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The Impact Report

Growing the future through smart digital technology

How can satellite data and digitization help famers? Molly Brown has more than a few ideas.

satellite view of farm

Satellites can provide on the farm data for growers. Image via Shutterstock/vaalaa

Molly Brown has been a research scientist at the University of Maryland since 2015, a job she took after leaving NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Brown has two decades of experience in interdisciplinary research using satellite remote sensing data and models with socio-economic and demographic information to better understand food security and agriculture drivers.

Molly Brown

Molly Brown is a a research scientist at the University of Maryland. Image courtesy of Molly Brown.

6th Grain believes that the direct application of digital technology and science is key to establishing profitable and productive agriculture and food systems. They are a digital agriculture technology company which focuses on transforming farmer-provided data into information that can be used to increase success and uptake in crop protection services, credit provision and high-yielding seeds.

‍Machine learning, modeling and sophisticated, composite data are at the heart of their technology platform and sets 6th Grain apart from the competition. By providing services both to the small farmer and large agribusiness, 6th Grain’s digital agriculture solutions delivers high-quality, remote sensing and weather-based information to millions of farmers across the world.

Camila Leal Girardo: Was your pursuit always following that academic pursuit, more so than your mission for agriculture? What was your North Star throughout these years, as you kept pursuing the academic side?

Molly Brown: I'm mostly interested in how climate and weather affect production and livelihoods for rural residents. So it's that whole climate-productivity connection, using satellite and remote sensing observations in a way that allows us to diagnose, understand and predict the impact of changes in weather and climate on rural livelihoods across the spectrum. I studied food security for many years, which is sort of at the country-region level. I then transitioned into individual understanding and individual outcomes, and how climate affects the nutrition outcomes of children under 5. I have 10 or 15 papers at this point using satellite data, together with nutrition data at the individual level to better understand how climate shots, big droughts, floods and hot periods, affect nutrition outcomes. How do they affect feeding decisions? How do they affect child mortality and those underweight? And so I have a whole area with that. 

But that whole research area does not help you actually do anything in the real world. It's still six steps separated from actual decision-making from an individual that affects the real person in the real world. That's what's exciting about 6th Grain is that we can deliver solutions directly on the phone. We can take the satellite data, transform it into relevant data products and deliver it. And 6th Grain allows me to have access to that infrastructure, the whole, from soup to nuts. We’re actually delivering new data and information to new people with our technology. So it's a totally different intervention.

Girardo: Before I dive deep into 6th Grain, I do want to ask you, what has been the most interesting finding throughout your research and your time studying this topic? What are some things that you were surprised to find?  

Brown: Yeah, I've done so many different things. I'm such an old person, it's hard for me to even figure out all the different papers I've written myself. What I'm doing now is I'm doing a lot of new research on decision support. For me, I'm really fascinated by how we can make information delivered to somebody salient, reliable and actionable. It's so much harder than you would think. It's so interesting to me to think, how do we transform a real piece of information and deliver it to somebody in a way which makes sense, is timely, accurate and reliable, and is delivered in a way which can really change the outcome? That is where I'm focusing a lot of my efforts right now. I get funding from NASA to work with their community, to better understand how data is delivered and can really change things, and make a real societal impact. 

How do we connect those critical messages to the people at the times and the places when they need them to improve outcomes, reduce vulnerabilities and risks, and make sure that people thrive even in challenging times?

So the question is, how do you do that? You could have an app, right? You can Google something. But will that really change your decision? How do you connect with people in a way which really changes the outcome? These things are so much harder. For me, one of the most important outcomes of my work is how darn hard that is. It's like, who wants to study something obvious and simple, like figuring out what a drought is? Now, that's simple, right? Figuring out what a drought is, anticipating that drought, understanding the impacts on society and then warning people better, so they make better decisions in agriculture space or in the health space, infrastructure and all sorts of things, should be affected by that biophysical instance that we totally fail to connect. We just say, "Hey, there's a drought!" and nobody is like, "Yeah, yeah, there's always a drought, Molly; stop whining on about it." Right? How do we connect those critical messages to the people at the times and the places when they need them to improve outcomes, reduce vulnerabilities and risks, and make sure that people thrive even in challenging times?

Girardo: OK, I love that. From that, there are two big questions here. So on one hand, what is the biggest challenge over time, would you say, today? And then the second question is, what is your current biggest challenge in your role?

Brown: Right now there's tension between the short and the long term. We would have an appropriate culture if we valued the long-term gain over the short-term reward. But I really believe right now we have so much to learn about how to balance the need to meet the needs of people today with longer-term sustainability. And in fact, the word sustainability is extraordinarily squishy. What does that mean? Exactly! 

Food and the food system transformation is a big one. I'm writing a paper right now on food system transformations, and we're looking at, for example, what's the impact if half as much beef was consumed globally. What impacts would that have on the global food system? So the short-term, "I'm not gonna eat a hamburger today" decision by every individual can be driven by policy and by pricing and by tax, and all sorts of other things. But it's really hard to balance that short-term response with the longer-term need. So how do we transition all those people who are currently employed in the cattle industry, and you can imagine all of those people. There are hundreds of thousands of them who are involved in cattle and producing beef and selling beef and all of the secondary and tertiary processing and packaging. Retail, restaurants, advertising.

You can imagine how many people that would be, right? 

So when we're transitioning away from something that we know is not good for the planet to something which is better for the planet, it requires so many moving parts, and this same thing could be said for fossil fuels and inexpensive energy, cold chain and where the roads go. What about ports? All of these things are extremely difficult to balance between the short and the long term, and I think that's really our challenge right now because we see very clearly we cannot continue on as business as usual. But how do we change? What are the myriad decisions that we need to make at the individual level, in the business, at a societal level, and what government and policy financing do we need to move this gigantic economic juggernaut in the right direction? So that, I think, is the big challenge. 

Girardo: Is there an opportunity that you're seeing today that you've not seen over the past five, 10, 20 years, however long you’ve done this work, that you think is advantageous for 6th Grain, and how are you leveraging that? 

Brown: Oh, there are huge opportunities. So first of all, we have so much satellite data we don't even know what to do with it all. It's not only more often, but it's also finer resolution, more data types, and more people investing in agriculture and in information products for agriculture.

I also think that as we learn more about how to use the information to transform the way farmers are doing things, we can then expose these changes to bring more money down to the people who currently have the least amount of power. From my perspective, those are farmers and rural institutions who are extremely impoverished compared to the input providers or the traders. The power centers in a lot of the food systems are on people who are providing those improved seeds, the chemicals or the fertilizers. They have all the control and they're able to charge what the market will bear and the farmers have had a flat income adjusted for inflation.

Most farmers, with the exception of the top 5 percent of growers who have economies of scale, everyone else, 95 percent of farmers in the United States, have not gotten a real raise since 1950 or so. You can look up the statistics. After the production of the commodity, the traders are the ones who are transforming, processing and packaging; those are also vertically integrated. Frito Lay, for example, there's a contract with a potato grower. They get an amount of money that allows them to make what? $20,000 a year, literally, right after all the expenses. And then Frito Lay uses that to make billions of profit, right? 

And they are totally vertically integrated. They have everything from the storage, the trucking, the processing, the packaging, the advertising and the distribution of those products. And so that way they're able to capture all of the profit across all of those segments. If we can become truly sustainable and provide information directly to the grower, or to the trucker, or to all of those smaller parts, we can contribute to the climate. For example, soil carbon credits, reductions of methane, changes in fertilizer or changes in product, the way those growers do things so that we can not only reduce the climate footprint of growers but increase their profitability enormously. 

You can imagine how information might greatly reduce independence on fertilizer and allow them to make better decisions: Which crop should they grow? Should they take that contract from Frito Lay, or should they grow artichokes and sell them directly to people who want them? 

If you cut out all those middlemen, you could grow carrots, and you could shift the carrots directly to all the people who want carrots across the country, using direct farmer to consumer.

You can imagine a totally different food system using mobile phones. You could imagine that. The question is, how do we do it? And how do we use technology to modernize the agriculture system and increase the income of the rural livelihoods in a way which really benefits everybody instead of just the corporate powers that be? That's really one of our goals.

The above Q&A is an edited excerpt from the Bard MBA’s May 6 episode of The Impact Report podcast. The Impact Report brings together students and faculty in Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program with leaders in business, sustainability and social entrepreneurship.

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