GAINESVILLE, Fla. — In recent years, computer technology has begun to help agricultural producers solve dilemmas as old as farming itself – predicting future crop yields, supplies and prices – using sophisticated models that account for weather patterns, soil types, crop management practices and other factors.
It’s known as agricultural systems modeling, and next week, experts in this emerging field will converge on the University of Florida campus to discuss their latest findings at two meetings held by the leading professional organization in the field, the Agricultural Model Intercomparison and Improvement Program, or AgMIP (www.agmip.org).
The first event, held Feb. 23-25, will focus on ways that models can account for the potential effects of global climate change on pest and disease pressures, said Jim Jones, a distinguished professor emeritus with UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences and one of AgMIP’s four co-principal investigators.
The second event, held Feb. 25-28, is an AgMIP global annual workshop and will feature a wide-ranging slate of activities related to agricultural systems modeling, including discussions and presentations on climate change, specific crops, economics and computer technology, he said.
AgMIP’s overall mission, Jones said, is to help scientists and producers understand how agricultural production systems should evolve to ensure food security under variable and changing climate conditions, and how modeling can guide efforts to develop more resilient and sustainable farming systems.
Jones describes AgMIP as a “community of science.” It encompasses more than 20 individual projects conducted by interdisciplinary teams and includes more than 700 experts, most of whom participate in the organization on a voluntary basis. Many of these experts are employed conducting agricultural systems modeling research around the world, notably in Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Within AgMIP, they work together to learn more about the capabilities and limitations of various models, share data and improve components of the models.
“The overall goal is to focus on agricultural systems models, which are increasingly important to studying cropping systems, livestock production and economics,” Jones said. “We use these models to inform decisions, which assist people ranging from farmers to national and global leaders.”
For example, data from agricultural systems modeling can help farmers determine which crop varieties are most likely to produce bountiful yields under a particular set of growing conditions. They can also help government officials set tax policies, determine fertilizer subsidies, and take other actions to increase food security by emphasizing production of certain crops in specific geographic areas, he said.
Economic analysis is another important facet of AgMIP activity, because data analysis can provide realistic projections of future crop prices, based on expected supplies around the world, as well as prices paid for crops in the recent past, Jones said.
Much of the work involves staple crops such as corn, wheat, rice, millet, peanut, potato, sorghum and sugarcane, he said. AgMIP also conducts modeling on livestock production and the forages and fodders that livestock consume.
Another of AgMIP’s primary activities is to compare the results from multiple models, so that researchers can evaluate and improve upon them, said Ken Boote, a professor emeritus with the UF/IFAS agronomy department and co-leader of the AgMIP crop modeling team.
“Evaluations using multiple models on the same situation are always preferable to evaluations with just a single model, because all models have some limitations,” Boote said. “If you only use one, you’ll get a more limited, flawed picture of what’s going on than if you use several.”
To illustrate the point, Boote notes that meteorologists almost always use multiple models to predict the paths that hurricanes will take, and often present multiple results in weather reports.
“People in Florida are probably familiar with what’s called the ‘cone of uncertainty’ – the idea that when you put together several projections, you end up with a much wider potential path for a hurricane than you’d get from just one model,” he said. “The hurricane is more likely to go up the middle of the cone than to go up the outer edge. It’s the same way with agricultural systems modeling – the middle path tends to be correct.”
Nonetheless, researchers aren’t likely to quickly perfect a single, best overall approach to agricultural systems modeling, Boote said. “There’s just too much potential for flaws to creep into the results if you only use one model. We also don’t want to discourage people from developing new modeling approaches.”
In the past, it was unusual for agricultural systems modeling teams to collaborate, but AgMIP has mobilized the major modeling groups worldwide, he said. However, in terms of putting the models to practical use in the private sector, the U.S. actually lags behind some countries, though the domestic soybean industry, seed companies and grain traders have adopted agricultural systems modeling to a modest degree.
Jones explains that producers tend to adopt new technologies incrementally, to minimize their financial exposure should unanticipated problems arise. But he expects that agricultural systems modeling will gradually be embraced as its value and reliability are demonstrated over time – something he’s committed to accomplishing.
“The University of Florida is one of the centers for this kind of work, because Ken Boote, Senthold Asseng, Cheryl Porter and I here at UF are all leading various global AgMIP initiatives,” Jones said. Jones and Boote have been involved in agricultural systems modeling at UF since the early 1970s, a time when many researchers believed agricultural systems were too complex to model successfully.
Founded in 2010, AgMIP is based at Columbia University in New York City. Its activities are funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research.
Jones is overall co-principal investigator of the AgMIP initiative, along with Cynthia Rosenzweig of Columbia University, Jerry Hatfield of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service in Ames, Iowa, and John Antle of Oregon State University.
Jones and Boote are two of four UF/IFAS experts who play leading roles in AgMIP. Senthold Asseng, a professor with the agricultural and biological engineering department, is co-leader of the wheat modeling team, and Cheryl Porter, coordinator of computer applications for the department, is co-leader of AgMIP’s information technology team.