Digital and precision farming techniques are poised to bolster agriculture resilience globally

Against a backdrop of increasingly severe and costly 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 agencies, as well as the public and private sectors, precision farming should help emerging market economies maintain production through the use of mobile apps, automation, and precision farming techniques and projects – already successfully deployed in some countries despite the increased incidence of climate events.

However, there is also the growing recognition that solutions aimed at reducing deforestation and improving water resource management play a critical role in boosting global agriculture’s climate resiliency, as evidenced by several recent international- and national-level policies aimed at the deployment of sustainable strategies hoping to mitigate the effects of weather events and climate change.

Cost of Climate Change

Drought, rising temperatures and extreme weather events continue to cause economic shocks around the world. In March 2018 the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and 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 at $350bn due to the Tohoku earthquake.

The WMO reported that many parts of East Africa were affected by well-below-average rainfall in 2016 and 2017, and the UN reported in February 2018 that crops across Kenya, Somalia and southern Ethiopia had been devastated by drought, leaving 12m people in the region dependent on humanitarian aid. Kenya declared the 2017 drought a national disaster, while localised droughts severely impacted South Africa’s Cape Province, leading both Cape Town and Nairobi to severely ration their water use throughout the year.

Latin America was also affected by climate events in 2017, with the WMO reporting that Chile experienced some of its worst forest fires in recorded history in 2016-17 following extreme heat waves in late December 2016. Flooding in Peru left 70,000 people homeless, with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the UN reporting significant maize crop losses as a direct result. Despite there being no Pacific-wide El Niño event in 2017, the WMO reported that Peru’s sea surface temperatures were 2°C above average for the year – roughly the same as El Niño values.

Flooding and drought also impacted South and South-east Asia, with heavy rains in May 2017 triggering severe landslides and floods in Sri Lanka, causing numerous fatalities and negatively impacting that year’s crop production. The flooding came in the wake of two years of severe drought, 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 116,817 people. In August 2017 the Thai General Insurance Association reported floods in the northern and eastern regions were estimated to have cost $300m in damages. 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 the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), 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: in August 2017, for example, Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences released a study projecting that Jordan’s rainfall will decrease by 30% by the end of the century, while temperatures will 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 source of water from Syria, will exacerbate the problem, with Stanford projecting that the flow from the Yarmouk will fall by 75% over the course of the same period.

The effects of climate change on agriculture are wide-ranging and have included 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, as 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.

Food Security

The economic implications for emerging market agriculture are significant. In Southeast Asia, for example, the International Fund for Agricultural Development has 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.

In July 2016 the FAO reported that Latin America and the Caribbean, which hold a 58% share of the global coffee market, 52% of the global soybean market, 29% of the global sugar market and a 26% share of the global beef market, would be impacted by climate change. The region’s low adaptive capacity, economic dependence on agriculture, and geographical location will lead to significant losses. The FAO estimated that the financial resources that will be needed to mitigate the effects of climate change will be equal to 0.02% of the region’s annual GDP.

The International Food Policy Research Institute forecasts that climate change in sub-Saharan Africa will render invalid any anticipated productivity improvements in agriculture, with 38m more people at risk of hunger in 2050 than would have been the case without climate change, while the malnutrition rate for children is projected to rise from 21.7% in 2013 to 24.4% by 2050. In addition, the World Bank warned that the MENA region, where 70% of agricultural production is rain-fed, is at considerable risk from climate change, particularly the poorer rural communities that tend to be hardest hit by crop and livestock losses.

Precision Agriculture

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 towards boosting 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 manage site-specific variables more accurately, including field variations, soil conditions 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 lift 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. The European Committee of Associations of Manufacturers reports that precision farming has expanded rapidly between 2007 and 2017, noting that 70-80% of new farming equipment contains some form of precision agriculture components.

According to estimates, the global precision farming industry is projected to be worth more than $10bn by 2024. Major multinationals are already moving to invest in the segment: in March 2018, Walmart applied for six patents for drones that are designed to prevent crop damage by controlling pest attacks and by cross-pollinating plants. Google parent company Alphabet’s X division, a research and development facility, is also looking into incorporating machine learning into drones and robotics as a way to improve on global farming practices.

Although the trend has been 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 economic sector for most African countries, “offers the best opportunity for economic growth and poverty alleviation on the continent”.

Recent case studies support this claim. In Uganda a pilot project undertaken between 2015 and 2018 by US-based TechnoServe saw 270 farmers gaining 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, boosting 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, which is not only supplying the local market with lower-cost milk but it is also creating positive multiplier effects on rural communities that are benefitting from skills and technology transfer as part of the value chain. With an initial production capacity of 12,000 litres per day, the dairy farm, developed in Central Province, uses digital technology to monitor the health of its 700-strong herd, while adopting cooling and irrigation techniques to mitigate the challenges presented by PNG’s tropical climate. “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 & Data Harvesting

New apps using data analytics to provide information on weather and growing conditions, crop prices, ideal harvest times and extreme weather monitoring are also poised for rapid expansion across emerging economies, supported by international donor agencies and aid partners.

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. Targeting young people, women and entrepreneurs, the FAO plans to give 40,000 people access to these new apps. The apps will first be launched in Senegal and Rwanda, and have been designed to be adaptable to other countries. In India, where around 70% of smallholder farmers have a smartphone, testing of a beta version of a free digital agriculture platform is under way. The app provided by Climate Corporation, a division of Monsanto that examines weather, soil and field data, aims to assist farmers in identifying yield-limiting factors.

Mobile Insurance Apps

Mobile applications offering micro- and index-based crop insurance are on the rise across emerging markets, with the Microinsurance Network’s Agricultural Insurance Working Group reporting that the world’s 2bn smallholder farmers are better able to invest in cash-crop production after obtaining crop insurance coverage.

In South-east Asia, Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam have established government-subsidised crop insurance schemes with the assistance of mobile technology. The Stockholm Environment Institute, a non-profit research and policy organisation, reported that Indonesia is moving to improve its own agri-insurance scheme to meet demand.

Natural Solutions

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”, in keeping with its sixth Sustainable Development Goal, which is 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. The government of Germany launched the Bonn Challenge in 2011 to restore 150m ha of deforested and degraded land by 2020, which would create an estimated $84bn of net benefits annually. Endorsed and extended at the 2014 UN Climate Summit, the Bonn Challenge seeks to restore 350m ha by 2030, amounting to $170bn in annual benefits from watershed protection and improved yields, with the possibility of sequestering a yearly 1.7 gigatonnes of CO .

Agro-Forestry

The integration of trees and foliage with crop and livestock production areas, known as agro-forestry, will also play an important role in preventing or reversing deforestation, maintaining and recharging ground water resources, and supporting good soil quality. The World Agroforestry Centre has published extensively on the benefits of agro-forestry in emerging markets, including studies of farming systems in Malawi and Zambia that found the Gliricidia tree and the Faidherbia (acacia) tree act as natural fertilisers for the staple maize crops, which in turn improve the stability of the crop by maintaining soil quality and eliminating the need for outside inputs. Multiple studies found the acacia tree in particular to increase maize yields by as much as 400% in one part of Malawi. The movement in recent years of emerging markets towards implementing agro-forestry initiatives is a promising shift in national policymaking.

Fires & Reforestation

In January 2018 the Peruvian government launched its Sierra Azul (Blue Highlands) programme to boost farmer incomes, unveiling plans to launch 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 to increase available cultivation area.

In May 2017 Indonesia, the world’s top producer of palm oil, launched the Masterplan for Renewable Resources-Driven Green Growth as part of a larger effort to meet the Bonn Challenge. 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 the palm oil fires that destroyed 700,000 ha of forest in 2015. The World Bank estimated that the total cost of the 2015 fires exceeded $16bn, or 2% of Indonesia’s GDP. The World Bank also reported that the only way Indonesia could meet its stated target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 29% by the year 2030 would be to stop the practices that lead to the palm oil fires.

While technology can play an important role in mitigating the worst of climate change impacts and natural disasters, boosting global agricultural resiliency will require policy reforms at all levels of government, emphasising sustainability, environmental protection and the effective management of natural resources.

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