Why Europe should partner the world’s smallholders to adopt big tech

The direct benefits of harnessing cutting edge technology for agriculture are clear: more efficient production of more food to reduce hunger and reliance on imports while also boosting rural incomes. 

This opinion piece was first published by Euronews in 2019

Despite the rise of industrial and intensive farming, it is the world’s 800 million smallholder farmers who continue to shoulder a disproportionate burden of global food security.

Family farms with modest plots of land make up around 90 per cent of all agricultural operations and are responsible for producing more than half of global food supplies.

With rising population levels, persistent hunger and the evolving threat of climate change, the success of balancing food production with increased demand will be in their hands.

To achieve this, though, they also need in their hands the latest technology and innovations that best support sustainable agriculture.

This was the conclusion of this year’s Global Forum for Food and Agriculture, where agriculture ministers rightly identified digitalisation as an opportunity to cope with more extreme weather as well as delivering broader development goals such as ending hunger and poverty.

The direct benefits of harnessing cutting edge technology for agriculture are clear: more efficient production of more food to reduce hunger and reliance on imports while also boosting rural incomes.

But the benefits extend to all of us worldwide, including those of us in Europe. A more food secure world also means a more stable and equitable world that is more self-sufficient and prosperous.

Thanks to the EU’s support of ventures such as the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), which is driving forward the digital revolution in agriculture, we have seen how the adoption of new digital technologies are transforming small-scale farming across Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific.

In Zambia, farm incomes rose by 25% thanks to information on crop marketing delivered by SMS advisory services, while thousands of Ugandan farmers were able to make better decisions about fertilizer use and access credit as a result of analysis gathered by drones.

CTA has also worked with the Pacific Islands Private Sector Organisation (PIPSO) and the Caribbean Agribusiness Association (CABA) to establish online platforms to offer support and information for farmers.

And over the last three years, CTA’s Pitch AgriHack challenge has reached more than 800 young e-agriculture start-ups throughout the Africa, Caribbean and the Pacific, providing training, mentoring and business development skills and seed funding. Several of the supported start-ups have grown into successful businesses serving close to one million smallholder farmers.

But there remains huge potential to scale up the creative use of technology to create a smarter, better future for farming and unleash the power of digitalisation to transform agriculture in developing regions.

Development organisations, donors and governments are laying the foundation for the adoption of these innovations by smallholders. So, the time is right for the private sector partners in major developed markets like to EU – from agribusinesses to technology firms – to partner with these to scale the solutions that will affect real change for some of the world’s poorest.

Events such as the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture can bring together the very government, private sector and research partners that can help leverage new technology to support smallholders because doing so offers huge returns.

From improved productivity and reduced post-harvest losses to increased resilience to climate change and attracting more youth and entrepreneurs to agriculture, digitalisation is already tackling many of agriculture’s changing and growing challenges.

This is why we are excited to see ministers agree to establishing a framework for the UN for the digitalisation of agriculture, and we look forward to sharing our expertise and experience with the new Digital Council for Food and Agriculture, along with the World Bank, African Development Bank, OECD, World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

We believe strongly in the potential to harness technology to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges, and we also believe that the EU, as a consumer, importer and donor, has a responsibility to foster the partnerships necessary for the scaling up and growth of digitalisation for agriculture.

The Global Forum for Food and Agriculture has been a great opportunity to define the roles that we each can play in this move towards digitalisation but it is only the start.

Devoting more time, energy and investment to this crucial area is in all of our interests if we are to guarantee our future food and nutrition security in a rapidly changing world.