Planet Protectors
Newsweek|December 24, 2021
AI and Big Data to Help Feed the World

SARA MENKER — FOUNDER, CEO, GRO INTELLIGENCE

By 2050, the united nations says, we’re going to need 70 percent more food to feed the nine billion people living on Earth. Global climate change threatens to upend their lives—worsening storms, droughts, heat waves and crop diseases. What kind of a world will we leave to our grandchildren?

Sara Menker says the problem may be even more urgent than the U.N. suggests. In 2017, she gave a TED talk in which she said a “tipping point,” beyond which global food markets become too overwhelmed to function effectively, could come in just a few years.

“We discovered that the world will be short 214 trillion calories by 2027,” she said. Or, in more familiar terms: “A single Big Mac has 563 calories. That means the world will be short 379 billion Big Macs in 2027. That is more Big Macs than McDonald’s has ever produced.”

Menker cannot change the world alone. But the firm she started, Gro Intelligence, is providing information that food companies, insurers, lenders and policymakers use to make food production more efficient, and perhaps help protect against that tipping point.

Gro says it tracks 650 trillion data points daily—from sources such as government and local food reports, satellite imagery, long-term weather forecasts and greenhouse gas measurements—and creates computer models so that clients, such as Unilever and Yum! Brands, can know how prices are likely to trend, anticipate surpluses and shortages, and be more resilient when climate change makes food supplies harder to predict.

A type of artificial intelligence known as machine learning is key to crunching the numbers because, as Allison Tepley of Gro’s staff put it,

“The best information is often local information, but it’s often in local languages, in different formats and it all needs to be put together.”

This is a larger compilation of food-supply data than decision-makers can find elsewhere. Gro tracks 1,000 different crops; the U.S. Agriculture Department tracks about 50. The level of detail, says the firm, is essential to catch trouble quickly and help producers take action to protect the food supply.

Gro has sounded alerts on African swine fever in China (which cut pork production 30 percent in 2018), locust infestation in East Africa in 2020 and global inflation in food prices—worsened in the short term by COVID and long term by climate disruption.

“It’s not something that’s going to go away soon,” says Menker. “It’s basically driven both by supply and demand shocks continuously happening.”

She was born in Ethiopia, came to the U.S. for college and business school and was working as a commodities trader at Morgan Stanley when she saw the chaos in food markets. She started Gro in 2014. “What alarmed me,” she says, “was there was a lot of conversation about food security and a lot of people trying to fix a system that we didn’t understand.”

History is filled, of course, with predictions of disaster that never happened. And Menker says there are many things the world can do now. America and Europe, for instance, enjoyed a so-called green revolution in the last century—doubling or tripling food output because of new crops and farming methods. India has had one, too. No countries in Africa have yet, but they still can.

Part of the answer, she says, is in adopting many of the commercial practices that have worked in the wealthier countries—more efficient markets, better transportation and changes in farming that will both increase the food supply and protect the environment. And her own work shows, she says, that “the most critical tool for success in the [food] industry—data and knowledge—is becoming cheaper by the day.” —N.P.

An Eco-Friendly Alternative to Plastic

TROY SWOPE AND YOKE CHUNG FOUNDERS, FOOTPRINT

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM NEWSWEEKView All

Bans Off Our Bodies

MoveOn and Abortion Access activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on May 3 after the leak of a draft opinion overturning the Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

1 min read
Newsweek
May 20 - 27, 2022 (Double Issue)

Slower Ways to See the World

Travel should be an act of discovery, not a checklist to complete. Slow travel is an invitation to explore things at a pace that allows you to absorb your surroundings as you move through them-on terms that are meaningful for both you and the people and places you encounter. It may seem counterintuitive that by doing less, you will see more, but that's exactly the idea we propose in our book, Kinfolk Travel (Artisan). Following are a sampling of the destinations from the book, meant to inspire thoughtful travel and spark deeper ways of thinking about new journeys and destinations.

4 mins read
Newsweek
May 06, 2022

Faith and Murder

Under the Banner of Heaven explores both a brutal crime and the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints

4 mins read
Newsweek
May 20 - 27, 2022 (Double Issue)

Crypto In Your 401(k)?

Just because you may soon be able to buy Bitcoin in your workplace retirement plan doesn’t mean you should.

6 mins read
Newsweek
May 20 - 27, 2022 (Double Issue)

CITY OF WATER

As climate change triggers sea-level rise and extreme weather, even New York, one of the world's best-prepared cities, may not be doing enough

10+ mins read
Newsweek
May 20 - 27, 2022 (Double Issue)

Emmy Rossum

PARTING SHOT

2 mins read
Newsweek
May 20 - 27, 2022 (Double Issue)

Summer Music Festivals to Get Your Groove On

What seemed a relic of the past amidst COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing precautions are now back in full force. This summer promises a music festival resurgence, with events taking place all over the world. Across festivals, lineups are both highlighting international talent and championing local artists. From Afro Nation on the pristine Portuguese seaside to Glastonbury in rural England to Fuji Rock in a Japanese forest, live music lovers of every genre have a lot to anticipate. Let the music play!

3 mins read
Newsweek
May 20 - 27, 2022 (Double Issue)

‘Division of the World Is Inevitable'

Countries need to choose whether to align with autocrats or democracies, says a former NATO Secretary-General

10 mins read
Newsweek
May 20 - 27, 2022 (Double Issue)

Blue -or Bluer

In Pennsylvania and Texas, democratic voters face clear ideological choices that could signal the party's direction

5 mins read
Newsweek
May 06, 2022

Betrayers in Blue

HBO's We Own This City tells the true story of the crooked cops who preyed on Baltimore for years

5 mins read
Newsweek
May 06, 2022
RELATED STORIES

ASTRONOMICAL HARASSMENT

A long-term survey of women in astronomy reveals a sordid culture of discrimination and inequality in academia

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
May 23, 2022

QUEEN, 96, USING MOBILITY SCOOTER!

Nixes wheelchair but has new way to roll

1 min read
Globe
May 02, 2022

Airbus Posts Profit, Plans New Jet Assembly Line in Alabama

Airbus said that its profit in the first three months of 2022 more than tripled to 1.22 billion euros ($1.28 billion), helped by an increase in aircraft deliveries as airlines recover from the worst of the pandemic.

2 mins read
Techlife News
May 07, 2022

AIRBNB Allows Employees to Live and Work From Anywhere

Airbnb will allow its employees to live and work almost anywhere around the world, fully embracing a remote work policy to attract staff and ensure flexibility.

1 min read
AppleMagazine
May 06, 2022

KATY'S OLD-HOLLYWOOD DREAMS!

SUPERFAN Katy Perry is playing host on the new podcast Elizabeth the First, about screen legend Elizabeth Taylor.

1 min read
Star
May 09, 2022

Learning to Fly Single Seat Fire-bombers

Ag Aviation Africa (AAA), the Sub-Saharan and the Middle East agent for Air Tractor, hosted an open day and launch party before the Stellenbosch airshow to introduce their newly approved Aircraft Training Organisation (ATO), Ag Aviation Flight Academy (AAFA).

5 mins read
SA Flyer Magazine
May 2022

Drop Test

Safety in aviation means coming down softly. I once wrote that it would be impossible for a skydiver in a wingsuit to flare and land without a parachute.

6 mins read
SA Flyer Magazine
May 2022

Aerial Search and Rescue

The recent devastating flooding in KwaZulu-Natal, in which over 400 people have died, has once again highlighted South Africa's deficiency in terms of aerial search and rescue aircraft.

5 mins read
SA Flyer Magazine
May 2022

2022 NFL Draft

Today's Sports Pick

1 min read
TV Guide Magazine
April 25 - May 08, 2022

The Jets Caught in Putin's Web

Owners of planes stuck in Russia want a $10 billion payout. Insurers say not so fast

4 mins read
Bloomberg Businessweek
May 02, 2022