Traditionally, farmers needed to know what to grow, when to grow, how to grow and where to grow. With agriculture the world over becoming increasingly market oriented, farmers now also need to know what market, when to market, how to market and where to market in addition to many other kinds of information for successful and sustainable farming. Information is now also needed by different actors, especially governments and development agencies at national, regional and global levels to meet new challenges to agriculture such as for efficient land and water use, preventing desertification, managing spread of disease and pests, managing and compensating for farm disasters such as from drought, floods etc.
Data and information that farmers need
Most of the information farmers need now is primarily sourced as data from many different sources and processed to information also by different actors. Farmers, individually and collectively, themselves are both producers and users of data and information. Governments gather and maintain land records and production data from farmers. Meteorological stations gather and provide weather and climate data. Organised markets have data on commodity flows and prices. Producers and processors provide product related data. The cost of information in agricultural market chains, including that of labelling for food safety and traceability which is now compulsory to market food in markets of developed countries, can range between 5-25 per cent and more of the cost of the final product. This indicates the economic role of information management in agricultural market participation.
The globalization of agricultural markets and use of advanced technologies have now resulted in complex networks of data generators, processors and users of information and equally complex capacity needs to effectively process, disseminate and use data. It is also spawning lucrative agri-businesses that service information needs of the many actors in agricultural market and value addition chains. Further, as market orientation of agricultural production evolves with corporate multinational supermarkets, fast food restaurant chains and commodity traders who have their own closed market chains, information flows are being increasingly controlled, closed and restricted in use through property rights of data, information, design and use of standards and concerns of information and information systems security. Similarly, photometry data is now available through use of satellites, remote sensing aircraft, drones and Wifi-connected farm machinery such as tractors, planters and harvesters where ownership of data can become obfuscated especially for farmers who conventionally and legally own all including data that is produced from their land.
Market related data and farmers
Current market structures, especially for smallholder farmers in developing countries, result in significant asymmetries of information flows between farmers and other actors in agricultural market chains. These asymmetries are a result of many issues such as of availability, accessibility, affordability, relevance, usefulness, accuracy, precision, timeliness and trustworthiness and most important ability to effectively manage and use data and information. These asymmetries are significant detriments to equitable and fair participation of farmers in agricultural markets. New technologies such as big data available through data clouds and analytics enable analysts and users with capacities to use this data for prediction of agricultural phenomenon that may influence and affect market flows and, consequently, prices. Therefore asymmetries in information flow can, as evidenced in the food crises of 2007-2008, bring unfair benefits to those who have the capacities to collect, process and use agricultural data including that generated by farmers.
Possible solutions in opening data and information
Data and information are important for sustainable farming, meeting new challenges to agriculture and creating efficient market chains. Openly available data at various levels can contribute immensely to bringing efficiency and economy and reduce wastage in farming and market chains, better manage natural resources, combat climate change, spread of trans-boundary diseases, loss of biodiversity etc. and create employment opportunities especially among educated youth in rural areas. At the moment the main barrier to making data open for sharing and exchange is the lack of trust about equitable and fair use. This lack of trust is between countries, societies, communities and different groups of actors and users of agricultural, farming and food related data.
This is a new challenge, never faced before by the world, at the core of which is the future ability to feed, clothe and provide livelihoods to its billions of people. The solutions to creating a global ecosystem to bring benefits of openly available and used data lie in considering all Institutional, technology and involvement of communities issues together and holistically in the management of data globally. At the Institutions level, revamped and new policies, regulations and regulatory mechanisms, rules, norms, standards, organisations and work process to manage open data globally, nationally and locally are required. Technology related to manage, process and use data such as of data analytics, search algorithms and super computers capable of massive, rapid processing of data are also required to be openly shared. As most issues in open data management and use are also issues of ethics and mores the involvement of communities especially by enabling them to manage their data and use data effectively for their development is needed.
Farmers, especially smallholder farmers, need new Institutions and structures to effectively use data and new information to practice their farming sustainably with resilience. These Institutions are to aggregate and manage data and enable their effective use. These can be “data” cooperatives that are also data repositories and trust centres with capability to negotiate and provide data to other actors as also use data and information from other actors to benefit the cooperatives’ members. Farmers also need new information and communications technologies, especially mobile computers with communications capabilities and applications that can be used on farms and farm machineries.
Some of the suggestions for farmers to effectively manage and use openly available data are:
- Implementation of policies promoting and enabling aggregation of family farmers and farming systems such as through cooperatives, producer organizations, farmer organizations etc.
- “Virtual” aggregation of farms, synchronization of farm inputs, processes, outputs and logistics to participate in markets through use of ICTs.
- Development of new forms of advisory and support systems for use of new knowledge, skills and technology
- Development of Trust Centers with Data and Information Agreements, Treaties with regulatory and enforcement mechanisms to share data at various levels and among multiple categories of users from plot, farm, farming system, region, national to global agricultural and related systems.
- New business-models that integrate governments, farmers and banks, insurance, market intermediaries, cooperatives etc. for participation in markets
- Inclusive Governance of flow of data, information, knowledge, skills and technology
- Inclusive development of standards
- Open technologies for farming and on-farm processing of farm products as also for data and information
- Increasing democratization of science, learning and support to exponential innovation
- Lowering cost of Hardware, infrastructure and connectivity
Blogpost by Ajit Maru, Senior Knowledge Officer, GFAR Secretariat – Ajit.Maru(at)fao.org
Photo: FAO/Roberto Faidutti
This post is part of the live coverage during the #GCARD3 Global Conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, 5-8 April 2016 and is related to Theme 4: Sustaining the business of farming.