Harnessing digital tools for climate and agriculture

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A “technological boom” without missing fundamentals

Digital tools (DTs) 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 growing. Among the poorest 20 percent in low and middle-income countries, 70 percent have access to a mobile phone, and one in three people has 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 one. DTs could help to reach more than 170 million small-scale farmers around the world, improving their decisions based on better knowledge and information. DTs also represent a new set of possibilities for climate and agriculture researchers to generate, transfer, and translate climate information to farmers despite physical distance. There are, however, significant gaps that constrain their 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 agriculture. 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 networks. The increasing number of alternatives, including applications and web-based platforms 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 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

DTs in agriculture are still under the penetration levels observed in other sectors, which reveals 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 farmers. 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 interests. These market failures and commercial barriers suggest that public financing should contribute to cover fixed costs and enable digital tools development, considering public-private partnerships as a viable solution. However, more decisive public support for DTs in agriculture will not happen until policy and decision-makers clearly understand its potential.

Special attention to inclusiveness

Lastly, if not well implemented, DTs 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 use, and phone owners, for instance, tend to be wealthier, better educated, and predominantly male. 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 areas. Researchers should play a role in identifying cultural and behavioral barriers and customizing DTs based on farmers’ characteristics and circumstances.

Way forward

There are fixed costs and a 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.

New to the AgClim Letters? Approximately every other two months we write a short, pithy letter on recent climate change, agriculture and food security research and what we think it means for today’s world. Each letter will cover a different theme.

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