For a food secure future, agriculture needs to get smart. It needs to get digital


How do you increase global food production by 70% on just a 5% increase of farmland? This is a riddle that scientists, policymakers and research consortia like CGIAR are working hard to solve.

Feeding the projected population of 9 billion by 2050 is about more than just increasing production on a limited area of farmland.

Climate change is the most significant challenge for farmers today and, when you consider that the agriculture industry contributes to between 19-29% of all global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, there is no straightforward solution.

If the agriculture sector is to overcome industry challenges to increase productivity, adapt to climate change, implement environmentally sustainable solutions and, ultimately, achieve food security for the future, it needs to get smart. It needs to get digital.

Ahead of the Climate Change Conference 2017 in Bonn, scientists across CGIAR identified digital agriculture as one of the “10 best innovations for adaptation in agriculture” that can help achieve food security under a changing climate, while also delivering co-benefits for environmental sustainability, nutrition and livelihoods. But we have a long way to go.

Despite the critical role of agriculture, the industry has lagged far behind other sectors in the development and implementation of digital tools. A recent report by McKinsey found that, even in industrialized economies like the United States, the agricultural sector ranks 23rd out of 25 industries in digitalization, and the rate of adoption is slow. When it comes to low and middle-income countries, it appears that these innovations have an even smaller foothold.


Harnessing the power of information

The CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture was launched to address this untapped potential, increasing the impact of agricultural development by embracing big data approaches to solve development problems faster, better and at greater scale.

Information is power, and in expert hands it is intelligence. Digitizing agriculture can increase precision, productivity, and profitability for individual farmers through the use of interactive technology and data analytics, while also helping farmers prepare for climate change factors and reduce further negative environmental impacts.

Climate adaptation is knowledge intensive, and successful efforts could benefit from more effectively harnessing the power of data. For example, forecasts can be combined with agricultural models and other data sources to provide farmers with much more dynamic advisories of what to plant and when and how to plant it.

Adaptation can also be highly site-specific, and data and information services enable tailoring of recommendations to specific farms and farmers, increasing the relevance of the advice and the likelihood of it being put into action. Integrating more data and digital tools into agriculture to boost productivity has a number of potential ancillary benefits: greater efficiency in use of inputs can increase the value derived from farming a unit of land, reducing incentives to convert more land to agriculture (a key driver of greenhouse gases on a global scale ); the data generated in service of productivity can be used for analysis and sustainability planning at a landscape or system-level; and digitization enables new linkages with markets that can help improve value chain coordination and reduce post-harvest loss.


Innovation, disruption and revolution

The CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture serves to provide leadership in organizing open data, convening partners, and demonstrating the power of big data analytics through inspiring projects.

We initiated this innovation and data revolution with the launch of our Inspire Challenge grant and by hosting our first annual Big Data in Agriculture convention in September 2017. The event, held at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), drew more than 300 local and international researchers, non-profits, public and private sector actors who came together to discuss how to positively disrupt the agriculture industry using big data initiatives.

The Platform is designed around three strategic pillars: Organize, Convene, and Inspire. The first aims to organize data so datasets are findable, accessible, and interoperable so they can be used increasingly in big data analytics. In addition, this pillar will develop open digital infrastructures for the sector that support the CGIAR’s work and enable new partnerships and innovations. The aim to convene analysts, researchers and public, private and non-profit actors in the agriculture sector will build new partnerships that both shape and fully leverage digital technologies in support of global agricultural development. The final pillar seeks to inspire these actors to push the limits of research and innovation to generate new data-driven approaches that solve real-world development problems faster, cheaper, and more efficiently.

We launched the Inspire Challenge grant to call on partners, universities, and other industry players to accept the challenge to create pilot opportunities that democratize data-driven insights to inform local, national, regional, and global policies on agriculture and food security in real time.

More than 120 research teams, from 37 countries worldwide, rose to that challenge by submitting an inspiring myriad of innovative proposal ideas. The five winning projects featured revolutionary solutions that challenged current industry stereotypes, utilized cutting-edge technology and unconventional uses of big data.  An app that can scan and diagnose crop diseases in-field and in real time; a “laptop lab” that drastically reduces diagnosis time devastating wheat rust and demonstrates the value of openly shared datasets; and a livestock health advice service using Facebook, are just some of the examples of the industry’s potential that was demonstrated.

The rapid growth in processing power and global connectivity means we can now quickly collect, share and analyze enormous amounts of data to reveal new ways to reduce hunger and poverty and develop robust responses to climate change, disease, and land degradation challenges.

Although the sector as a whole has yet to fully unlock the potential of digital technologies, the Platform for Big Data in Agriculture is well-positioned to help the CGIAR network and its partners leverage open data assets to develop new digital capabilities for building resilient food systems that will help ensure a food secure future.

The Platform will continue to support Centers’ execution of open data policies and evaluation of new data architectures to enable meaningful applications of these data, with the aim of empowering producers –especially smallholder farmers–to lead happier, healthier and more economically productive lives.

Nov 8, 2017

Marianne McDade

Cali, Colombia