Ajit Maru, co-organiser of the AgriFuture Days 2014 Conference held in Villach, Austria from 16 to 18 June and guest editor of this issue of ICT Update, summarises the key points that were raised and discussed during the conference.
Family farming may seem to differ from one region or country to another, but a closer look reveals that its various forms across the world actually have much in common with each other. For one, family farming is generally under severe threat. Incomes from family farming are declining. Young people growing up in farming families are reluctant to take up farming as a vocation. Moreover, family farmers face multiple challenges, including the limited ability to participate in markets, climate change and severe weather aberrations, the loss, degradation and difficult access to land, water and other inputs for farming, and the loss of the agro-biodiversity that affects their livelihoods.
Family farmers’ access to the new information, knowledge, skills and technology that could benefit their farming is being continuously eroded and reduced, thereby increasing their isolation from economic, social, political and technological change. Across the world, family farmers are abandoning their traditional livelihoods, and as a result their numbers are diminishing rapidly. Still, for the majority of rural people family farming will remain the main source of livelihood for the foreseeable future – at least until 2030 and beyond.
A number of trends – sometimes conflicting – have emerged in family farming:
- Aggregation of farmers/further disaggregation (breakdown of traditional communities and families)
- Increased market participation, but also isolation from markets
- More complex food chains, but also the re-emergence of simple food chains
- Access to massive data and information with the capacity to process and use it, but this access can also cause new forms of inequity and information conflict, as well as a lack of capacity to learn and use information effectively and adopt and adapt to change
- Increased, more equal availability and access to affordable, safe, high-quality, nutritious and healthy food, but also reduced availability and access to sufficient, wholesome, nutritious food for individuals, households and communities
- Agriculture as a polluter, major extractor of natural resources and cause for environmental degradation, but also greater recognition of farmer and farming services that protect the environment, heritage and quality of life
Given these trends, there are several potential scenarios for family farming in the future. Family farming could end up in the following situations:
- As rural poles of farms and farming linked to complex agri-food chains
- As a continuum of rural–urban multi-functional systems of activity linked to local markets of diversified products
- As agro-industrial systems of activity linked to global markets of standardised products
- As marginalised farms in abandoned rural areas
One or several of these scenarios may exist or co-exist in a given country or region, depending on the policies implemented by governments.
The applications of ICTs could influence the emergence and function of underlying systems that support the above scenarios. Conversely, these scenarios could influence the application and use of ICTs. For example, rural poles with complex agri-food chains for agricultural commodities used as industrial and manufacturing feedstock and food would benefit from ICT automation, robotics, integrated farm management systems and traceability systems. And this scenario may drive the emergence and rapid development of these ICTs.
Rural-urban systems could benefit significantly from information systems that educate producers and consumers on the linkages between production and consumption in terms of resources used, wastage, ecosystem conservation and community participation. Similarly, large agro-industrial systems would greatly benefit from ICTs that can monitor and support decision making at various levels and also automate many human labour-intensive farming functions.
An important question is whether ICTs can help to reduce the marginalisation of family farming and the abandonment of rural areas by these farmers. These farmers also play a vital role in preserving cultural heritage and ecosystems that enhance the quality of life of urban areas, a role that is not yet fully recognised by society. Indeed, the marginalisation and abandonment of family farming could have disastrous consequences for society.
Following are a number of ICTs that are impacting agriculture:
- Automation, robotics, autonomous, linked tools, equipment and process monitoring
- Wearable computing
- Controller area networking/sensor networks/grid computing
- Big data at different scales from the field and the farm to the global
- Farm management information system
- Global Positioning System – multi-satellite
- Drones and low-cost satellites/micro-satellites
- More precise geo-spatial data and 3D maps with elevation
- Humidity, environment and soil nutrient sensors
- Visualisation and integrated display
- Social media, massive online open courses, online learning
- Access to financial services
- Traceability systems
- Variable rate irrigation/fertigation and prescriptive planting
- Weed, biodiversity and pest management through integrated systems
The uses of these ICTs individually and with other ICTs in systems are resulting in complex applications to improve productivity and resource use, and reduce time and drudgery in farm management, forecasting, marketing, logistics and quality assurance, for example. ICTs are increasingly improving access to information, knowledge, skills and technology for farmers and their communities. ICTs are also improving farm productivity and farmers’ ability to participate in markets, and ICTs are helping to increase the sustainability and resilience of farming systems while transforming them to meet new challenges.
There trends do not only concern digital ICTs but ICTs in general, such as print media, ICTs for educational purposes and ICTs used in mixed media and multiple channels of communication, such as audio and video streaming through 3G and 4G-enabled smartphones. Other trends include the democratisation of science and education, which is increasing the flow of new information and learning to family farmers. These could be harnessed to generate an exponential increase in innovation and capacity to adopt and adapt new ideas, skills and technologies to improve family farming.
There are possible disruptions to these trends in farming and the use of ICTs in the following areas:
- Health scares (food, environment)
- Trade disruptions and exclusions (non-tariff, tariff, political, market failures)
- Political upheavals
- Information conflicts
- Other resource conflicts (water, land)
- Developments in other technologies such as nanotechnology, materials, biotechnology, space technology
- Emergence of alternative socio-economic values to short-term profit and productivity
- Counter-movements, for privacy and against intellectual property rights, for example
Improving farming systems through ICTs
Equitable participation in fair and just markets, and the need to learn and effectively use knowledge, skills and technology to adapt family farming to emerging challenges – these are the trends (and possible disruptions) in family farming and ICTs, and they indicate that family farmers require the development of a variety of measures to improve their farming systems through ICTs:
- Policies that promote and enable the aggregation of family farmers and farming systems, through cooperatives, producer organisations, and farmer organisations, for example. ICTs can contribute to the ‘virtual’ aggregation of farms, and synchronise farm inputs, processes, outputs and logistics to enhance participation in markets
- New forms of advisory and support services for knowledge, skills and technology and participation in markets
- Trust centres with data and information agreements, treaties with regulatory and enforcement mechanisms to share data at various levels and among multiple categories of users from plot, farm, farming system, region, national to global agricultural and related systems Inclusive governance of the flow of data, information, knowledge, skills and technology
- Inclusive development of standards
- Open technologies: open data, information, knowledge and learning Increased democratisation of science, learning and support for exponential innovation
- Lower cost of hardware, infrastructure and connectivity
There are several dimensions to fulfilling these needs, but two in particular are crucial, and will go a long way to improving family farming. First, we need investment through a variety of sources, such as public, private, crowd and community sourcing. And we need infrastructure to be put into place for data, applications, analytics, hardware, software and connectivity, content, integration of data, information, information systems, and applications and governance.