Digital agriculture
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - February 14, 2020 - 12:00am

Food security is one of the greatest challenges that humankind faces in the future. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) predicts that global population will exceed nine billion by 2050 raising global demand for food and feeds by 100 percent from current levels. This will be exacerbated by rising global middle-class population that will grow by two billion by 2030 leading to an evolution in dietary demands. 

While consumption is set to grow, farmers are facing enormous challenges to meet this demand. Rapid urbanization, land degradation and competition with energy crops such as corn and sugarcane has led to a rapid decline in farmland for food production. Climate change, however, constitutes the biggest challenge. Increased temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns, more frequent extreme weather events, and reductions in water availability are already impacting the agriculture sector. In 2030, the annual consumption of water globally will increase by 40 percent amidst dwindling supply. The proportion of arable land that would be subject to degradation will reach 20 percent. The global average temperature will rise by 2.5 degrees from greenhouse effect.

In this environment, the only solution left to increase food production is through the adoption of new technologies to improve productivity and minimize crop losses from natural causes. In developing economies, farm mechanization, improving seed varieties and good farming practices are first level improvements. Governments must also improve its provision of agricultural inputs and agricultural service models and introduce policies that promote more diversified, technology-rich, green and efficient production and increase climate change resilience.

But it is the application of digital technology to agriculture that promises the same transformative impact that it has had on manufacturing and services (hence Industrial Revolution or IR4). Digital agriculture refers to the use of digital technology to integrate agricultural production from the field to the table through the application of tools and information to make more informed decisions and improve productivity. These tools include the internet, big data, cloud computing, Internet of Things, drones, and sensors and other monitoring solutions. By collecting real-time data on crop development, soil, weather, and air quality, farmers are able to make intelligent decisions with regards to planting, fertilizing, and harvesting crops. Using this technology, farmers can effectively use information to achieve greater yields and therefore earn higher profits. Digital technology will also enable farmers to access markets – to gather information and to sell their products.

Digital agriculture is also a critical enabler for attracting and retaining local populations as well as start-ups and other businesses. Younger generations are keen to work with technology and so they would be enthused to live and work in rural communities. Recent studies show that in the Philippines the average age of farmers are nearing 60 as more and more young people abandon farms to seek work elsewhere.

Agriculture Secretary William Dar has been an early proponent of applying digital technology to agriculture to raise farm productivity, connect producers to the markets, and allow them to learn the latest on market and technology trends. Digital technology can be applied across the agricultural value chain covering research and development (R&D), access to inputs, production, marketing, wholesale/distribution, retail, and product traceability.

But Dar says that in the Philippines, “the farming sector is still stuck in the first industrial revolution, with millions of smallholder farmers still relying on human and animal power, and simple farm implements like the plow for on-field farm production. Level of farm mechanization in the Philippines is, thus, very low. Lacking access to the latest technologies in food processing, smallholder farmers are also constrained to go into value adding, denying them access to the export market. Smallholder farmers, as such,  will remain trapped in poverty unless they become part of Industry 4.0.”

Dar proposes that in proceeding to digitize Philippine agriculture, policy makers and implementors take a holistic approach looking at the challenges and opportunities, in setting priorities and identifying policies that can support ICT application in farming, and identifying the target audience and market potential.

But before digitizing or applying ICT in agriculture, reforms within institutions should be implemented with the most important to increase their receptiveness to digital agriculture. This will also require a change in the mindset of actors and stakeholders in Philippine agriculture, or to reorient them towards Industry 4.0.” It will also require regulatory reforms addressing all actors and stakeholders to create an environment that will be receptive to digital agriculture. Dar says that “with government, private, and academic institutions becoming more receptive to digitizing agriculture or making agripreneurship more ICT-oriented, aspiring or young innovators and entrepreneurs can be provided a platform with a variety of support services to help them develop, launch, and scale up their products and services.”

It is with this in mind that the Carlos P. Romulo Foundation will organize a workshop in late March or mid April to bring private sector inputs into the conversation that Secretary Dar began with this article he wrote before he became DA secretary. The goal is to develop recommendations relating to the process necessary for the Philippines – including the enabling policy and regulatory environment – for the transformation to digital agriculture to take root and thrive. Public-private partnerships will be key as development and deployment of digital technology in agriculture will require a high level of expertise. However, for the private sector to maximize their contribution to this endeavor, through their entrepreneurship and R&D capabilities, will require the appropriate policy environment to attract investments in the necessary hard and soft infrastructure.

The proposed workshop will cover a general discussion of applicable digital technologies and their transformative impact on production, marketing and financing to be followed by a discussion on creating the proper environment for this transformative process to literally take root. To help ensure meaningful outcomes, we will invite the participation of the relevant government officials from the executive and the legislature, the private sector, farmers’ groups and experts in the field.

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