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Symposium 2012

Proposal - Use appropriate technology to bring precision agriculture to Africa and India

The Challenge

The world’s population is expected to grow from the current seven billion to 9.2 billion by 2050. At the same time, consumption patterns are shifting towards diets containing more protein. So the Fo ...

The world’s population is expected to grow from the current seven billion to 9.2 billion by 2050. At the same time, consumption patterns are shifting towards diets containing more protein. So the Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that meeting the growing global demand for food requires a 70% increase in total agricultural production.

All projections suggest that most of the global population increase to 2050 will occur in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian sub-continent. While commercial agriculture will expand in both those areas, it is safe to assume that the dominant actor in both African and Indian agricultural landscapes in 2050 will not change: small-scale farmers, working farms with relatively little capital and little institutional support. African and Indian farmers, in 2050 as today, will probably not be able to rely on widespread and capable agricultural extension services. With some exceptions, yields in smallholder farming in Africa - less so in India - are low. Governments and farmers alike attribute low yields to low inputs, especially shortage of fertilizer. This creates a mindset where the priority of both farmers and governments is the opposite of precision: the widespread, indiscriminate use of fertilizer and other agricultural inputs, whenever they can be procured. The result is non-Goldilocks agriculture; inputs are either minimal or excessive, rarely just right.

Meanwhile, commercial agriculture in the developed world may be trending long-term towards the Goldilocks norm: getting inputs just right. An array of new remote sensing technologies, greater data processing power and the automation of delivery systems in farm equipment has the potential to change farming dramatically. Precision agriculture, the delivery of just the right amount of input at just the right time in just the right place, is agriculture's answer to just in time manufacturing. The promise is enormous. Intensive management of soils, water and inputs has the potential to reduce costs by using inputs more efficiently. Done right, more efficient input management improves yields and environmental outcomes simultaneously. It also leads to more climate-resilient agricultural systems. More efficient use of water is vital to drought toleration. Well managed soils bring  a range of benefits. More absorptive soils reduce leaching and the loss of nutrients, keeping freshwater and coastal ecosystems healthy even when agriculture intensifies. The higher organic content that comes with good soil management helps carbon sequestration as well as improving yields.

But there is a problem: so far, the promise of precision agriculture is restricted to those with the capital and expertise to develop, access and use these new technologies. They are not cheap, and they are not simple, at least as they have evolved so far. Precision agriculture has a rosy future in the United States - where yields are already relatively high, and farmers are already relatively affluent. From a global perspective, this is a lost opportunity - precision agriculture is needed most where farmers are relatively poor, yields are relatively low, population increase is reltively high, and resilience to climate change is most pressing. In other words - Africa and India.

So let's set about realizing the promise of precision agriculture for those who need it most. We have some important factors in our favour. Cellphone penetration in Africa and India has already shown that  certain kinds of technology can leapfrog traditional infrastructure constraints. Processing power of all kinds is getting cheaper, mapping and monitoring technologies important to key areas like soil profiling are becoming both simpler and more sophisticated. Crucially, a critical mass of interest around agricultural productivity and sustainability is growing in both the developed and developing world, driven by the increasingly clear nexus between food price volatility and climate change. Both public and private actors are prepared to invest.

The key is to develop precision ag technology appropriate for settings like sub-Saharan Africa and India. Some of this is already happening. Columbia University's Earth Institute is  experimenting with mobile soil analysis labs that fit on the back of a motorcycle driven by "para-soil scientists", able to interpret the results and give sound soil management advice on the spot. Collaborations between public and private actors are developing  drought-resistant corn varieties designed for use by small farmers in Africa. But all we have so far is promising initiatives, not a coordinated programme. There is no space where government, the private sector and farm and community organizations can learn about the opportunities and develop appropriate precision agriculture technologies and strategies for Africa and India.

So my suggestion is to set up an IPA Africa and an IPA India - Institutes for Precision Agriculture. They should be public-private partnerships, since they will need backing of all kinds from both governments and the private sector. But they should be spaces that allow for collaboration between the community-level and cooperative organizations that characterize smallholder agriculture, and the technical experts who can think inventively about adapting the multiple opportunities precision agriculture technologies open up to the challenges posed by rural Africa and India. It will not be easy. But it is difficult to see how we can double world food supply without radically improving the productivity of smallholder agriculture in Africa and India. It is difficult to see how that can be done, at least in part, without using   new technologies to get us to more sparing use of natural resources and more effective management of soils and water as climate changes around us.

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