Food security concerns spawn project

Where is your next meal coming from?

Thankfully, the majority of southern Albertans are secure in the notion that there will be an adequate food supply available to fill their plates.

Such is not the case worldwide, and in fact by the end of 2011, it was estimated that one billion people in developing countries did not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs.

With food security one of the most pressing issues facing humankind, University of Lethbridge researchers are embarking on a project that will develop a prototype system using geomatics information technologies, in combination with crop growth and socio-economic modelling to better monitor and forecast food security at local and regional levels.

"Alberta, really Canada in general, is a very important player in the world food market. Depending on the year, we are ranked fourth or fifth in terms of grain exports to the global food supply," says principal investigator Dr. Wei Xu, a professor and Chair of the Department of Geography. "Alberta is one of the major players in the game of food trade, so any decline in food production will not only affect our local communities, but also will affect the global food market. In that regard, the sustainability of food production at the local and regional level is very important."

Along with Drs. Karl Staenz, Henning Bjornlund, Stefan Kienzle, Craig Coburn, Jinkai Zhang and Z. Zhang, Xu's team will work for two years under funding from Alberta-based Tecterra, Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, the National Engineering Research Center for Information Technology in Agriculture, China-based NERCITA and the Agriculture Financial Services Corporation. Tecterra is funding $495,000 of the $885,000 project.

"We want to start the project here and eventually expand to a global level," says Xu. "We want to help China, India, maybe African countries, so that they can, in their decision-making processes, adopt this kind of technology to help them assess and plan their crops more effectively."

The project is uniquely interdisciplinary and utilizes expertise from across campus. Xu, who classifies himself as a social scientist, has more than a decade of experience in conceptual design and system development for integrated assessments, while Staenz is a world-renowned expert in remote sensing technology. Add in the expertise of both Coburn and J. Zhang in remote sensing system development and design, the software development skills of Z. Zhang, Kienzle's worldwide experience in hydrological and crop modelling and Bjornlund's established knowledge in agricultural policy assessment and you have a comprehensive approach to the issue.

"We really tried to mobilize people from across campus," says Xu, recognizing the scope of the problem they are tackling. "This project will generate a geomatics solution to the problem of food insecurity that is of global significance."

The proposed prototype will fill a significant gap in the assessing and forecasting of food supply at a local and regional scale, offering governments new technology and information that can be utilized in policy development.

One would think that southern Alberta farmers, having worked the soil for generations, would understand what crops produced the best yields for our area but Xu says that is not necessarily so.

"Certainly we tend to claim that we know but, for example in 2001-02, when the entire region was severely hit by drought, nobody was expecting that," he says. "Given the uncertainty in climate, which is possibly getting warmer, the variability in the region, the greater demands on our water supply, the introduction of biofuel production, there are so many more factors at play.

"Our system will enable Alberta and Chinese governments to better monitor and assess the state of food production and security."

The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization has forecasted that an increase in food production of 70 per cent is required to feed the estimated world population of nine billion people in 2050.

"All these factors make this research very much relevant to our world," says Xu.

This story first appeared in the December 2012 issue of the Legend. For a look at the entire issue in a flipbook format, follow this link.