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How Microsoft and the USDA are trying to solve the sustainable food problem

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The industrial meat industry is part of the problems.Photograph by Don Ryan — AP

It’s clear by now that, given the demand for sustainable food sources, agriculture is becoming a high-tech enterprise. The sophisticated use of sensors, wireless networks, and lots of data could help farmers wring the most out of the resources they have.

In that vein, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Microsoft(MSFT) on Friday launched the USDA Innovation Challenge, a contest designed to help researchers look into how climate change will affect the food system in this country. The goal is to come up with ways to make food sources more resilient to climate change, according to a blog post by Daron Green, deputy managing director of Microsoft Research.

Available data includes satellite imagery, remote sensing data, surveys and economic reports. The USDA has aggregate estimates of agricultural production right down to state and county-level totals, available via the Azure-based Farm Data Dashboard.. There is also information on the use and associated cost of applying fertilizer, pesticide, labor, tillage to target commodities. The USDA, founded in 1862, has 100 years worth of data in some cases, which makes this a great test case for running analyses on massive amounts of historical information.

Contestants have three months to come up with their applications—they must enter by November 20, 2015.

The winner will get $25,000 out of a total $60,000 in prize money. Judges include Microsoft’s Green; Dr. Debra Peters, senior advisor of earth observations for the USDA; and Vince Breneman, chief of the research branch of the USDA’s Economic Research Service and others.

Given the number of factors at play in the food supply chain, agriculture is a great test of the usefulness of big data sets and the analytics needed to make them useful, but it has proven difficult to bring the benefits to individual farmers.

“There’s no dearth of information or computing power—today’s challenge is integrating the deluge of hundreds of sources of data in a way that farmers buy into,” wrote Mark Bunger, analyst of Lux Research, in a report last month.

Perhaps applications coming out of this challenge could help spur wider adoption.

In any case, it’s clear the demand for better, more efficient farming in the face of climate challenges, is on the rise. Silicon Valley investors including Google(GOOG) Ventures and Kleiner Perkins are backing agricultural and food-related startups.

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