Robynne Anderson's Emerging Thoughts on Ag

Tech, Data and Ag

2016-04-25-1461601170-7117176-robynnUN-thumbMany have the impression that technology is for “new” sectors; that farming – which represents a third of the world’s population, half its poor, and is the primary driver of rural development – needs no more than a plow. The sleepy vision of agriculture belies the reality that the most empowered farmers deploy technology regularly to improve yields, increase resilience, and to reduce the footprint of agriculture with sustainable intensification. Conservation tillage is an excellent example and has saved soil, water resources, and reduced fossil fuel use. Farmers themselves took up this technology. Just as they have taken up technology to produce energy from waste products like manure.

Farmers are frequent and complex users of technology.

In the case of smallholders, that technology may take the form of better seeds, water harvesting methods, and grain storage. Some of these technologies are well known, but there are practical risk management issues for someone to change variables on their farm – a complex eco-system – when they are living on less than a dollar or two a day.

This is perpetuated by gaps in research in many areas. So-called “orphan crops” don’t receive their fair share of funding, even in the face of profound needs such as the challenges cassava, banana, and palm dates face from crop diseases. Plus, we are often inclined to talk about crops, forgetting entirely the livestock sector that touches the lives of billions. Funding for animal health not only improves livestock productivity and sustainability, but also helps protect human health.

Recently, I’ve heard many comments that seem a bit snide about how agriculture science only focuses on yield. Without question, science should focus on nutrition, value-addition, and sustainability. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that yields are the way farmers get paid, and we will fail farmers if we leave them with less income than they need to produce our food. Please don’t forget that farmers also produce our clothes in the form of cotton, wool and other fibres, as well as energy, and innumerable other natural products.

To enable farmers to do this successfully, there is a clear and imperative need to invest in public and private agricultural research. This always receives lip service, but we are seeing groups like the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Resources system struggle with massive cutbacks. At the same time, people criticise and undermine intellectual property in agriculture which funds private sector research. We need to support the whole of the science, innovation and technology process in agriculture.

Another clear gap is agricultural extension systems, which were largely gutted over the past few decades. We need local knowledge to supply best practices, implementation, and technologies. We need ways for knowledge sharing to advance agriculture in conversations between scientists in labs and every farmer who are themselves biologists and ecologists working in practice.

Finally, I cannot stress enough the need for insurance and risk management tools to allow farmers to uptake technology when they have only one crop or herd a year. Socio-economic realities limit the ability of smallholders – most of whom are women – to take up new technologies and even basic mechanisation.

All that depends on technology, and also data. Farmers are huge developers and consumers of data and one gap is to fund the use of big data like geospatial and infrared to help agriculture, particularly in the light of climate change.

Agriculture is a great example where we can further the sustainability and further the equity by furthering technology. It has a particular impact in rural areas where some of the greatest inequities exist.

From an agriculture perspective, we have only 14 harvests left to go to 2030 to reach the Sustainable Development Goals #Global Goals