Monday, September 08, 2014

Open Source and the Promise of Sustainable Nutrition Security

Recently I had the opportunity to get introduced to Gerald Nelson, senior climate change researcher and Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Jerry and I had a great conversation about open sourcing of agricultural scientific models, such as those used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their climate change reports.

An expert on agricultural economics and spatial analysis, Jerry most recently served as a Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC, where he led major projects on food security and climate change issues. He was also the principal author of a recent report you may have heard of: “Advancing Global Food Security in the Face of a Changing Climate,” which was released by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in May 2014, calling on the United States government to integrate climate change adaptation into its global food security strategy.

Jerry is involved in collective efforts to advance methods for improving data and models that inform government and private industry decision makers about the role of food systems in achieving “sustainable nutrition security”—our ability to meet growing demand for safe, affordable, and nutritious food in a sustainable manner. Such efforts are necessary to address global nutritional needs in a world facing the challenges of climate change.

Logo of the Center for Integrated Modeling of Sustainable Agriculture and Nutrition Security (CIMSANS).
More specifically, Jerry is part of a working group focused on these issues at the Center for Integrated Modeling of Sustainable Agriculture and Nutrition Security (CIMSANS), a division of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) Research Foundation, which works to advance open data and modeling methodologies required to produce comprehensive and credible assessments of how climate change and resource scarcity will impact sustainable nutrition security. When we met, he was therefore especially interested in hearing about Benetech’s perspective on issues related to converting software to open source.

I was happy to offer Jerry some advice on that front and to discover that Benetech may be able to help with his efforts through our SocialCoding4Good initiative, which bridges the open source software, corporate tech, and nonprofit communities for social change. It would be exciting to explore the opportunity to bring SocialCoding4Good’s partners from corporate social responsibility (CSR) teams to lend their skills to improving food security and sustainability models. As it turns out, these models were originally developed decades ago and many are written in Fortran! Converting these models into modern programming languages would make them far more usable and accessible, which, in turn, would tremendously help the scientific community tackle climate change threats.

This week, on September 10-12 at Purdue University, CIMSANS will be co-hosting a workshop and summit focused on improving food systems data and models. I hope the modeling community comes away with a framework for open sourcing the integrated models used to produce sustainable nutrition security assessments. The Benetech team is looking forward to supporting the collective efforts advancing this goal!

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