Digital and precision farming practices support global agriculture resiliency
Against a backdrop of increasingly severe and financially straining climate events and natural disasters, technology is poised to play an important role in maintaining and improving global agricultural output.
The adoption of digital and precision farming practices has been shown to improve crop resiliency, and boost productivity and incomes, particularly in emerging markets where small-scale farmers are often more vulnerable to climatic impacts.
With increasing support from international aid organisations, as well as the public and private sectors, precision farming should help emerging market economies maintain production levels through the use of digital technologies, such as mobile apps and automation.
Cost of Climate Change
Drought, rising temperatures and extreme weather occurrences continue to cause economic shocks around the world. In March 2018 the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and global reinsurer Munich RE reported that 2017 was the second-costliest year on record for severe weather and climate events, with monsoon floods in Asia, severe drought in East Africa and the North Atlantic hurricane season estimated to have caused $320bn in loss and damage.
According to the WMO, many parts of East Africa were affected by below-average rainfall in 2016 and 2017, and the UN reported in February 2018 that crops across Kenya, Somalia and southern Ethiopia were devastated by drought, leaving 12m people in the region dependent on humanitarian aid.
Latin America was also affected by climate events in 2017. The WMO reported that Chile experienced some of its worst forest fires in recorded history in 2016-17 following extreme heat waves in late 2016.
Flooding in Peru left 70,000 people homeless, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN noted significant maize crop losses as a result.
Flooding and drought also impacted South and South-east Asia. Heavy rains in May 2017 triggered severe landslides and floods in Sri Lanka, causing numerous fatalities and negatively impacting crop production.
The flooding came in the wake of two years of severe drought, which was described by the UN as the worst in 40 years. In Myanmar flooding in July 2017 displaced over 100,000 people, with the government providing food and other assistance to 117,000 people; in August 2017 the Thai General Insurance Association recorded $300m in damages due to floods in the northern and eastern regions that border Myanmar.
Meanwhile, in the Philippines floods caused by Typhoon Tembin killed more than 200 people in December 2017.
A Continuing Problem
Drought and persistent water scarcity are a major concern for the Middle East, including in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, where between 67% and 93% of diminishing groundwater resources are used for agriculture, and the Levant, which entered its fifth consecutive year of drought in 2017.
The effects of climate change on agriculture are wide ranging and include food insecurity, immediate and lingering health impacts, a decrease in export receipts, unemployment, and social and political unrest. This concern is a planetary one, not limited to any region: the FAO projects the world will need to produce 50% more food, feed and biofuel than it did in 2012 in order to feed 9bn people by 2050.
The economic impact on emerging market agriculture is significant. For example, in South-east Asia the International Fund for Agricultural Development reported that agriculture in the region will be increasingly affected by climate change, as floods, droughts and cyclones worsen and affect irrigation systems, crop yields, soil quality, ecosystems and water resources.
Meanwhile, the Asian Development Bank has projected that in the worse-case scenario, if no adaptive measures or technological improvements are applied to agriculture, climate change will drive a 50% decline in rice yields across Asia by 2100 in comparison to 1990 levels.
In addition, rising sea levels could see up to 12% of regional production lost. According to the FAO in 2016, Latin America and the Caribbean – which hold a 58% share of the global coffee market, 52% of the soybean market, 29% of the sugar market and a 26% share of the beef market – are also vulnerable to climate change.
The International Food Policy Research Institute forecast that climate change in sub-Saharan Africa will invalidate any anticipated productivity improvements in agriculture, with 38m more people at risk of hunger in 2050 than would have been the case.
In addition, the World Bank noted that the Middle East and North Africa region, where 70% of agricultural production is rain-fed, stands at considerable risk, particularly the poorer rural communities, which are typically the hardest hit by crop and livestock losses.
As stakeholders move to address the challenges of climate change and reduce dependency on rain-fed and groundwater growing practices, precision agriculture has been identified as one of the fundamental strategies to boost climate and natural disaster resiliency, particularly for smallholder farmers in emerging markets.
Precision farming is the application and integration of different technologies and solutions into existing farming practices to more accurately manage site-specific variables, including field variations, and soil and growing conditions, eventually growing more food while using fewer resources at a lower cost.
Precision farming applications include, but are not limited to, agricultural extension via digital advisory services, drip irrigation combined with soluble fertilisers, solar-powered pumps that transport well water to drip irrigation systems, soil and crop monitoring by humans or drones, and farm machinery guidance using positioning and mapping technology to determine optimal routes.
According to the European Committee of Associations of Manufacturers of Agricultural Machinery, precision farming expanded rapidly between 2007 and 2017, and today 70-80% of new farming equipment contains some kind of precision agriculture component.
The global precision farming industry is projected to be worth more than $10bn by 2024, according to estimates. Although the trend is already relatively established in developed markets, precision agriculture is now reaching emerging markets, where it holds the potential to improve smallholder livelihoods.
A 2014 World Bank report, “ICTs for Agriculture in Africa”, found that the application of ICT to agriculture, which remains the leading sector for most African countries, “offers the best opportunity for economic growth and poverty alleviation on the continent”.
In Papua New Guinea the adoption of monitored management and cooling systems allowed the country to open its first dairy farm in 2018, which is not only supplying the local market with lower-cost milk, but is also creating positive multiplier effects on rural communities that are benefitting from skills and technology transfer as part of the value chain.
“Local communities are receptive to change,” llan Weiss, chairman of Innovative Agro Industry, told OBG. “Transferring new skills and technology to remote communities creates trickle-down effects. We are bringing in farmers from all over the country not only to provide animal feed, but also to learn from the technology we have put in place.”
Apps and Data Harvesting
New apps that employ data analytics to provide information on weather and growing conditions, crop prices, ideal harvest windows and extreme weather monitoring are also poised for rapid expansion across emerging. In June 2017 the FAO launched four agri-apps to help farmers access better agricultural services.
Offerings included Cure and Feed Your Livestock, a platform providing real-time information on animal disease and feeding strategies; e-Nutrifood, which provides information on production, conservation and consumption of nutritious foods; Weather and Crop Calendar, which combines information about weather, crop calendars and a warning system for risks; and AgriMarketplace, designed to facilitate price access and improve trade.
Mobile Insurance Apps
Mobile apps offering micro- and index-based crop insurance are also on the rise in emerging markets, with the Microinsurance Network’s Agricultural Insurance Working Group reporting in 2014 that the world’s 2bn smallholder farmers are better able to invest in cash-crop production after obtaining insurance coverage.
Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam have established government-subsidised crop insurance schemes with the assistance of mobile technology. According to the Stockholm Environment Institute, a non-profit research and policy organisation, Indonesia is moving to improve its own agri-insurance scheme to meet demand.
Fires and Reforestation
In January 2018 the Peruvian government launched its Sierra Azul (Blue Highlands) programme to boost farmer incomes, unveiling plans to roll out approximately 600 planting and water harvesting projects in an effort to promote responsible and sustainable agriculture in the High-Andean area.
Projects include establishing 300 qochas (micro-reservoirs) and 300 irrigation projects, as well as a large-scale reforestation initiative that seeks to plant more than 50,000 saplings. In May 2017 Indonesia, the world’s top producer of palm oil, launched the Masterplan for Renewable Resources-Driven Green Growth.
South Sumatra’s total area of oil palm plantation rose from 870,000 ha in 2011 to 1.11m in 2014, with the attendant deforestation and peatland draining leading to fires that destroyed 700,000 ha of forest in 2015. The World Bank estimated that the total cost of the fires exceeded $16bn, or 2% of Indonesia’s GDP.
The bank also stated that the only way Indonesia could meet its target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 29% by the year 2030 would be to stop the practices that led to the palm oil fires.
While technology can play an important role in mitigating the worst impacts of climate change and natural disasters, boosting global agricultural resiliency will require policy reforms at all levels of government to emphasise sustainability, environmental protection and the effective management of natural resources.