The following use case is my attempt at denoting the importance of Big Data in reference to the world’s largest food companies and their current impact on the overall trend of deforestation in the world. The use case encompasses many of the V’s of Big Data and demonstrates that Big Data are increasingly important to consider, especially in connection to world’s largest food manufacturers and their analysis of the current and future deforestation trends.
Deforestation: Facts, Causes & Effects
Before I get to discuss the importance of Big Data monitoring of worldwide deforestation trends, I first want to paint the high-level picture (a birds eye view) of the deforestation issue at hand. I believe it is important to do so, mainly to illustrate the devastating effect of deforestation and the positive impact that the use of new technology solutions can offer in analysis and possible future reversal of such a negative trend. I intentionally keep this part short, to have more time to concentrate on the impact of Big Data technology in the later sections of the document.
Nowadays, it is nearly impossible to find someone who is not aware of the deforestation issue. However, let’s briefly consider the size of the problem. So, what is deforestation? The term describes the conversion of forested areas to non-forest land. As we can imagine, there are many ecological and environmental issues connected to the removal of forests. It is mainly the decline of habitat and biodiversity, but there is a multitude of other pressing matters linked to deforestation. These range from the use of forced child labor to the total impact of deforestation on the global warming.
To summarize the massive problem at hand, I concentrate only on a very specific area of Palm Oil agricultural activity, which is one of the principal causes of cumulative levels of deforestation.
There are approximately 300 football fields of forest cleared hourly to make space for palm plantations. To illustrate the issue, just the Southeast Asia’s nation of Indonesia is responsible for clearing nearly 10 million hectares of the tropical forest. Moreover, because they are destroying area which is still a home to almost 45 million people living in these forested parts, it is no surprise that the palm oil industry is currently involved in close to 5,000 land and human rights conflicts in the Indonesia alone. Less known are the concerns about forced child labor, where the palm oil industry is ranked 4th by the US Department of Labor as the worst among the industries. The deforestation is also responsible for the 50 % decline in the orangutan population in the past 10 years alone, the loss of many other endangered species, soil erosion and also has a detrimental impact on the climate (e.g. clearing one hectare of forest releases about 6 thousand tons of carbon dioxide).
There are hundreds of other negative impacts of deforestation to mention, but that is not the purpose of this article. I wanted to demonstrate that while the agricultural palm oil activities are responsible for growing levels of deforestation, these activities the secondary product of the growing demand for palm oil. And that is the main reason why much of the world’s attention is drawn to the large food companies, who are the principal buyers of the final palm oil product.
Deforestation: Current Trend
The total combined market value of the world’s top twenty largest food corporations, which are some of the largest buyers of the palm oil, is worth an estimated US$3 trillion. These are the enterprises such as Walmart (the world’s biggest retailer and private-sector employer), Carrefour (the largest hypermarket chain and 2nd largest retail group in the world), Associated British Foods, General Mills, Kellogg, Danone, Mars or Mondelez International.
While some of these enterprises are known to take the right actions on palm oil issues, in general, the big food industry is not perceived in a very positive light, mainly because they are not taking the progressive stance on the deforestation issues. The industry is not acting proactively and fails to keep their promises to consumers. Shortly said, in the eyes of the general population, they are viewed as lethargic giants that don’t do enough to reduce the levels of deforestation, nor act adequately to decrease adverse impacts of producing the world’s most popular oil. Agriculture is responsible for close to seventy percent of deforestation in the most defenseless tropical environments around the globe.
That said, it is not hard to imagine that the big food corporations are under increasing collective pressure from consumers and investors to demonstrate that they are not involved in the illegal destroying of forests. The Figure 1 image illustrates how hard it is to ensure the credibility of palm oil sustainability claims. Even that the large food corporations mark their products as deforestation-free, we can see numerous ways in which the produce from uncertified plantations enter the legal and illegal plantations, refineries and shipping routes to traders.
Figure 1 – Image © (Palm oil industry, 2013)
The Big Data Solution – Global Forest Watch & Data Alliance on Deforestation
On Wednesday 18th of January 2017 at the World Economic Forum in Davos we have seen a history in the making. The top twenty of the world’s biggest corporations brokered a deal with the World Resources Institute (WRI), through which they agreed to deploy a new Big Data solution, more specifically a Global Forest Watch framework, which allows to closely monitor the deforestation process and increase the transparency and traceability of used materials, mainly the aforementioned palm oil.
So how is the monitoring done, in what ways do they utilize the data and what is the potential benefit of Big Data analysis to the food industry?
World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch is an online tool that uses a real-time satellite information, as well as openly available spatial and temporal information to monitor the process of deforestation around the world. The information is later used to conduct a Forest Change Analysis, which can turn gathered massive datasets into more explicit details about the changes in forest cover (as illustrated in Figure 2).
Figure 2: Global Deforestation Watch – Application Demo
WRI’s Global Forest Watch Big Data platform is an excellent example of some of the V’s of Big Data used in practice.
Volume – GFW platform uses a huge volume of aerial information (petabytes of historical and current data from satellites, aircraft, and ground-based missions).
Variety – GFW platform combines multiple formats, such as satellite imagery data with geospatial data (maps), global positioning system (GPS coordinates) and geographic information (topology details). Platform additionally also uses a set of environmental, economic, social, and legal indications.
Velocity – The data comes from a multitude of sensors. To produce nearly a real-time overall picture and visualize important details about such details such as the most current worldwide deforestation trends, the platform has to be capable of working with the Big Data that comes under a high velocity.
Value – Another product that allows GFW to extract business insight is called a Suitability Mapper, that uses the satellite data to identify the most appropriate areas for oil palm plantations, that agrees with the recognized standards and provide sustainable palm oil manufacturing. This, in turn, provides value to governments, as well as to food and agriculture industry. The process is outlined by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), shown in Figure 1.
As we can see, Big Data technology can provide tremendous benefits for the food industry. The large food corporations will be able to plan the future locations of their production plantations better, monitor their sources and also get up to a minute relevant details on the areas of their interest, such as fire and deforestation alarms. “By keeping a closer eye on supply chains, companies will find it easier to avoid the legal and reputational risks that can come from sourcing commodities from protected forest areas.” (Eco-Business, 2017)
Andrew Steer, president, and CEO of World Resources Institute commented on the recent agreement about using GFW Big Data platform with the following statement: “Now is the time to use the power of IT to meet deforestation goals, while also generating sustainable business opportunities. That could really change the world.” (Eco-Business, 2017)
The best way to conclude this article is a statement released by Walmart after the agreement was signed. In the announcement, they say the following: “Walmart is committed to achieving zero net deforestation by 2020 in the palm, beef, soy and pulp/paper, and WRI’s tool would be used to help meet this goal.”
Only future will show it we can achieve a zero-net deforestation, but such a development would be a true celebration of Big Data’s innovative ways to provide the enhanced insights and impact our decision making.
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Rinkesh (2016) 51 facts about deforestation – conserve energy future. Available at: http://www.conserve-energy-future.com/various-deforestation-facts.php (Accessed: 20 January 2017).
Hawes, K. (2016) Use cases. Available at: https://www.nist.gov/itl/use-cases (Accessed: 20 January 2017).
WWF (2016) WWF scorecard shows which companies kept their promises to consumers on palm oil. Available at: http://wwf.panda.org/?278673/WWF-Scorecard-shows-which-companies-kept-their-promises-to-consumers-on-palm-oil (Accessed: 21 January 2017).
200 companies commit to science-based targets (2016) Available at http://www.wri.org/news/2016/11/release-200-companies-commit-science-based-targets-surpassing-expectations-corporate (Accessed: 21 January 2017).
Carrefour (2017) in Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrefour (Accessed: 21 January 2017).
Palm oil industry (2013) Palm oil industry key culprit behind deforestation, haze in Indonesia. Available at: http://www.taylorscottinternational.com/palm-oil-industry-key-culprit-behind-deforestation-haze-in-indonesia/ (Accessed: 21 January 2017).