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.
There is growing recognition among stakeholders that solutions aimed at reducing deforestation and improving water resource management also play a critical role in boosting global agriculture’s climate resiliency. This has already been evidenced by several recent international and national policies focused on deploying sustainable strategies to mitigate the effects of weather events and climate change.
Cost of Climate Change
Drought, rising average 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. The year with the highest loss was 2011, with $350bn in repercussions, largely due to the Tohoku earthquake.
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. Kenya declared the 2017 drought a national disaster, while localised droughts affected South Africa’s Cape Province, leading both Cape Town and Nairobi to cautiously ration their water use throughout the year.
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 direct result. Despite there being no Pacific-wide El Niño event in 2017, the WMO found Peru’s sea surface temperatures to be 2°C above average for the year – roughly the same as during El Niño.
Flooding and drought also struck 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. Some researchers project that rising temperatures and chronic drought in the Middle East will worsen in the coming years. For example, in August 2017 Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences released a study projecting that Jordan’s rainfall would decrease by 30% by the end of the century, while temperatures would increase by 6°C. As a result, the number and duration of droughts are set to double. The shrinking flow from the Yarmouk River, an important water source from Syria, will exacerbate the problem, with Stanford projecting that the flow from the river will fall by 75% over the course of the same period.
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 and seriously 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 July 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 region’s low adaptive capacity, economic dependence on agriculture and geographic location will lead to significant losses. The FAO estimated that the financial resources needed to mitigate the effects of climate change are equal to 0.02% of the region’s annual GDP.
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 without the event of climate change. The malnutrition rate for children is similarly projected to accelerate from 21.7% in 2013 to 24.4% by 2050.
In addition, the World Bank noted in a 2014 report that the Middle East and North Africa region, where 70% of agricultural production is rain-fed, stands at considerable risk to climate change impacts, particularly the poorer rural communities, which are typically the hardest hit by harvest 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 in 2019, 70-80% of new farming equipment contain some kind of precision agriculture component.
The global precision farming industry is projected to be worth more than $10bn by 2024, according to estimates. Multinationals are already moving to invest in the segment: in March 2018 Walmart applied for six patents for drones designed to prevent crop damage by controlling pest attacks and cross-pollinating plants. The X division of Google’s parent company Alphabet, a research and development facility, is also looking at incorporating machine learning into drones and robotics as a way to improve farming practices.
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”.
There are several case studies to support this claim. In Uganda a pilot project undertaken between 2015 and 2018 by US-based TechnoServe saw 270 farmers gain an average of $2150 in incremental annual profits per harvest through the deployment of drone-assisted precision agriculture to determine the timing for watering, fertilising and pesticide application.
According to the World Bank, in 2017 India and Vietnam began to pilot internet of things-enabled irrigation and soil monitoring devices, which are generally affordable and easy to use, and boost yields as they reduce water usage and greenhouse gas emissions. In Papua New Guinea the adoption of monitored management and cooling systems allowed the country to open its first dairy farm in 2018.
International stakeholders have increasingly called for the deployment of more natural solutions focused on water and trees, with the ultimate aim to strengthen water resource management, maintain forest cover and soil quality, and improve agricultural sustainability. The UN’s World Water Day for 2018 was called “Nature for Water”, which is in line with its sixth Sustainable Development Goal to ensure universal access to safe water by 2030. Under this rubric, the UN has called on countries to plant new forests, reconnect rivers to their floodplains and restore wetlands to rebalance the water cycle, and by extension, improve human health.
In 2011 Germany launched the Bonn Challenge to restore 150m ha of deforested and degraded land by 2020, which would generate an estimated $84bn of net benefits annually. Endorsed and extended at the 2014 UN Climate Summit in New York, the Bonn Challenge seeks to restore 350m ha of land by 2030, amounting to $170bn in annual benefits from watershed protection and improved yields, with the possibility of sequestering 1.7bn tonnes of CO
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