April 2000



Rome, 5-7 June 2000

Improving Access to Agricultural Information

Table of Contents

I. The Role of Information in Agricultural Development and Food Security

1. There is broad consensus in the international community that the exchange of information and knowledge - both local and global - by individuals and communities using new information and communications technologies (ICTs) will have a critical role in achieving sustainable development and food security in the 21st century1. Many examples exist to illustrate this observation, such as the ability of governments to predict areas of food insecurity and vulnerability using appropriate information and software tools, so that action can be taken to prevent or reduce the likelihood of an emergency. Put bluntly, information that is properly applied can save lives and improve livelihoods.

2. Information can only empower when the user has access to it. Leaving aside mass media such as radio and television, information used to be disseminated in paper-based form, and it had to be brought physically to the user. More recently digital media such as diskettes and CD-ROMs began to be used for particular dissemination functions. These early digital technologies quickly led to the emergence of wide-area connectivity through the Internet, overcoming the limitations of paper-based dissemination programmes. The exploitation of the technology revolution has made information on agriculture available world-wide and on-demand. In the context of FAO, approximately 1,000 users per year requested information from the FAOSTAT database in the 1980s when it was held on a mainframe computer, whereas the Internet version available through WAICENT currently has about 60,000 user sessions per month.

3. Current estimates indicate that there are about 5 million web-sites and 1.6 billion web-pages2. Demand from users has increased in a similar way to the amount of information on the Internet, and statistics3 clearly demonstrate the global reach of internet usage only 10 years after it was invented. In addition, this growth is accelerating faster in developing countries than anywhere else. The total number of Internet users in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean and Eastern and Central Europe is expected to quadruple by the end of 2001, and Internet usage should grow even more in the Asia-Pacific region. Accessibility in remote rural areas will also improve, as satellite communications make it possible to connect rural telephones at appropriate bandwidth and at reasonable cost.

4. This paper addresses current issues and problems associated with access to information and knowledge for agricultural development and food security brought about by the digital revolution. It is primarily about information management rather than information technology, although FAO acknowledges that many challenges exist in improving availability of the new ICTs. Some key information management issues are handled in more detail in other Working Documents, namely "Strengthening information and knowledge management capacities" (COAIM 1/3), and "Standards and Guidelines" (COAIM 1/4). This paper proposes mechanisms by which FAO and the international development community can improve access to information through better management, recognizing the need to link between sectors given the diversity of relevant disciplines.

II. Analysing the Problems associated with Access to Information

5. A new set of problems is emerging now that we have the ability to transmit and visualize information in digital form which has to be solved if the full potential of the medium is to be realized.


6. Internet connectivity alone will clearly not resolve development issues. It is active participation in and contribution to the world's growing digital knowledge bank that has the potential to educate and reform in many sectors, such as commerce, education, agriculture and health. The Internet has become a vast and growing global network that people use to converse, debate, meet, teach, learn, buy, sell and share virtually every type of information imaginable. According to the Gartner Group, business to business (B2B) e-commerce transactions will skyrocket in value from $US 145 billion in 1999 to $US 7.29 trillion by 20044. Like many communication technologies before it, the Internet potentially enables rural communities to receive outside information and knowledge that can spur development. However, the observation has also been made that unlike other media (such as radio and TV), the Internet allows every user to potentially be a sender or receiver. It offers new opportunities for two-way, interactive and horizontal communication. Some observers also believe that the Internet can be an effective medium for the articulation of development needs and perceptions.

7. However, Internet access is likely to be available only to a small proportion of the people in the poorest countries for the immediate future; within these countries, the rural areas, and specific groups within rural areas (e.g., women), will be left even further behind. This phenomenon has been dubbed the "digital divide". It has been widely recognized that developing countries in particular are pursuing a moving target, as the high-income industrial countries constantly push the knowledge frontier outward. There is a new generation of digital applications in agriculture, and the emergence of such innovations is serving to widen the technology gap between rich and poor countries. Indeed, even greater than the knowledge gap is the deficit in the capacity to capture knowledge in digital form. Differences in some important measures of knowledge creation are far greater between rich and poor countries than the difference in income.

8. Closing this digital divide will not be easy, especially in the wider context of the rural environment. Regarding women's access to the Internet: "Estimates suggest that the global Internet gender ratio has remained static for a number of years, with about 63% of users being men and 37% women. Less optimistic is the claim, made by the Association for Progressive Communication, that 'male domination of computer networks' is as high as 95%"5. A recent FAO publication6 stresses not only the importance of improving the quantity and accessibility of ICT infrastructure for rural women, but also increasing the relevance of information (content) to the needs of rural women and training them in computer skills. The global information revolution could paradoxically become a tool of even greater inequality and worsening poverty for developing countries.


9. The goal of increased access is impeded by the relatively poor abilities of certain key stakeholders to contribute to the knowledge community. It is clear that this is an area which will require major development, and capacity building is one of the most important processes for promotion of access for which a policy framework is needed. A separate key-note Working Document COAIM 1/3 addresses this important area.


The Need for Standards and Procedures to Master the Information Glut

10. The Internet has grown and continues to grow exponentially. A huge variety of organizations have embraced the medium, adding information in diverse formats for every conceivable audience, and the path is clear for the Internet to become the most important platform for publishing and dissemination. However, the Internet has in some ways become a victim of its own success, given the issues of navigation and retrieval in the increasingly unstructured and chaotic environment. Users are having to search for information using wholly inadequate tools, as all the major so-called "search engines" index only a very small fraction of the relevant Internet sites. According to various recent independent surveys, such facilities cover only about 2 to 16 per cent of the searchable part of the Internet. A second related issue is that there is no quality control for material on the Internet and the user has no way of assessing material that is indexed by the major search engines. Accurate retrieval has become the top priority issue of the digital world, and novel approaches are required. All stakeholders in knowledge exchange for development recognize that the Internet environment has to change considerably if it is to fulfil its potential. In many ways, this is the culmination of the previous issues discussed earlier in this paper.

11. FAO feels that there are two major approaches to addressing the complex problem of information retrieval. The first is the development of standards and procedures role, and the second focuses on the development of innovative software tools and applications in the public domain that can underpin the access revolution. These subjects are addressed mainly in a separate key-note Working Document COAIM 1/4 on "Standards and Guidelines" focusing on FAO's normative7 role, but the second approach is also addressed later in this paper.

III. Areas for FAO's Action

12. Information was recognized as being a fundamental part of FAO's activities that it is the first article of the organization's Constitution8. It is important to put FAO's role in information and knowledge exchange into the context of what the organization can and is doing given trends in information and communication technologies (ICTs). It is clear that there are some areas where FAO has strengths and other areas where other agencies have key roles to play.

13. Much of the organization's focus is on working with the intermediaries who are in a position most effectively to communicate and to share information with farmers and other rural people. This has included primarily public sector information specialists, researchers, extension agents, educators and others who provide support services to rural areas. The next four sections highlight areas where FAO is looking to develop its Programme of Work with partners to improve access to information.


Creating an Environment for Innovation and the Free Flow of Information

14. In order to foster universal access to information and ICTs, the international community needs to pay attention to the broader policy areas of helping developing countries to create and implement strategies for joining the information economy. The shortcomings of older strategies of central control of information must be recognized. This involves giving clear and unambiguous messages to decision-makers about the cost-benefits for dissemination of information in embracing the new technologies, the danger of being left behind, and the inevitability of global flows of information. It also involves promulgating the mechanisms and methods to underpin policy reform that (a) promotes the growth of the information economy, (b) enables the free, multidirectional flow of information and knowledge, both within and among countries, and (c) coordinates more effectively the training and capacity-building efforts of the Member Countries in policy areas. More attention must be given to building the capacity of non-governmental groups in developing countries, including the private sector, to play an active role in creating the enabling environment for the information economy and also to assert the rights and principles of universal access to information and knowledge. Part of the role of the non-governmental sector should be to foster an environment of greater accountability and transparency in policy for information access.


15. A major set of contributions that FAO and its member countries can make to increasing access for rural and disadvantaged communities is by helping to find creative solutions to address demand in rural and underserved communities. This can be achieved through acting as a catalyst to bring together investment partners to support those opportunities, including the public sector, the private sector and the international community.

16. As previously stated, technology is simply a means of accessing information, and yet many development initiatives have focused too heavily on the provision of connectivity and computers. Clearly, low computer literacy is an enormous barrier, but significant effort must be put into generation of relevant content. Recent experience has shown that when rural communities are provided with access to reliable information sources using new technologies, most user groups rapidly become accustomed to the medium. The agent of change is the provision of previously unavailable content, in particular where that material relates to financial security in the form of market information (inputs and outputs), networking between peers (small farmers' interest groups), and information on technical aspects of primary production. In addition, solving conflicts related to land and water utilization is easier when the stakeholders have relevant and reliable information.

17. With the costs of ICTs plummeting, exchanging knowledge can be more efficient and effective than before, especially when combined with other more traditional technologies such as mass media in the form of rural radio etc. and printed materials. Given these advances, the stage appears to be set for a rapid narrowing of the knowledge gap and a surge in economic growth and human well-being. The task of providing information access to the disadvantaged, as well as building the social infrastructure required to provide sustainable purchasing power, will require a partnership of the public and private sectors to put in place the necessary legislative and regulatory framework to stimulate change, the ICTs, and the content. The development assistance community is set to play a critical role in assisting the process of change in favour of the world's poor, and in providing relevant systems and content.

18. A technical workshop organized as a satellite event for the Consultation will consider the best ways to establish such initiatives. It will consider evidence that already exists to show that new ICT-based approaches can help developing countries to move quickly from agrarian societies to rural knowledge societies. There is a growing realization that knowledge can be exchanged in digital form through facilities at the community level in poorer countries. Experience has shown that some essential steps if such ventures are to be sustainable, and these are also considered in some depth in the Working Document COAIM 1/3 on "Strengthening information and knowledge management capacities". Finally, it is important to recognize that private enterprise has a key role to play in transforming local conditions, given the critical role of telecommunications providers, sources of finance (banks and credit unions), agribusiness (fertilizer, seed and agrochemical manufacturers), and the food marketing and retail sectors. Partnerships between the local community, the government sector, the private sector and international development assistance agencies will be most suited to building sustainable technology-based systems of knowledge access and exchange in the rural environment.


19. Even a highly successful, coordinated international effort to foster universal access to information will not advance the underlying goal of sustainable, equitable development if it only assures global access to the information produced by advanced economies and international agencies. FAO, its Member Countries and other partners need to work together to create opportunities for the development and dissemination of information and knowledge from a variety of sources, in a variety of languages, representing a variety of views and traditions. Here, selectivity and focus are critical success factors. In addition, the aim should be to support indigenous capacity and create the conditions for more effective generation and dissemination of content.

20. It is clear that the continued generation of new agricultural technologies and exploitation of currently available ones will be essential if the world's growing population is not to suffer ever-increasing incidence of malnutrition. Yet, it is a generally recognized fact that many agricultural scientists in developing countries are unable to publish their research output so that their per capita publication rate is substantially lower than in developed countries, leading to a corresponding under-representation in the world's leading scientific literature. This phenomenon is stifling the dissemination of important technologies and lessons learnt. The underlying reasons for this are in some ways linked to the gradual reduction in research output as governmental services in some parts of the world have seen their operating budgets reduced. A much more fundamental reason relates to the acceptance criteria of most mainstream primary journals, which rule out publications based on adaptive research and even negative results. This impasse can only be broken by a new approach based on an open system accepting a wider range of content and formats that maintains some essential editorial standards, and yet which makes such material easily retrievable. This type of approach will be considered as part of a new plan for the AGRIS system, with information management methodologies that are more suited to local needs, and AGRIS will be considered by a technical workshop convened especially during the Consultation.


21. FAO is strategically positioned at the global level to implement, and provide support in the use of, specialized tools and applications for information delivery and communication in the areas of food security and agricultural development, especially in the context of the organization's normative role. In addition, the organization should contribute to the emergence of applications relevant to the needs of Member countries and the poor by supporting initiatives which foster an environment locally for innovation and investment, and also by helping the establishment of indigenous innovators and developers.

22. Information systems will be developed and implemented in selected areas within the WAICENT programme, often in partnership with Members. Outreach services to countries are discussed in the Working Document COAIM 1/3 on "Strengthening information and knowledge management capacities". The WAICENT strategy in the area of systems development is that outputs should have the following characteristics:

  1. The ability to operate in various information technology and system environments.
  2. The adherence to major non-proprietary standards9, in order to grow with and adapt to technological changes and to be able to accommodate other products, based on similar standards, where appropriate. (see Paragraph 11)

In addition, the system should ideally be:

  1. Decentralized, with data remaining under the stewardship of Member Countries and other partners, to ensure that property rights are respected, resources are up to date and that quality can be maintained.
  2. Public goods, permitting unlimited distribution of the applications to partners and users with no licensing or royalty costs.

23. Most of the issues to be addressed in sustainable development and food security require information from many disciplines, making it necessary to access many types of information resources. More recent developments in information management at the global level have enabled the establishment of distributed networks of databases and content, which lend themselves to the requirements stated above and improving the access to the wealth of information available. The new technologies can also improve the effectiveness of searching and retrieving relevant data and information across distributed networks.

24. WAICENT is already tackling the development of a new approach to accessing information that could have major implications internationally. A web-based information/knowledge management system is being developed with the aim of creating a specialized gateway. The system will provide a framework with a comprehensive set of web-based modular functions geared to aiding the administration, organization, indexing, cross-referencing, uploading and retrieval of information in a decentralized and participatory world-wide network. A modular approach will maximize scalability and portability, and will permit the incorporation of additional features into the system or the re-use of modules such as mapping systems developed in FAO for other purposes.

IV. The Way Forward for FAO and its Members

25. FAO has identified key areas where the greatest need and opportunity exist for effective collaboration with its Members and the international community to facilitate the advance towards the goal of universal, sustainable, and economically viable access to information and communication technologies. These areas compare well with the major issues associated with "access" identified at the Global Knowledge II Action Summit (Annex 1). The Consultation is invited to consider these issues and opportunities and to provide country and regional perspectives to guide FAO's further activities. In particular, guidance is sought on the issues and proposals that have direct implications on FAO's current and future activities in this field.

26. The Consultation may wish to raise to the attention of Members that access to knowledge and information is critical for sustainable development, and for its components that are relevant to FAO, namely agricultural productivity, food security, and environmental protection.

27. The Consultation may wish to consider the priority of improving access to information in FAO's work through WAICENT with Members and other stakeholders, taking full advantage of the opportunities provided by the new generation of information and communications technologies. The Consultation may also wish to guide FAO on the importance of empowering rural communities and individuals with and through information and communication, focusing especially on vulnerable groups such as women and youth.

28. To reflect the inherent cross-sectoral nature of information management, the Consultation may wish to consider its future role in coordinating a FAO-wide programme covering key aspects of access to information and knowledge.


Extracts from:

The draft Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP) Action Plan developed during the Global Knowledge II Action Summit.

March 10th 2000, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Several Action Items were activities that drew wide interest and initial expressions of commitment on the part of GKP partners. The implementation of any of these items will depend on the extent to which partners in the international development community allocate the resources necessary to undertake these activities. In addition, most of the items, as presented here will require greater specificity in order to become actionable.

1 World Bank. Knowledge for Development. World Development Report 1998/1999.

2 Online Computer Library Center - Office of Research.

3 Approximately 3 million users from Africa, 2 million from the Middle East, 11 million from South America, 65 million from the Asia/Pacific region, 85 million users from Europe, and 120 million from North America. Report of the Computer Industry Almanac - December 1999


5 The Internet and poverty: real help or real hype, Panos Media Briefing No. 28, 1998.

6 Voices for change -- rural women and communication, 1999.

7 Normative: establishment of norms and standards.

8 FAO Constitution Article One: "The Organization shall collect, analyse, interpret and disseminate information relating to nutrition, food and agriculture."

9 e.g. XML, Java.