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Virtual Farm Aid

Using mathematical models and a 3-D Web browser, international food organizations collaborate on raising virtual crops.

In the ongoing effort to eradicate world hunger, international food organizations are applying the latest Internet technology to some of the world’s oldest problems.

The International Potato Center (known by its Spanish acronym CIP) is assembling a three-dimensional online research lab to help researchers, educators and decision makers collaborate on a global basis. Working with ActiveWorlds.com, which develops online 3-D environments, CIP is planting the seeds for one of the world’s first virtual crop fields.

This is no ordinary collaborative network. Using ActiveWorlds’s Internet browser, researchers can actually (well, virtually) gather together within a shared 3-D environment online-be it a potato farm in the Andes, a cattle ranch in Wyoming or a mango grove in Burma.

Sim Pickings

Computer-generated agriculture simulations have been employed for more than a decade but are often accessible only within centralized research institutions and universities. Researchers participating in the CIP project, however, need only an Internet connection and the free ActiveWorlds browser to connect.

Dr. Roberto Quiroz, CIP’s head of natural resource management in Lima, Peru, says the virtual lab can display different environmental scenarios that are played out within the 3-D environment.

“We can link our existing models and put a visual face on them-a 3-D interface,” Quiroz says. “We can model a farm, for instance, and then you’re seeing that farm. Then we can apply an erosion model and show how rainfall will impact the farm in 20 or 25 years. We are trying to make those kinds of things visual so decision makers can see them.”

The World Wide Harvest

CIP belongs to the international Future Harvest group, along with 15 other food and environmental research centers worldwide. Quiroz says that 10 centers, funded by Future Harvest’s System-Wide Livestock Program, are participating in the trial phase of the project. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization; several international agricultural research centers; and universities in Europe, the U.S. and developing countries will also participate in the virtual lab.

Richard Noll, president and CEO of ActiveWorlds, says the virtual lab provides a common interface for institutes around the world to share their information. “A virtual lab on the Internet allows them to have a shared space whereby they don’t have to travel to Lima to get together and compare data,” he says.

Besides offering 3-D modeling capabilities, the virtual lab can also be used to share conventional data, Noll says. “One half of the interface is a 3-D window with chat. The other side is a standard browser which allows you to get any kind of Web data you’d get normally-pictures, graphs, documents, sound files.”

Quiroz says the initial reaction to the trial project has been positive. “I presented a prototype to my board of directors and they were crazy about it. They said, ‘This is the way to go!’”

Opening Up the Farm

Another aim of the virtual lab project is public outreach, Quiroz adds. The public will be able to access all virtual simulations, which will include a prototype with simple models available by the last week in June.

“People anywhere in the world can come to the world we’re building here and see what we’re doing and ask questions online to our researchers,” he says. “We also hope to help decision makers deal with agricultural policies and resource management.”

“Our mandate is to help the poor people of developing countries improve their well-being through agricultural research, through science and technology,” Quiroz says. “We want to develop this lab to help researchers who don’t have the capability of developing their own [computer modeling] systems, but can use [our system] online.”

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