PlantVillage, a Penn State-sponsored project, received a $2 million grant from Google's AI for Social Good program to fund the team’s work to develop accurate maps of dryland landscapes across Africa. This project, "PlantVillage Warrior View," will be an enterprise-scale system utilizing PlantVillage’s existing artificial intelligence-powered, climate change information system. This work aims to help communities of African pastoralists in arid drylands to adapt to climate change and restore their lands, ultimately resulting in carbon drawdown for the planet.
"As the planet heats up, the dryland regions are the areas where we are seeing the greatest and most immediate impacts," said David Hughes, founder of PlantVillage, Huck Chair in Global Food Security, and professor of entomology and of biology, Penn State.
The PlantVillage team will partner with Morans, the young warriors who care for the animals that are critical to communities in these arid drylands. The project will be initiated with four Kenyan tribes — the Rendille, Samburu, Maasai and Turkana tribes — with plans to further expand and include indigenous communities across dryland regions of Africa.
The plan is to collect data points with AI-powered smart phones connected to a global suite of satellites to evaluate the extent to which the land is drying up. The highly mobile Morans travel across vast drylands to find foraging areas for their animals. The warriors will collect data across four counties, an area roughly the size of Washington State, through PlantVilllage's existing technology.
By integrating the data gathered by the Morans with PlantVillage's existing cloud system, Machine Learning (ML) can determine bare land coverage, plant type and tree size. The Warrior View data collection and ML model training will ultimately help achieve automated dryland landscape classification through AI.
Drylands cover over 40% of the Earth's land mass, and they are home to more than 3 billion people, most of whom live in developing countries, according to the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
"Gathering these data will allow PlantVillage to determine the carrying capacity of that landscape for the animals that the pastoralists want to graze. This will enable them [the pastoralists] to avoid areas highly vulnerable to ecological collapse," said John Chelal of Moi University and founder of the Dream Team Agro Consultancy who are partners on this grant.
The PlantVillage team will build a map of climate change-associated stressors through data collected by the Morans. The PlantVillage team will continue their current work with community groups to grow and plant native grasses and trees that restore the land. The Kenyan Dream Team will collaborate work with local communities to determine which areas to set aside so the land can recover and reverse its progression into desert. As the land heals, it will capture and store carbon, according to the researchers.
This work is critical, since invasive weeds like mesquite — Prosopsis juliflora — are drying up the land and accelerating desertification. This project will allow the team to identify the areas which are becoming drier and to combat this by removing the weed and turning it into biochar which will help the land, the community, and the planet by durably storing carbon in the soil.
The team's goal is to improve 1 million hectares of land over the three years of grant funding.
"A very exciting potential here is that communities who are feeling the worst effects of climate change can be paid to be part of the solution. We are working to have pastoralists receive money for storing carbon in the form of biochar," said Hughes. "We are very grateful to Google who are willing to support this work and enable these highly impacted communities, facing famine due to climate change, get cash from the carbon markets and help them become resilient to this and future shocks."
Biochar is black carbon produced from the burning of biomass sources, which includes but is not limited to items like wood chips, plant residues, manure or other agricultural waste products, according to the Agricultural Research Service. The main purpose for the creation of biochar is for carbon sequestration.
The PlantVillage project was initiated in 2012 with support from the Huck Innovative and Transformational Seed fund, administered by Penn State’s Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences.