A NOVEL paradox is playing out in agricultural research and development. While the majority of valuable production data slips through the cracks of the world's virtually innumerable small holdings, the need to harness ‘big data’ grows daily.
Agriculture has the lowest level of digitisation, which means the amount of industry information captured for practical benefit.
New technology will be needed to sustainably increase food production if we are to meet the demands of world’s growing population, which the United Nations forecast will rise 70 per cent by 2050.
Farmers can benefit from the learnings if their shared exploits are captured and analysed. Just think of the unrecorded, untapped potential being produced on the 410 million farms around the world that occupy less than 1 hectare of land, or the 570 million farms of any size.
But ag lags other sectors. Farming comes last in the McKinsey Global Institute’s ranking of the U.S’ 23 major industrial sectors, a sobering fact given that is where agriculture is most technologically advanced. Digitisation leaders such as finance, media and banking boast ongoing capture of a wealth of digitised, organised and actionable data.
As the eminent speakers at the Crawford Fund’s annual conference in Canberra on Tuesday pointed out, ag’s analog information overload offers great opportunity and researchers and scientists are rising to the challenge.
CGIAR, a global research partnership dedicated to food security, health and nutrition launched a Big Data Platform initiative in May this year, lead by Dr Andy Jarvis, who was a keynote speaker for the not-for-profit Crawford Fund, which has a charter to promote agricultural research in developing countries.
Farming blooms with low hanging fruit in the form of achievable solutions to increase sustainable production, especially in developing nations, he said.
“Smartphones are nowhere near fully utilised to drive better farm decision making,” according to Dr Jarvis.
“But there are 6 billion people who have them, and that is more than have access to a toilet. They can be a game-changer for farming.”
While ‘big data’ captures the Crawford Fund’s objective, the classic definition of the term describes capture of immense data sets analysed by cutting-edge techniques to reveal new insights and efficiencies.
Food security objectives should combine with the ‘big data’s’ concept to sprout reliable, actionable, decision-improving advice and services, Dr Jarvis said.
An early example of CGIAR’s ‘big data’ success comes from providing climate services to West African farmers. In Senegal, the team is developing smartphone applications to crucial cropping decisions.
“That’s the question of when should you plant, when are the rains going to come and how should the land be prepared,” Dr Jarvis said.
“Farming is a hugely risky business for them, and they need to know when the rains are going to come to avoid the risk of losing their seed.
“We are trying to deliver simple models for basic questions they don’t have the answers to. It’s not like precision ag here in Australia, with highly specific localised fertilisation rates and so on.
“We are right on the cusp of working out how to provide tailored information to all farmers. We have the tools for to answer those basic questions now.”
CSIRO’s Agriculture Flagship’s chief research scientist Dr Mario Herrero provided the conference with another example of how data can help promote food security.
He was lead author of report that collated 160 countries’ census data and found that diverse landscapes, with smaller farms, would be increasingly important when the focus on food security inevitably shifted to nutritional value - as opposed to broad calculations of calorie production.
“Farms smaller than 50ha produce more than half of food globally, and farms of less than 20ha provide more than 80pc of essential nutrients in Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, South Asia, China, and the rest of East Asia Pacific,” Dr Herroro said.
“Globally, an estimated 51-77pc of major food groups, including cereals, livestock, fruits, pulses, roots and tubers and vegetables, comes from farms smaller than 50ha, and these small and medium farms had greater agricultural diversity, with the majority of global micronutrients (up to 81pc) and protein (57pc) produced in more diverse agricultural landscapes.: