ICTs for a sustainable farming future

ict in farming

Sensing technologies that can monitor and report the health status of crops and animals; GPS that can guide automated farm machinery to till, harvest and transport crops; 3D virtual reality to help farmers understand the impacts of their decisions…
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) hold the key to the future of smallholder farming, GFAR’s Senior Knowledge Officer Ajit Maru, told the recent International Conference on Intelligent Agriculture in Beijing.

To be sustainable, smallholder farming has to be economically profitable, socially beneficial and at least environmentally neutral. Economic development through “globalization” of trade and finance has made agriculture and farming increasingly market-oriented. Similarly, smallholder farmers must also be able to participate effectively in markets. To do so, smallholder farmers need information about what to grow, where, when and how to grow it and where and how to market their produce sustainably.

The best approach is to provide a basket of options so that a farmer can make their own choices in solving problems. ICTs are giving farmers the tools to leverage information and knowledge to improve their incomes, to participate in markets and use natural resources more efficiently, bringing their communities greater social, political and economic power and equity.

ICTs can help farmers and other actors in agri-food chains to reduce transaction costs, time, losses, wastage and labor while maintaining and improving quality. Through this kind of technology, they can monitor and manage production, processing, transport and marketing processes, improving the efficiency, quality and safety not only of products, but also along the entire agri-food chain, ending with consumers.

ICTs in agricultural research and innovation are helping not only to develop new technologies, but to support policy formulation and implementation, investment and marketing.

Beyond the Smartphone

Smartphones are the most commonly used ICT tools, but there are a host of other technologies employed to make farming sustainable, as illustrated below.

The ICTs that hold even greater promise to contribute to sustainable farming are:

  • Cloud computing that will enable farmers and other agricultural actors to process massive amounts of data (“big” data) through sophisticated software tools.
  • Sensing technologies that will sense soil, environment, health status of crops and animals and report them to “data clouds”, accessible universally.
  • Knowledge-based systems that are good enough for problem solving (heuristic) and self-learning to enable progressively more accurate decision making.
  • Mobile devices that help farmers access appropriate solutions and enable them to intervene even remotely.
  • Software that can automate vehicles (telematics) and global positioning systems to aid autonomous operation of farm machinery that tills, harvests and transports.
  • Broadband high speed digital connectivity, to access, process and disseminate information and to participate in social networks, irrespective of geography.
  • Visualization, such as 3D virtual reality, that will help agriculturists to explore, through simulation, the impact of their decisions.
  • The ‘Internet of Things’, which will enable networking and sharing of data between “things”, such as farm machinery and equipment, which can be applied to innovations like variable ‘fertigation’ to provide enough water and nutrients to a single plant or plot of land.
  • Data analytics that will make it possible to make more accurate diagnostics, forecasting and predictions of outcomes of farming decisions.

Issues with current models

There are now more 10,000 farming-related apps for Smartphones and an equal number of websites providing information supposedly useful to farmers. However, current models tend to focus only on one issue, while the information needed for sustainable farming has to be accessed from multiple sources that farmers are not usually equipped to find and effectively use. Also, models do not provide information to optimize and balance farming for effective sustainable market participation and profit, as well as social and environmental contributions. The current information models need to change to provide the best whole-farm solutions using dynamic data and predictive analytics, through mobile devices for universal access.

Other barriers to using ICTs include the availability, accessibility, affordability and applicability of relevant and useful ICTs, and the timeliness and trustworthiness of the information farmers need to access. Many farmers – especially women who now make up majority of smallholders – have greater economic and social barriers to overcome, just to access ICTs and use them effectively.

Offering only techno-centric solutions to these farmers is not the solution. There is a need for institutional and social innovation and transformation to ensure ICTs are useful for sustainable smallholder farming. Some of the changes needed include revamping and renewing existing institutions, policies, strategies, legislation, regulatory frameworks, norms, standards, enforcement mechanisms, organizational structures and work processes to better support farmers to use information and ICTs usefully.

There is more to be done to support smallholders to aggregate, cooperate and collaborate in collective actions such as “Data and Information Cooperatives” and to develop larger social networks, not only in the context of shared resources and geographies, but also needs, values and interest. Innovation, for and by smallholders, is critical for agricultural development and for smallholder sustainability. The access and use of scientific knowledge and technology must be made accessible to all, to enable mass innovation in smallholder farming.

GFAR is strengthening agricultural information systems and opening access to data, information and knowledge through initiatives such as the CIARD Route map to Information Nodes and Gateways (RING), the search portal AgriVIVO and AgriFEEDS.
GFAR also advocates for greater investment in agricultural information systems, and improved integration and coherence.

Blogpost based on a keynote presentation by GFAR’s Senior Knowledge Officer Ajit Maru, to the International Conference on Intelligent Agriculture in Beijing September 27-30, 2015. – ajit.maru(at)fao.org

Illustration courtesy Ajit Maru


One thought on “ICTs for a sustainable farming future

  1. By Jan Piotrowski

    African smallholder farmers should be given financial, technical and political support to help climate-proof their food production, a report says.

    Community-led initiatives that combat desertification, flooding and drought are widespread across Africa but need to be significantly scaled up and backed with research to avert the spiralling threat of food insecurity, according to the Montpellier Panel’s assessment, published today (25 September).

    “Change will come from the bottom up as local people take action for themselves.”
    Ramadjita Tabo, International Crops Research Institute

    “Change will come from the bottom up as local people take action for themselves,” says Ramadjita Tabo, one of the study’s authors and head of the West and Central African hub of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in Niamey, Niger.

    Africa is set to bear the brunt of climate change as temperatures could soar by up to six degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Shrinking crop yields in the face of the extreme weather could wipe out between two and seven per cent of the continent’s GDP in the same period, according to the UN.

    Although smallholders will suffer the worst effects, they aren’t just victims, says the Montpellier Panel, a group of European and African agriculture researchers based at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom. Farmers can be the pioneers of more sustainable and innovative ways of food production by using appropriate mitigation and adaptation strategies, the report states.

    For instance, changes farmers make to their work by adopting renewable energy and improving education and technological skills could improve resource management in other areas such as water and nutrition, say the report’s authors.

    Involving whole communities in farming innovation speeds up adaptation to climate change and this is an area where Africa can teach lessons to other continents, says Tabo. Thanks to combining modern science with traditional knowledge and beliefs, community-led projects are thriving here, he says.

    But Aliou Diouf, a programme officer from development organisation ENDA Energy, stresses that the impact of such projects is still limited, as many governments are failing to establish the right financing and infrastructure to scale up these approaches.

    In addition to financing and government support, the report’s authors highlight several other obstacles to getting smallholders involved in farming innovation.

    These include the need to gather better nutritional data and improve scientific understanding of how crops respond to climate change. Governments must also spend more money on meteorological services to warn farmers of extreme weather events, says the report.

    The already widespread use of mobile phones in Africa – around 75 per cent of Africans have one – offers the perfect way to get these data in farmers’ hands, the report says. Information and communication technologies can also help farmers gain access to new markets and technologies, and showcase different farming practices, it says.

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