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Visions of a sustainable food future
[Photo: FAO-Giuseppe Carotenuto]

Andy Jarvis, Director, Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area

@ajarviscali

“The notion of the smallholder farmer – hoe in hand, tilling the land – is living on borrowed time. Very soon they will have a smartphone in one hand and the controls to a drone in the other”

Why big data will shake up farming

In rural Nepal recently, lots of the smallholders I visited took selfies with me on their smartphones, sharing them on social media. Until recently, it was the other way around.

It was an epiphany moment: if the tech revolution has now reached smallholders, the data revolution will surely follow.

And it couldn’t come sooner. A maize farmer in Iowa today uses data on weather, fertilizer, planting dates, and irrigation to make precise decisions about how to produce food. These help maximize production and minimize risk.

A smallholder in Africa, Asia, or Latin America, meanwhile, has just 40 chances in his or her lifetime to perfect farming. Each year they tweak the system to see what works, hoping next season will be better.

But with up to 1 billion smallholders suddenly coming online, that’s all going to change. It’s going to fuel the biggest shake-up of farming in a generation and help democratize precision agriculture.

It’s also going to smash stereotypes. The notion of the smallholder farmer – hoe in hand, tilling the land – is living on borrowed time. Very soon they will have a smartphone in one hand and the controls to a drone in the other.

Rain dances will be out of fashion too. Text messages will tell farmers when rain is coming, how much, and which crop variety is going to perform the best in the coming season.

Farmers will also be empowered in the marketplace. Information will flow both ways along the value chain, with smartphone apps connecting buyers directly with sellers.

In addition to crops, one of the most important things smallholders will produce is data. They’ll continue to enjoy a special connection with the land; but by sharing and receiving data, they’ll also enjoy a special connection to a global network of modelers, analysts, and number crunchers who will beam personalized recommendations straight back to their phones. Personalization is the buzzword in Silicon Valley; why not in the Rift or Kathmandu Valleys too?

At the heart of all this will be the new CGIAR Big Data Platform. It’s a virtual space for some of the biggest names and brightest minds in the tech world and agricultural science to come together and mine datasets for patterns, trends, and anomalies. It will help transform farm data into intelligence, providing new insights for boosting food production, responding to climate change, tackling malnutrition, and protecting ecosystems.

Right now, the only limit is our imagination.

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