Transforming the #GlobalFoodSystem one byte at a time

| January 17, 2020

Few areas of our lives remain untouched by new, emerging technologies and growing levels of digitalization, writes Benjamin Addom, Team Leader, ICTs for Agriculture, Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Co-operation (CTA).

The way we work, travel, interact and access public services have all been transformed by smart devices, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), all of which are themselves rapidly evolving.

This transformation is even going as far as impacting what we eat, with scientific breakthroughs from lab-grown meat to artificial flour.

But as we rise to the challenge of achieving zero hunger in the next 10 years, there is no doubt that digitalization is the game changer with the potential to transform how we produce food to meet global demand.

Digital technologies like blockchaindrones and satellites used in increasingly creative ways, offer the opportunity to create digital services, tools and platforms that disrupt traditional agriculture. These applications can streamline labour-intensive practices such as monitoring crop health as well as opening up agribusiness markets and online networks.

The potential impact is enormous and far-reaching, but it is only likely to be fulfilled if it is channelled and coordinated internationally to ensure that everyone benefits. Most importantly, this means reaching millions of smallholder farmers, who contribute as much as a third of global food production, and are often in the most remote, vulnerable regions.

To achieve this, we urgently need clear global leadership that will chart a path towards greater digitalization for agriculture that helps produce more food for more people with ever fewer resources.

This is especially critical for developing countries, as we found in last year’s flagship report on the opportunity of digitalisation for African agriculture.

There may currently be more than 400 different digital agriculture solutions, services and platforms with 33 million registered farmers across sub-Saharan Africa, but this is just the tip of the iceberg, with 90 per cent of the estimated market still untapped.

Global leadership to shape this market was one of several recommendations made in the report, which highlighted seven challenges to overcome in order to realise the potential of digitalization for agriculture.

Among these challenges is a lack of data demonstrating the impact and benefit of digitalization for agriculture, partly as a result of a lack of coordination between key players.

Such data is vital to help make the case not only for investment in digitalization but also for adoption among farmers, who are unlikely to use new technologies if they cannot be convinced of their benefits.

International collaboration around digitalization would allow for the emergence of a community of expertise, which could produce such data and enable developing countries to learn from the success stories of other nations.

Second, the digitalization for agriculture market is missing a sustainable business model, and is currently propped up by donor projects, which are often short-lived and limited in scope.

Greater public investment and supportive policies, as directed by an international coalition, would help drive private investment and subsequently digital innovation.

A coherent, global resource for best practice can help channel this investment and identify strategies that sustainably expands digital tools, which is particularly important for smallholder farmers in remote areas.

Finally, the digital agriculture divide must be addressed and bridged. Investors and for-profits often prioritise accessible, existing markets, which then perpetuates the gap in digital literacy throughout the rest of the agricultural value chain.

An international alliance or coalition with a mandate for digitalization for agriculture would help ensure public oversight and transparency that helps balance the growth and spread of new technologies, while also preventing vulnerable markets from being exploited by giants of the technology sector.

As more developing countries move towards greater levels of digitalization, issues that have long been a concern elsewhere, such as privacy and the monopoly of major companies, present a greater threat in countries not equipped to deal with them.

But a global centre of expertise could help advise on these issues and provide guidelines or frameworks that help ensure the adoption of digitalisation in agriculture is fair, equitable and democratic.

The appetite for such international coordination was clear last year when 74 agriculture ministers and officials called for a proposal for an International Digital Council for Food and Agriculture.

And it is encouraging to see this taking initial steps forward at this year’s Global Forum for Food and Agriculture.

But we must maintain the momentum and start laying the foundations now for clear, coherent strategies if we are to capitalise on the promise of digitalization before 2030 and ensure everyone gets a byte of the agricultural revolution.

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