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Open Data and the Path to Global Food Security

By Cathie Woteki
Open Data and the Path to Global Food Security

Making government information open and accessible is one important step toward ensuring global food security.  An underlying premise of the global open data movement is that by opening up data, governments at all levels will make better decisions, entrepreneurship and new businesses will flourish, and benefits will flow to the public who paid for the data through their taxes. 

By open data, I mean that government policy should be to make its information openly available in digital form so anyone can use it.  Certain information like personal identifiers, intellectual property, and information relevant to national security, should always be protected.  But with the right legal and technical protections in place, countries should be routinely releasing data sets and building the process for doing so into their way of doing business.

For agriculture, the kind of information that governments collect covers a broad range.  There are the legal, regulatory and administrative files related to animal health and welfare, phytosanitary, environmental and import/export laws and regulations.  There are official records that list licensed businesses, permitted pesticides, and the results of inspections. There are data about government budgets and spending on agricultural programs.  There are data related to rural development programs. There are survey data on land use, types of crops planted and livestock raised, and crop yields. There is information on infrastructure necessary for agribusiness like roads and other transportation, water resources, and information and communication technology coverage.  There are market data on locations, prices and standards and requirements like grades and labels. There are data related to the specific crops being raised such as fertilizer recommendations, crop rotations, cultivars best suited for the soil and climate, and pest and disease management practices for crops and livestock. And there are data on the nutrient composition of foods that are important for nutrition programs.

This idea of routine release of government data is often referred to as “open by default.”  It’s the first of six principles that were developed in 2015 by an organization called Open Data Charter (full disclosure, I am a member of the Board of Directors of the organization) that provides resources to governments that are considering adoption of an open data policy. Currently, 71 governments have adopted the six principles and 52 nongovernmental organizations and corporations have endorsed them (

ODC has developed “Open-Up Guides” for governments ( on topics like agriculture, climate change, and combating corruption. The guides are aimed at policy advisors, civil society and the general public.  Policy advisors can use the guide to inform decision-makers about how to open their agriculturally-relevant data and to guide their open data strategy. Civil society can find useful information for lobbying their governments to adopt open data policies.  And the general public can learn more about what an open data policy in agriculture might provide for them.

You may be thinking, “That’s all well and good, but what how does open data translate to enhanced food security?”  Some examples may help:

  • Accelerating locally-adapted crop breeding.  Crop breeders seek access to germplasm with traits that could increase yields but don’t necessarily have access to information about what germplasm with desirable traits exists that they could use.  GRIN-Global provides a platform for plant breeders to access the genebanks of the world, determine in which of 20 participating genebanks likely germplasm is kept, and request germplasm for their breeding program.  The 20 participating institutions represent the genebanks in countries and the CGIAR system. GRIN-Global contains data about the availability of germplasm, its health, regeneration, where and when it was acquired as well as phenotypic and genotypic information and links to genomic databases (

  • Providing Indian farmers information on markets.   In India, there is a complicated network of markets:  over 7,190 regional markets are regulated by the States and there are over 20,000 rural markets.  The Indian government has created a data portal to provide farmers with access to daily price information from over 3000 of these markets and trend reports for major commodities and futures prices from India’s Multi Commodity Exchange.  The ultimate goal is to strengthen the bargaining power of farmers ( Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition, Introducing the Agriculture Open Data Package BETA Version, p. 10.

  • Evidence-based agricultural policy.  For a land-locked country like Burkina Faso, water is a critical resource and the government is interested in better targeting agricultural policies and programs.  Knowing what their water resources are is critical to making evidence-based decisions, but the information is scattered within different government ministries, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector.  Burkina Faso has brought disparate information together in a database that is available under an open data license to help improve government decisions and for the broader benefit of citizens and the private sector (Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition, Introducing the Agriculture Open Data Package BETA Version, p. 6.     

I hope that this introduction to open data and the brief descriptions of some open data projects related to agriculture have piqued your interest.  Please visit the websites I’ve included to learn more.

09/16/2019 8:00 AM |Add a comment
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