Syngenta Crop Challenge.....Sowing innovation for tomorrow’s agriculture

                          by Joseph Byrum, Syngenta, Senior R&D and Strategic Marketing Global Product Development, Innovation and Delivery


                          November 2015


Syngenta Crop Challenge


Syngenta and INFORMS Announce New Crop Challenge Award in Analytics, Operations Research


Whether we like it or not, we collectively face one of humanity’s greatest challenges: feeding the world of tomorrow. Many of us in developed nations take well-stocked supermarket shelves for granted. We’ve always had abundance, so it’s easy to assume the good times will continue. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.


Take a minute to think about the scale of this problem. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 1.8 billion people on this planet. Agriculture was able to produce enough food for most of the world, but only after making great advances in technology and productivity.


Over the next 25 years, the world’s population will grow by an additional 1.8 billion, according to U.N. estimates.[1] That means by the year 2040 we’ll have to produce as much food as the entire planet produced in the 20th century, on top of all the food that we’re producing now. We must provide better nutrition for more people, and we must do so in the context of rapid environmental change, fragile ecosystems and limited natural resources.


To succeed in this tremendous challenge, we must have transformative innovation in agriculture, including social innovation.

As we launch the Syngenta Crop Challenge with INFORMS, there is an opportunity for this community to get involved in two dimensions of innovation to address this problem. The first and most obvious is in the application of data analytics and operations research to the field of agriculture. The second is the broader and deeper impact of the social innovation potential.

Analytics can make a great contribution to agriculture. A wealth of agricultural information is gathered and distributed by means of smartphones, portable computers, GPS devices, RFID tags, and other environmental sensors. The role of operations research is to make sense of this information throughout the entire agricultural ecosystem so that we can make easier, smarter and more precise decisions.


Operations research and data analytics are among most flexible tools for increasing the efficiency of food production through the optimization of the agricultural ecosystem, well beyond precision agriculture. Using it correctly will be essential to feeding the world's growing population while also improving the environment. 


This operations research and analytics revolution in agriculture can’t happen in a vacuum. We must have the talent in place to put these decision-making tools to work. There must be teams in place with the skills and desire to apply analytics in the field of agriculture. This represents a significant change for an industry in which analytics has to date focused more on the logistics of running farms more efficiently. There’s so much more that operations research can do, and the INFORMS community is uniquely positioned to be a positive force in advancing solutions for this important social problem.


Some social problems can be readily solved using big data, such as using traffic information to speed the morning commute or using weather data to predict the next hurricane. Agricultural problems tend to be messier than their technical counterparts. They are also more dynamic and complex because of the number of stakeholders involved and the numerous feedback loops among interrelated components throughout the system.


Social innovation is achieved by increasing a new community’s understanding of how to use data for tackling problems related to agriculture by promoting more experimentation with domain-relevant data sets. Open innovation approaches and platforms such as those used to host the Crop Challenge allow the INFORMS community to share ideas, interact with others’ ideas, and work collaboratively to find solutions to problems or take advantage of opportunities. This will bring interested parties together to develop innovative algorithms to analyze and visualize the data, and develop new knowledge. Unfortunately, organizations that are tackling social issues seldom participate on these platforms. Open innovation platforms are essential if we are going to move the needle on using analytics to tackle social challenges.


So our hope is that the scale and importance of this challenge will inspire you to lend your talents to this exciting effort, and that you’ll get involved. There are billions of people yet to be born who are counting on us.



2015 population: 7,349,472 / 2040 population: 9,157,234