The use of ICTs to access big data for farming purposes may well lift the status of the profession of farming as a whole – for both family farmers and young people.
I was recently nominated co-chair of one of the working groups tasked with the responsibility of drafting the orientation papers for discussions at the International Encounters on Family Farming and Research conference scheduled to be held in Montpellier, France in early June 2014. My group’s theme is ‘Family farming facing the challenges of urbanisation and employment’ – a theme that is steeped in today’s innovative and emerging trends.
The group consists of experts and researchers with many years’ experience in the development field – in fact, I am the youngest member of the group. And as the youngest member, the onus has been on me to push for more youth perspectives to be accommodated in the working paper – which I managed to do. Indeed, the stimulating exchanges in this group revealed the many challenges and opportunities that face family farming in an increasingly populated, urbanised and youthful world.
Although family farmers produce most of the food consumed in the world, they face enormous challenges in accessing resources for production. Moreover, they struggle with a changing climate and other disruptions – against which they have little or no resilience – and they are stifled by competition from industrial farms and cheap imports, both of which restrict their market access. And most importantly, they are being starved of the manpower they need to thrive as a result of the unfavourable perception of agriculture among the youth. Indeed, young people are increasingly moving away from the countryside.
Despite all these challenges, family farming has survived through the years. An expanding global (and urbanised) population, with rising incomes and changing consumption patterns that favour more nutritious food – especially in developing countries – presents new opportunities for family farming to thrive in the coming years. But these changes will require some adjustment on the part of family farmers themselves and some institutional support from policy makers and development organisations.
Harnessing big data
One way for family farmers to survive in this highly competitive environment is to begin to harness and allow the power of big data to guide their decision making from the production to the marketing stage. Big data, which in the agricultural context is the collection and analysis of data generated from the farm to the final consumer, can help family farmers in their quest to compete with cheap products and imports from industrial farms.
Through the adoption of big data, particularly meteorological and consumer data, and by allowing it to guide their decisions, family farmers can better plan their farming activities to minimise the impact of a changing climate and build resilience to shocks. Big data can also help them to know where to direct their energy and enable them to leverage the rising demand for food sovereignty among progressively informed and sustainability-minded consumers in many (developed and even developing) countries.
Through these analyses, family farmers can gain more access to targeted markets, such as individual consumers – who are increasingly sensitive to the long chain their food passes through, not to mention the sanitary and contamination crises associated with industrial farms in the past – instead of concentrating on general markets, where pricing is usually not to their advantage. ‘Big data’ enables family farmers to discover where these consumers are, what they want, why they want it and how to satisfy their needs.
But most importantly, the use of ‘big data’ in planning, production, marketing and all other activities along the chain may help to retain young people on family farms. Why? Because young people are tech-savvy and tend to follow and pick up on trends. Young people are also more inclined to use ICT tools to access data, and they certainly have the skills to do so.
The use of ICT tools to access big data for farming purposes is also something that may well lift the status of the profession of farming as a whole. The more ICTs are used in smallholder and family farming, the more progressive the image of the profession will become. It’s an upward spiral: the more young people become involved in ICTs and smallholder farming, the higher the chance that even more young people will become attracted to a career that is in touch with emerging trends.
Finding a way to convince and support family farmers to adopt the use of ICTs and big data is therefore not just a question of survival in the face of low capacity and intense competition, but it may have other indirect benefits as well. It may keep, as mentioned, more young people in farming, but it may also enhance the sustainability of rural communities. Policy makers and development organisations interested in the survival and viability of family farms should be pushing for the adoption of ICTs and providing institutional and infrastructural backing for the increased use of big data in family farming.