FAO in North America

Scaling up Telecommunications and Digital Technology for Food Security: PlantVillage


13 July 2021 - FAO North America and CSIS Global Food Security Program held a private roundtable webinar featuring keynote speaker Dr. David Hughes, Dorothy Foehr Huck and J. Lloyd Huck Chair in Global Food Security at Penn State University and PlantVillage founder. Dr. Hughes presented his work with PlantVillage, a public good technology platform that offers in-season and in-field knowledge to help smallholder farmers improve their agriculture practices and respond to crises.

The longstanding partnership between FAO and Penn State University, which started in 2017, was expanded when Dr. David Hughes, became a UN Fellow at FAO between 2018-2020. PlantVillage provides cloud software, AI and apps to FAO to track transboundary pests and more recently stressors associated with climate change. As a Land Grant University, Penn State has expertise not only in agriculture but also in AI and machine learning. As Dr. David Hughes said, “working with FAO to provide cutting edge technology to improve global food security is a natural continuation of the great legacy of the Land Grant.” 

Crop diseases know no borders, and smallholder farmers often face disadvantages on this front. Part of Dr. Hughes’ work with PlantVillage empowers smallholder farmers to use the free applications to receive crop disease diagnoses and other useful data for precision agriculture. PlantVillage at Penn State University has developed 8 apps (6 Android and 2 iOS) used by FAO in over 60 countries and 30 languages, ranging from artificial intelligence for Fall Armyworm (FAW) diagnosis and the FAO Water Productivity through Open access of Remotely sensed derived data (WaPOR) system, as well as tools such as the eLocust3, a handheld data logger that transmits locust data from the field in real-time.

In Kenya, PlantVillage deployed local youth as part of the Locust Crisis teams to use the eLocust3 logger to work with farmers and pastoralists to find Desert Locust swarms within just a few hours. Having local youth participate in the crisis response created an element of trust. Overall, the effective dessert locust response, thanks to such technology, has been estimated to save food for 36 million people in 2020 worth an estimated $1.56 billion in East Africa.

Cost-effectiveness, paths to scale, and digital literacy were the areas that were highlighted during the discussion. In terms of digital literacy, it was noted that we are not limited by technology or knowledge, but by our capacity to do this at scale – indicating a need for increased investment. With the value that these farms as carbon-capturing facilities, local youth employment, and the use of local messaging systems, the return of investment and cost-effectiveness of this innovation is high.

The session concluded that by investing in resilience through climate change adaptation technologies, the potential to tackle the youth unemployment crisis, mitigate climate change-driven issues such as pest invasions and crop diseases, and significantly reduce food loss and waste makes the return of investment enormous. Scaling up technological solutions for front-line agri-food system workers is a key way to help address the root causes of the challenges they face, increase their resilience, and enhance their productivity.  


More Resources

Advanced agricultural technology for smallholder farmers in Africa: PlantVillage