Digitising agriculture in face of climate change

Extreme weather and changing geography threatened food security and livelihood in Africa and Asia this year. Digitising agriculture has become a necessity to battle climate change and protect the vulnerable lot

By Aakriti Shrivastava
Published: Monday 26 December 2016

Progress thus far

Over 2.2 billion people in the world—or over 30 per cent of its population—earn their livelihood by farming small plots of land. The food produced by these farmers feeds most of the world. Smallholder farmer community forms majority of the world’s poorest people, and half of all food-insecure households globally.

The increased availability of mobile connections—6.8 billion connections in a world of a little over 7 billion people—has created an opportunity to deliver information services to them. “Having access to the right information at the right time has an enormous bearing on the livelihoods of resource-poor smallholder farmers by allowing them to make informed decisions,” articulates a 2015 report by Food and Agriculture Organization of United Nations (FAO).

Digitisation of agriculture or e-agriculture is seen as an emerging field focused on enhancing agricultural and rural development through improved information and communication processes. Digitisation interventions seek to achieve a triple bottomline: increase farm productivity and incomes sustainably, help farmers adapt to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions where possible.

A Colombia-based initiative that collects, processes and aggregates information on the planting decisions of hundreds of the country's fruit farmers to help them make the best choices (Credit: Neil Palmer/CIAT)

The initiative to integrate information and communications technology (ICT) with agriculture began at the World Summit on the Information Society, which was held in two phases—first in 2003 and second in 2005. The summit led to launch of an e-agriculture community in 2007, with FAO and IFAD among its founding partners. Since its launch, the community has touched over 12,000 members from 170 countries, enabling collaborations.

E-agriculture projects have begun in many countries across the world, especially in Asia and Africa, home to a large part of world’s smallholder farmers. However, most of these projects have not moved beyond the pilot stage. In a bid to facilitate countries to form national and regional strategies for digitisation of agriculture, the FAO along with the International Telecommunication Union, released a framework to guide formulation of national plans this year. The organisation offers technical assistance in the design, development and implementation of sustainable ICT solutions to address some of the key challenges in agriculture. The strategy guide was also customised for Bhutan and Sri Lanka in 2015. 

As per the report, digitising agriculture can help countries meet goals effectively in many areas like agricultural extension and advisory services, promoting environmentally sustainable farming practices, disaster management and early warning system, enhancing market access, food safety and traceability, financial inclusion, insurance and risk management, capacity building and empowerment, among others.

But why is the progress slow? “E-agriculture is a multi-stakeholder process that involves bringing together many different ministries and departments as well as private sector players such as insurance, banking and mobile network operators. Countries have been experimenting with the use of technology for agriculture for a long time, however due to a lack of multi-stakeholder based approach in sustaining these initiatives, we see that many of these initiatives/solutions haven’t moved from the pilot or experimenting phase,” says Gerard Sylvester, regional knowledge and information management officer, FAO.

ICT-based initiatives in different aspects of agriculture allow farmers access to information about agricultural value chains, risk management, market and price information, advisory services, policies. They also bring back data for agricultural research.

Even though there are no specific ICT-for-agriculture policies in many countries, e-agriculture strategy initiatives have been or are being put in place in countries such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Mali and Rwanda, and in regions such as the Caribbean.

FAO, that has 194 countries as its members, is working to to scale up successful Digital Value Added Services together with our strategic partners and facilitate social entrepreneurship and relation with local governments.

In India, Union agriculture minister Radha Mohan Singh, most recently on December 15 emphasised on increasing use of cutting-edge technologies to address challenges of unknown biotic stress in crops/animals due to climate change during a consultative meeting.

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