WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – In the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, as governments issued lockdown orders and stay-at-home advisories, grocery store shelves became bare. Shoppers have picked up flour and baking powder, canned goods, frozen vegetables, meat and any other staples they believe might run out before they’ve had a chance to return to stores.
With a few exceptions, there were no real concerns about food shortages in the United States, said Jayson lusk, Distinguished Professor and Director of Purdue’s Department of Agricultural Economics. However, there was no easy way for consumers or policymakers to find out, as the data that could be used to calculate the risk to the country’s food supply is spread piecemeal among several government agencies like the US Department of Agriculture and Bureau of Labor Statistics.
This experience motivated Lusk to lead a partnership between Purdue University, the Food and Agriculture Research Foundation and Microsoft to create open-access online dashboards that can track and report factors that could lead to food supply disruptions during national and global emergencies.
“Data isn’t always friendly to people unless you’re an expert and know where to go to find it all,” Lusk said. “There was disruption to consumers that didn’t have to happen. Shortly thereafter, I was part of a think tank on what types of information should be accessible and what we can do to help the food and agriculture sectors, government and consumers understand what happens in an emergency. We think these dashboards can help.
FFAR is providing more than $ 220,000 to Purdue, with Microsoft matching these funds and providing cloud technology, business intelligence, artificial intelligence and machine learning tools for the project. The total investment in the project is over $ 500,000.
“The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for easily accessible data on potential vulnerabilities in the food supply chain,” said Sally Rockey, Executive Director of FFAR. “This research exposes these vulnerabilities in real time, providing policymakers and industry with the information needed to avoid bottlenecks and ensure food security.”
While the dashboards are developed with COVID-19 in mind, they will be adaptable to any other situation that may lead to an interruption in the food supply. The work will be based on the Purdue Food and Agriculture Vulnerability Index, which quantifies the potential risk to the supply of agricultural products due to diseases of farmers and agricultural workers due to COVID-19.
“There are certainly still concerns about COVID, but the idea is to develop multiple dashboards on different topics so that we are prepared to respond to a variety of issues that could arise during a large-scale emergency,” Lusk said. “The dashboard we have now is based on publicly available data and doesn’t tell you much. With these new dashboards, we will integrate machine learning and perform extrapolations to better estimate and forecast disruptions in the food supply industry.
One area that has been of concern during COVID-19 is the meat processing sector, where high rates of COVID among workers can disrupt operations. Lusk said the dashboards will zoom in at the county level to show the percentage of sick residents and use machine learning to estimate the number of workers at a factory who may or may be affected in the near future. This information can be useful to health officials and government agencies, which may allocate resources to these areas or issue rules to deal with problems.
The work also provides researchers with data to identify the impacts of policy decisions during a pandemic or other type of large-scale emergency.
“These dashboards can give us the opportunity to understand the impact of regulations on the food supply during a pandemic,” Lusk said. “It can help inform future decisions so that we can continue to move food from areas of low demand to areas of high demand and to reach those who need it most in difficult times.”
Writer: Brian Wallheimer; 765-532-0233; [email protected]
Source: Jayson Lusk, 765-494-4191; [email protected]
Agricultural communications: 765-494-8415;