The COP26 Summit in Glasgow was not the only gathering on climate change that took place last month: the SFN hosted its very own virtual COP26 festival, with events held throughout 2 – 5 November
"The aim of this was to celebrate and showcase how STFC capabilities have made a meaningful contribution to global food systems” says Alison Fletcher, Project Manager & Network Coordinator for the SFN. “But we also hope the festival will have a longer-lasting impact, by creating an online resource that helps food systems researchers to identify how STFC technologies could help their projects.”
The festival programme included a panel discussion and webinar, which both attracted diverse audiences that included representatives from academia, major food companies, governing bodies, food businesses and agricultural consultancies. For those that missed them, the full-length recordings of both events are available on the dedicated festival webpage, alongside a virtual exhibition and interactive map of SFN projects.
Expert panel discussion: Innovations for Carbon Neutral Food Systems
The webinar Innovations for Carbon Neutral Food Systems explored how the agricultural sector’s sheer complexity makes it imperative that efforts to cut its greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions use a holistic, multi-level approach. This will require action from all stakeholders, and policy makers will naturally have to lead the way said Dr Erica Pufall from the UK’s Food Standards Agency. She outlined a number of options for initiating positive change using policies, from taxing GHG-heavy food products and addressing food waste, to incentivising sustainable production practices and helping farmers to access innovative precision technologies. The financial sector – often portrayed as ‘the bad guys’ – will also have a crucial role, explained Dr Chris Cormack (Quant Foundry), a global leader in modelling the financial impacts from climate change-related risks. Considerable investment and capital will need to be mobilised to facilitate the transition to a net-zero world, but this can only happen if the financial sector and policy makers work together to build new, global carbon markets driven by accurate, well-audited data. But individual actions and choices also count, and Dr Christian Reynolds (Centre for Food Policy, City University, London) was optimistic that we can build on the increased consumer awareness of ‘planet-friendly’ diets to empower people to adopt more sustainable habits.
Webinar: STFC Instrumentation for Sustainable Food Systems
The STFC is host to some of the UK (and the world’s) most advanced scientific instruments, including the UK’s national synchrotron, the Diamond Light Source; state of the art, high-energy lasers; and facilities that can simulate outer space conditions. But since these are typically used for astronomy, physics, and space-related research, the food sector is generally unaware of these capabilities. A core purpose of the SFN, therefore, is linking up STFC technologies with food-systems researchers and businesses to spark truly novel approaches that haven’t been tried before. These collaborations allow food-sector researchers to perform experiments and analyses that would otherwise be beyond their means, such as big data and machine-learning methods; hyperspectral imaging; and neutral and gamma material assays. In return, STFC technicians and researchers have an opportunity to apply their expertise to a completely different area.
The webinar STFC Instrumentation for Sustainable Food Systems showcased a series of impactful SFN projects that perfectly illustrated this in action. For instance, Dr Hugh Mortimer (STFC RAL Space) described how his involvement in SFN projects had allowed him to apply his expertise in hyperspectral and thermal imaging (developed for Earth Observation analysis) in new ways, from diagnosing diseases in trees, to soil analysis and tools to optimise apple harvests . The event also featured Dr Anthony Brown (Durham University), who described the potential for unmanned aerial vehicles in the food sector, including to monitor soil moisture content and track the spread of deadly crop diseases. Meanwhile, Dr Maria Anastasiadi (Cranfield University, UK) spoke about how spectroscopy-based techniques could help tackle food fraud, using the example of monofloral honeys
Interactive map of SFN projects
This new feature illustrates at a glance the reach of SFN projects, both on a UK-wide and global level. Even those who have long been involved with the network will likely be surprised at the truly international nature of the projects supported so far. “As a tool, it will particularly help people new to the SFN to see the kinds of projects we have been involved in so far’ says Alison. ‘The filters make it easy to search projects based on either different STFC capabilities (for instance, data science) or food intersections (such as consumer behaviour and nutrition).”
SFN COP26 Hackathon
This four-day competition was inspired by the urgent need to help smallholder farmers adapt to climate change by providing up-to-date, location-specific data to advise them on the crop types and varieties they should grow. Teams of designers, coders, scientists and data analysts were challenged to create an open access platform that could integrate highly varied datasets – from soil maps to market price data – to recommend crop type, planting date and management regimes, specifically for smallholder farmers in India. You can learn more about the event and the winning entries on our blog post.
Agrifoods Innovations Exhibition
With visual communications becoming increasingly dominant in our digital world, the SFN team decided to curate a virtual gallery of arresting images to readily illustrate the individual and collective impact of SFN projects so far. The exhibition represents approximately half of the projects funded to date, and will be added to over time. Throughout the COP26 festival, the images were used in a social media campaign to encourage viewers to click through to read more information about the illustrated project. “Ultimately, we’d also like to use the images to create collages for pop-up banners and posters at future events. This will draw in people who are curious to learn more about the projects behind the images, and present an opportunity to introduce them to what the SFN does” says Alison.
All the resources from the SFN Virtual Festival for COP26 can be found on its dedicated webpage.
The SFN Hackathon for COP26 – how can we equip smallholder farmers with the data they need to adapt to climate change?
The latest SFN hackathon proved that developing workable, innovative solutions to some of our grandest challenges is entirely possible within a short timeframe – you just need creativity, cooperation and a good internet connection!
Climate change will make life more unpredictable for everyone, but smallholder farmers will be particularly affected since a good harvest already depends on many different factors coming together in the right way and at the right time. For smallholder farmers to adapt successfully, they will need ready access to up-to-date information that can help them plan ahead. But several barriers currently make this far from straightforward. For instance, the various types of information they need - from market price data to soil maps - are typically spread across often very different kinds of databases, making it hard to integrate them into a single source. In addition, many of these datasets are not easily accessible or behind a paywall, and can also be difficult for the untrained to make sense of.
Clearly this has to change. So, as part of the SFN Virtual Festival for COP26 , the network ran a four-day hackathon competition which took place between Tuesday 2 and Friday 5 November. Whilst global leaders discussed climate policy in Glasgow, cross-disciplinary teams of designers, coders, scientists, stakeholders and data analysts came together online to tackle the challenge set for them. This was to design an integrated open access platform for recommending crop type, planting date and management advice specifically for smallholder farmers in India.
The team were provided with a range of suggested data sources, including agricultural market data from the Indian Government, farm surveys, World Soil databases from ISRIC , Remote Sensing datasets from the Google Earth Engine , and fertiliser, pesticide and disease data provided by SFN project partners. The timeframe was tight, particularly as the teams had to present their proposed platforms during a 10 minute ‘dragons-den’-style pitch to persuade a panel of judges to give them funding. “The primary factor we were assessing was the feasibility of the modelling approach, and the size and quality of the underlying data. But we also considered the technical expertise, motivation of the team, experience with local conditions, and adaptability” said judge Dr Angesh Anupam, a lecturer in data science at Cardiff Metropolitan University.
Despite the entrants having just three and a half days to develop their platforms, the judges were so impressed by the designs that the first prize was jointly awarded to Samuel Bancroft and team Revive (led by Shamia Aftab). “The most impressive part of the two winning entries was their approach to modelling and their plans for scaling up the project if more real data became available. The synergy within team Revive also played a pivotal role” said Angesh.
For Samuel, a PhD student at the University of Leeds, the Hackathon appealed to him because the challenge was closely related to his area of research: developing new machine learning methods to detect different crop types in satellite images. “Given my background, I used a machine learning approach to develop the crop type recommendation model, based on farmer survey data on what crops were planted in 2016-2020, alongside meteorological data and soil profile data. The resulting trained model was able to predict a crop type from data it had never seen before with over 50% overall accuracy. Whereas with just random guessing, the model would only be 5% accurate” he said.
oth the winning entries successfully integrated multiple different kinds of data into a single portal that gave farmers a range of useful and clear recommendations. As Shamia, a Masters student in Data Science and Machine Learning at Peoples Education Society (PES) University (Bangalore, India), explained, an important part of the task was to consider the end-user’s experience and ensure the platform was fully accessible. “Our aim was to build a user interface that was simple and easy to navigate, without requiring high levels of literacy . So, for example, we used symbols and images as much as possible, and tagged locations to Google Maps. We also made sure our solution was scalable and could work on any cloud-based platform, so that it could be adapted to solve other purpose-driven problems.”
Both Samuel and Revive will receive a £1500 cash prize and a package of software development support to enable them to improve their platforms further. “I was pleased with my model's performance and it is exciting to have the opportunity to continue working on it. I've already got a few ideas up my sleeve on how I can push the performance of the model even more” said Samuel. However even without winning, Samuel said it would still have been a valuable learning experience: “I particularly benefitted from having to develop the pitch for the judges at the end, from preparing my final presentation (right up to the last minute!) and putting together a concise set of slides, to thinking through my promotional spiel. It taught me a great deal about the process on how to best share my work with others, particularly in a way that showed my excitement about it.”
Despite being an intense and daunting challenge, Shamia added that it was also highly rewarding and even fun. “There is absolutely no replacement for the thrill which we experienced and the marathon that our minds had to run in those three days to get something decent onto the table . Hackathons really help folks from all walks of academia and industry to come together and combine their rich knowledge base.”
Samuel agreed: “I think hackathons are a great way to exercise the tenet of 'fail fast, fail often', where good (and bad) ideas can be realised in a short space of time. They can be competitive and intensive, but ultimately, a hackathon acts as a way to return to a childlike creative state, and explore different approaches in search of a stroke of serendipity.”
You can learn more about our other events for the SFN Virtual Festival for COP26 on the dedicated webpage or on our summary blog post.
January 2022 - Caroline Wood, Freelance Science Writer