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FAO’s Nevena Alexandrova: let farmers innovate with new technologies

If there’s one thing all farmers share, it’s the drive to innovate. To find better, cleaner, easier, more productive ways of doing things.

Agriculture, like all economic sectors today, has a wide array of modern technologies at its disposal. Nevena Alexandrova, FAO agricultural innovation and knowledge sharing officer, believes all farmers deserve a chance to use the new technologies – and invent creative uses for them. On the eve of the High-level Forum on e-agriculture: 2gether 4 Strong Digital Agriculture (Sofia, Bulgaria, 18-20 April 2018), Alexandrova spoke with FAO senior communication officer Sharon Lee Cowan.

Q.: We hear a lot these days about ‘e-agriculture’ – what is it, exactly?

A.: Basically, “e-agriculture” means the application of information and communication technologies to agriculture – including crops, livestock, fisheries and forestry. It embraces the whole food system, and can also include more traditional technologies, such as radio, television, mobile phones, and more. As a principle, FAO is not just promoting the technologies but is also concerned with ensuring the proper conditions – so that in practice these technologies can be applied by anyone and at no risk.

Q.: Why does farming have be so ‘technological’?

A.: Agriculture has become much more knowledge-intensive. Having access to timely, accurate information – tailored to local conditions – is critical if a farm or other rural enterprise is going to be competitive and make the most of its resources. Over the past 15 years, the revolution in information and communication technologies, or ICTs, has driven change in every aspect of our lives. Why would agriculture be any different? In addition, agriculture nowadays is much more than farming, it becomes more and more integrated with other sectors and this integration requires optimization through digitalization.

Q.: What are some of the technologies available?

A.: Sensor technology is a big one. With remote sensing, data on soil or air temperature, moisture, weather patterns and other details can be measured by a device and transmitted to the farmer at another location.

The so-called internet of things is important for agriculture. This is how different devices, sensors and machines can interact among each other using the internet networks and generate huge volumes of data. As an example, information might be coming from many different sources – the sky, the soil, different fields – and combining on a single platform to provide the farmer with “big data”.

We use ICTs to transmit prices and other market data to farmers, so they can make informed decisions about what to bring to market and when.

Traceability of food has become very important. Technology makes it possible to trace food all along the way from farm to final product in the supermarket. To know whether it has been frozen and thawed, and how many times.

Unmanned aerial vehicles – popularly known as drones – are being used to gather information from distant fields. They provide higher-resolution images than satellites, and make it possible to detect pests and diseases, weeds, or drought status, without physically walking or driving across hectares of land.

For smallholders, walking the fields is not a problem, but internet access may be. They need access to mobile phones, smart phones, mobile internet, online knowledge platforms – not to mention radio and television. In many countries, rural areas still lack the infrastructure for internet.

Blockchain technology has the potential to be revolutionary in agrifood trade, because it offers total transparency on who is adding value or modifying prices at different stages of the value chain. In theory, one day it could even eliminate the need for retailers.

Q.: So, it sounds like e-agriculture is good news.
A.: There is definitely huge potential for these are other technologies to transform agriculture – making it more efficient, safer, less labour-intensive, more appealing to young people with ICT skills, and perhaps more feasible for older people who are less mobile. To name just a few of the benefits.

Q.: Is there any downside?
A.: There are still some issues to be resolved at the level of standards and regulations, for instance which data can be considered as “open” or freely accessible by anyone, who owns the data generated in the farmer’s field (the farmer, the advisor company, the IT developer, or government?), how to deal with data to preserve personal data control and security, and others. But the big issue is this: without a national strategy for incorporating these technologies in the rural domain, countries run the risk of creating winners and losers.

Without a national strategy for incorporating these
technologies in the rural domain, countries run the risk of creating winners and losers.

Developing a national strategy is a process that takes into account the country’s own rural development goals. It is a process that involves everyone – from smallholders and family farms all the way up to large agrifood companies. We are already assisting several countries around the world in this process, and look forward to working with many more in the Europe and Central Asia region. Adopting a national approach to e-agriculture will result in improved livelihoods and incomes for people living in rural communities.

Q.: Share one final take-away thought.
The message we want to spread is that it’s not any particular technology or category of technology that needs to be emphasized. The important thing, especially for smallholders, is their capacity and incentives for innovation. Once having the appropriate capacities, with access to technology, knowledge and infrastructure, farmers will choose the technologies that make sense for them, and invent new ways of using and combining them.

11 April 2018, Budapest, Hungary

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