Harnessing digital tools for climate and agriculture

Participatory climate-service and information training in Tanzania
Participatory climate-service and information training in Tanzania. Photo: Cecilia Schubert (CCAFS)

 

“Well managed digital tools can become a game changer mechanism to prevent further impacts under global threats such as COVID-19, and at the same time improve farmers’ decision-making processes and contribute to faster and better economic recoveries for these vulnerable populations”

COVID-19 pandemic creates new restrictions to interact with rural communities on the field. This physical constraint can compromise instruments’ design and strategies that facilitate adaptation to climate change and increasing climate variability (another global threat). It is critical to keep close contact with smallholders’ despite physical distance, facilitating the generation and translation of climate information. Our team has found evidence that farmer-reported events are independently reflected in multiple remote sensing datasets, suggesting that there is legitimate information in farmer reporting. Well managed digital tools can become a game changer mechanism to prevent further impacts under global threats such as COVID-19, and at the same time improve farmers’ decision-making processes and contribute to faster and better economic recoveries for these vulnerable populations. 

A “technological boom” without missing fundamentals

Digital tools (DT) in agriculture to educate farmers, incentivize self-reporting information, and spread digital advisory services are increasing in popularity. Connectivity of humans and technologies in agricultural knowledge and advice networks is most likely to keep growing1. Among the poorest 20 percent in low and middle-income countries, 70 percent have access to a mobile phone, and one in three people have internet access. Although connectivity prevails in urban settings, it has progressively spread to rural areas, where the ratio of farmers to extension workers exceeds 1000 to one2–4. DT could help to reach more than 170 million small-scale farmers around the world, improving their decisions based on better knowledge and information5. DT also represent a new set of possibilities for climate and agriculture researchers to generate, transmit, and translate climate information from -to- farmers despite physical distance. There are, however, significant gaps that constrain DT potential and adoption.

One concern is the lack of transparency and clarity around data ownership, portability, privacy, trust, and liability in the relationships that govern digital agriculture6. Besides, there is a clear farmers’ apprehension of becoming data laborers that are progressively displaced and deskilled without any consideration of their identity, traditional knowledge, and networks6. The increasing number of alternatives, including applications and web-based platforms1,7 is also difficult to track, classify, and evaluate. 

“Overall, and in addition to evident physical and human capital constraints -such as poor connectivity or farmers’ low literacy- there are cultural and methodological gaps that compromise digital tool proliferation in agriculture and require a more comprehensive approach.”

Overall, and in addition to evident physical and human capital constraints -such as poor connectivity or farmers’ low literacy- there are cultural and methodological gaps that compromise DT proliferation in agriculture and require a more comprehensive approach. Even if infrastructure and education barriers are overcome, -as has been progressively happening- there are deeper concerns that might compromise DT acceptance from farmers. A more open discussion and systematic reporting on available tools, what works, and what not, will contribute to consolidating a collective learning curve that will benefit all.

A road ahead compared with other sectors

DT in agriculture are still under the penetration levels observed in other sectors8, which reveal a great opportunity but also specific limits for scalability. Despite marginal costs of disseminating information through digital tools being close to zero, there are fixed system development costs that reduce the opportunity to reach a larger fraction of farmers1,4. Neither farmers nor private firms have the capacity or are the most recommended stakeholders to cover those costs fully. On the one hand, farmers are not willing, or most of the time, do not have the capacity to pay extra for digital services. Private firms, on the other hand, might bias the information and provide advice based on their interests4. These market failures and commercial barriers suggest that public financing should contribute to cover fixed costs and enable digital tools development4, considering public-private partnerships as a viable solution. More decisive public support for DT in agriculture will not happen however, until policy and decision-makers clearly understand its potential

“If not well implemented, digital tools can increase gaps in information access. It is essential to generate the mechanisms that guarantee that the DT revolution and boom reach everyone.”

Special attention to inclusiveness

Lastly, if not well implemented, DT can increase gaps in information access. It is essential to generate the mechanisms that guarantee that the DT revolution and boom reach everyone. There is still a significant digital divide in terms of access and capabilities for internet use9, and phone owners, for instance, tend to be wealthier, better educated, and predominantly male10. Financial support should not be limited to additional capital, but should also target investments to reach excluded populations, including policies that guarantee low-cost data access in rural areas5. Researchers should play a role in identifying cultural and behavioral barriers and customizing DT based on farmers’ characteristics and circumstances4

“Research can contribute with a universal language and framework that facilitate standardized digital tool quality evaluations and consolidate a systematic review process that informs governments and the private sector about gaps and investment opportunities.”

 

Way forward

There are fixed costs and lack of investments that limit DT proliferation in agriculture; however, gaps and restrictions are not always evident. Research centers can contribute to improving DT comprehension, facilitating a common taxonomy and a quality ranking based on minimum standards such as DT reliability and adaptability, and developers’ experience. Specifically, research can contribute with a universal language and framework that facilitate standardized DT quality evaluations and consolidate a systematic review process that informs governments and the private sector about gaps and investment opportunities. Overall, more transparency on DT development will increase trust, relevance, and inclusiveness for farmers, researchers, and practitioners.

 

J. Nicolas Hernandez-Aguilera is a Postdoctoral Research Scientist at The International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI), Columbia University. J. Nicolas current research focuses on understanding mechanisms by which farmers can adapt to increasing climate variability risk. In particular, he is working on understanding innovative ways to incentivize and scale-up smallholder's generation, translation and use of climate information, useful for the co-design of improved financial instruments.

 

Ana Maria Loboguerrero is Head of Global Policy Research of the CGIAR Research Program for Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) and Climate Action Research Director of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. Ana Maria plays a major role in leadership on partnerships and capacity for Scaling Climate-Smart Agriculture that cuts across all CCAFS Flagships and Regions and all CGIAR Research Programs. She also manages global engagement processes and global synthesis topics including engagement and communication and leading on major CCAFS proposals.

 

Alexandra Herrera is an Earth Institute Research Assistant from Barnard College. Alexandra grew up with an appreciation, curiosity, and concern for the environment. While attending the university she had multiple experiences pertaining to environmental science and sustainability. Alexandra carried out a research project on coral reef resiliency and feasibility of coral transplantation in the Red Sea, in Australia. She also helped develop a farm plan for a 6-acre organic farm in Victoria and worked with Pacific Whale Foundation as a research intern where she gained experience and knowledge on marine mammal conservation.

 

Walter Baethgen is the Director of the Regional and Sectorial Research Program and leader for Latin America and the Caribbean in the IRI at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. Through this position, Walter has been establishing regional research and education programs that aim to improve climate risk assessment and risk management in agriculture, health, water resources, and natural ecosystems. Baethgen has acted as a consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank, UNDP, UNIDO, FAO, the IAEA, The World Bank and IICA. He was a lead author for IPCC’s Second (1995) and Third (2001) Assessments Reports and contributing author for the Fourth Assessment (2007), as well as the review editor for the IPCC special issue, Methodological and Technological Issues in Technology Transfer (2000).

 

 

An original version of this article appeared initially as an Agriculture Climate Letter at https://ccafs.cgiar.org/blog/harnessing-digital-tools-climate-and-agriculture#.XyxCRChKg2x

 

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of IICA.

 

References

  1. Fielke, S., Taylor, B. & Jakku, E. Digitalisation of agricultural knowledge and advice networks: A state-of-the-art review. Agricultural Systems 180, 102763 (2020).
  2. Bank, T. W. & Group, W. B. World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends. (World Bank Publications, 2016).
  3. Deichmann, U., Goyal, A. & Mishra, D. Will Digital Technologies Transform Agriculture in Developing Countries? (The World Bank, 2016). doi:10.1596/1813-9450-7669.
  4. Fabregas, R., Kremer, M. & Schilbach, F. Realizing the potential of digital development: The case of agricultural advice. Science 366, (2019).
  5. Steiner, A. et al. Actions to transform food systems under climate change. Wageningen, The Netherlands: CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS), (2020).
  6. Eastwood, C., Ayre, M., Nettle, R. & Dela Rue, B. Making sense in the cloud: Farm advisory services in a smart farming future. NJAS - Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences 90–91, 100298 (2019).
  7. USAID. Digital Tools in USAID Agricultural Programming Toolkit. (2018).
  8. Thornton, P. K. et al. Rural livelihoods, food security and rural transformation under climate change. https://cgspace.cgiar.org/handle/10568/105762 (2019).
  9. Eastwood, C., Ayre, M., Nettle, R. & Dela Rue, B. Making sense in the cloud: Farm advisory services in a smart farming future. NJAS - Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences 90–91, 100298 (2019).
  10. Blumenstock, J. E. & Eagle, N. Divided we call: disparities in access and use of mobile phones in Rwanda. Information Technologies & International Development 8, 1–16 (2012).

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