WASHINGTON — Milo Hamilton, co-founder of FirstGrain, Inc. in Austin, Texas, a rice market advisory firm, imagines poor rice farmers in Asia becoming sophisticated businesspeople with the help of smartphones and iPads, increasing their incomes and better meeting the food needs of growing urban populations.
Monsanto Co. paid close to $1 billion for Climate Corp., a network of in-field sensors that offer hyper-local weather monitoring, as well as agronomic data modeling and detailed weather simulations to help farmers reduce their risks.
Agrium Inc. in Calgary, Alta., announced plans to join a venture capital fund identifying and investing in technologies in the fields of plant nutrition, biologicals, seed technology, digital agriculture and novel farm systems. Being planned is also a new business incubator for agricultural technology called Radicle, formed by industry leaders Bayer and DuPont as well as agricultural venture capital sources and OurCrowd, an Israeli equity crowdfunding platform
It seems the world’s oldest industry, agriculture, is almost heady with the possibilities of digital technology to make the difficult job of farming more successful across the globe. As internet users in myriad countries near or surpass 50% of the population, optimists see a bumper crop of tech start-ups changing the shape of agriculture, both in the First World and in difficult environments where farming is fragmented among small shareholders often lacking in financial and educational resources.
But much work remains to be done, both at the level of technological innovation and investments in infrastructure and education, especially in the developing world.
The World Bank’s “World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends” report offers an in-depth look at the intersection between agriculture and high tech. While the outlook is exciting for all kinds of digital innovations in agriculture, areas of weakness need to be addressed, the development agency said.
“Harnessing the rapid growth of the internet and associated digital technologies such as mobile phones is critical to helping farmers obtain the information they need and to promoting transformative agricultural development,” the World Bank said in the report.
Noting that extension programs in poorer countries have been limited in their scale, sustainability and impact, the World Bank study said, “Digital technologies … are reviving agricultural extension and advisory services around the world,” citing entities such as Digital Green, the Grameen Foundation and TechnoServe that deliver current and relevant information and advice to agriculture in South Asia, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, respectively, at a sharply lower cost.
“Governments, in partnership with mobile operators, use phones to coordinate distribution of seeds and subsidized fertilizers in remote areas through e-vouchers,” the report added.
The World Bank noted digital technologies also may help ensure food safety, an increasingly important concern. In addition, “small holder farms can turn to cooperatives and aggregators, who use digital tools to improve collection, transportation, and quality control.”
But there are disappointments and concerns in the digital sphere of agriculture as well, the World Bank said. One such issue is a lack of financially sustainable business models that attract private sector investment in innovations benefiting small-scale farming.
High-tech tools such as digital soil maps, remote sensing and “big data” for precision agriculture mostly benefit large-scale producers.
“But there are also many innovative ways in which illiterate and otherwise disadvantaged people use digital technologies, such as basic mobile phones,” the World Bank said. “Greater efforts to close the digital divide in rural areas can have great payoffs.
“Even when farmers are seemingly better informed, they may not be able to act on that information … Rather than assuming that an information and communication technology approach will always be cost-effective and yield a better outcome, a more nuanced understanding of the underlying institutional environment and constraints is warranted.”
Technological interventions need to be supported by ongoing infrastructure investments, including literacy and electricity, the World Bank noted.
Mobile phone access has spread rapidly even among poor rural populations across the world, but internet connectivity has proved to be increasing at a slower pace.“In the long run, the internet can have an even greater impact on rural growth; much depends on finding sustainable business models to encourage its spread in the poorest parts of the world,” concluded the World Bank.