, which will help advance understanding in specific fields.

‘This will eventually impact the agricultural food sector in general and can help the researchers dealing with sustainable agriculture, food security and food safety do their jobs better.’

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FOOD 2030

How to future-proof our food and nutrition system will be the question on everyone's lips when researchers, policymakers and industry experts meet in Brussels, Belgium, on 16 October for the conference Harnessing Research and Innovation for FOOD 2030: a science policy dialogue.

On the menu for debate is how research and innovation can help ensure that nutritious food and water are available, accessible and affordable for all, build climate-smart food systems, minimise food losses and waste, and boost innovation and investment.

The idea is to share ways in which research and innovation is already having an impact and identify future areas for exploration.

More info