In the world – every day – there are thousands and thousands of agricultural trials taking place.
These could involve testing maize under drought conditions, or beans for their resistance to pests and diseases.
We can only guesstimate how many trials there are because we don’t actually know; there is no definitive global register.
That’s a problem because if someone is testing a variety of beans in Colombia, for example, that information might be useful to researchers in parts of Africa where similar growing conditions exist, and where beans are also a vital food crop. Duplicating trials wastes time and money.
Fortunately, the research community is onto this. A paper published recently in the journal Science spoke of the importance of a Global Crop Improvement Network (GCIN). The sharing and use of crop trial data would be central to the success of such a network, and there are several initiatives testing the concept.
One of those is AgTrials.
It’s a database for researchers to upload the results of their crop trials for anyone to see. Set up in 2012, it contains information on 35,000 trials including those for maize, soybean, rice, and other key food and commodity crops. The system captures information from trials around the world, and even from other databases.
It’s the only multi-crop platform for freely archiving, organizing, and enabling access to crop trial data from around the world. But in order for it to reach its full potential, it needs more data.
I was among a team of AgTrials researchers who just published a paper looking at the benefits and challenges involved in advancing crop improvement through data sharing.
First, some benefits. Saving money is an obvious one. As budgets are stretched and stretched again, research organizations need to use funds as efficiently as possible. By helping avoid duplication, and enabling scientists to select promising sites, AgTrials can potentially save them them a lot of money.
Saving time is an easy one too. As well as the time saved by avoiding the repetition of trials, we should need little reminding that we’re edging ever closer to 2030, the deadline for the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and that projections for climate change, food production and population growth require robust action today.
But in addition, resources like AgTrials could really come of age in an era of big data.
That’s because, as the database grows, it will allow specialists to mine it for insights, trends and anomalies. These could help accelerate the development of new tools, technologies and interventions for more productive, resilient and sustainable agriculture. Even right now, scientists are using the information in the AgTrials to calibrate crop models – essential tools in assessing, for example, climate risks to agriculture.
If AgTrials reaches its potential of 500,000-or-more trials, it would become a globally important recognized resource. It could become the central register that the world’s scientists need.
The good news is that the obstacles to achieving this aren’t technical. We know how to run the database, and we know how to analyze the information it captures.
The main challenge is, unfortunately, institutional: some organizations either don’t want to share their data, or don’t see it as a priority. But since many of them use public money to conduct research to produce global public goods, there’s really no reason for the results they generate to not be in the public domain too.
This isn’t just my opinion. In a survey, AgTrials users cited lack of resources to curate data, and outdated institutional norms on data sharing as serious barriers.
It means that we’re probably going to need a carrot and stick approach to ensure scientific institutions modernize their data sharing efforts. We’ll need to make sure we publicize the benefits of doing so, and develop the necessary incentives. There could even be the need to penalize organizations that withhold data generated with public funds.
That may sound draconian, but withholding public data is archaic and there’s no place for it in the age of open access and big data. Worst of all, it could hold back the scientific advancements we desperately need.
AgTrials was established as part of the the CGIAR Research Program for Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), in collaboration with a number of national and international partners including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and USAID.
It has dynamic links to the databases of CGIAR’s Crop Ontology initiative, and Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Project (AgMIP). Future opportunities for expanding the reach of AgTrials includes linking to gene bank data sets held by GENESYS. In addition, many breeders in CGIAR use tools developed by the Integrated Breeding Platform, which could link to AgTrials to make breeding information interoperable with trial results.
*Glenn Hyman is a geographer and Senior Staff in CIAT’s Decision and Policy Analysis (DAPA) Research Area. He specializes in targeting agricultural technology to its socio-environmental niche, land use change, low emissions development strategies and ecosystem services. Together with CGIAR colleagues, he conceived and manages the AgTrials initiative.
See also: By breathing new life into dormant data, we can see the future: https://blog.ciat.cgiar.org/by-breathing-new-life-into-dormant-data-we-can-see-the-future/