The digital revolution has reached every part of the world, every aspect of society and commerce. The agriculture and food system is also ripe for a transformation.
What’s Cooking: Digital Transformation of the Agrifood System, a new report from the World Bank, explores how digital technologies are improving the food system, and provides a roadmap for countries to scale up their own digital agriculture, which is the use of digital technologies in the agriculture and food system. The report also provides a framework to evaluation policy proposals that can make the food system more efficient, equitable and environmentally sustainable.
Digital agriculture is helping to improve yields, cut food loss and waste, and help farmers receive fair pay for what they produce. This is because when farmers get the information they need in a timely manner, they can ensure food is sent to the right market and sold at a fair price. Digital technology and the near instantaneous sharing of knowledge it brings gives them that information, breaking through information asymmetries while lowering transaction costs.
“The digital revolution has enormous potential for transforming the agriculture and food system in ways not previously seen – by drastically lowering information asymmetries and transactions costs that plague the system, and, as a result, improving the lives of farmers, as well as the nearly 8 billion people who depend on them for food,” says the World Bank’s Kateryna Schroeder, Agriculture Economist and Task Team Lead.
During the recent COVID-19 crisis, weaknesses in the food system were made clear when empty shelves were seen in some stores while, at the same moment, surplus food had to be destroyed on farms. Digital technologies offer the chance to minimize such inefficiencies in the food system.
In 2014, an average of 190,000 data points were produced per farm, per day, and by 2050, experts have predicted that each farm will produce around 4.1 million data points daily. When farmers are able analyze this mass of information it is possible for them to adjust their planting and ensure what they grow has a market that will make it profitable.
Digital technologies can stimulate the adoption of improved seeds and fertilizers by improving farmers’ access to information about the range of what’s available and how, when and where to use it well. And the same technologies can help improve tracking of produce from the farm to the consumer, which can boost food safety and as well as helping buyers to know the environmental footprint and nutritional value of what they’re buying.
The digital transformation may be good for the environment as well. It can lead to improvements in resource efficiency through tools such as precision agriculture. It can cut down on food loss and waste by letting the market help dictate what farmers grow. And through proper labeling of products, consumers will be able to choose food grown in an environmentally responsible way.
There are obstacles to this revolution, however, according to the report.
Without a strong technological infrastructure equally available to all, it is possible that the changes discussed here could lead to a deepening of the divide between haves and have nots. Farmers who have the means and wherewithal to invest in new technology will have easier access to crucial information and markets.
A lack of compatibility between different data sources means it can be difficult to see a full picture of conditions in the market and the environment. Concerns over data privacy and proprietary systems also contribute to the difficulty.
And there is also a concern that those who develop, own, and operate the digital solutions may try to keep the knowledge, power, and revenue generated for themselves.
“We must address issues such as data privacy and standardization in order to move the agriculture and food system forward,” Schroeder points out. “And ensure that everyone has fair access to the information produced and gathered.”
Julian Lampietti, the Bank’s Practice Manager, agrees.
“The landscape is already changing, and much needs to be done to further develop this digital transformation in accord with efficiency, equity, and environmental sustainability. This report is an important step toward putting a framework in place to scale up digital agriculture to have a positive impact on the food system.”
Both Schroeder and Lampietti see a role for governments and private sector in helping to set standards and guidelines for how digital information is formatted and shared, ensuring privacy, compatibility, and equal access to both data and platforms. Without such standards, farmers may be reluctant to share their information with potential competitors and proprietary systems created by business interests may make it impossible for anyone to get a complete picture of the market.
Government can also increase space for the private sector to act by improving the policy and regulatory environment, as well as offering incentives to create the needed infrastructure and data systems.
“Much of the information being generated today needs to be harnessed more efficiently and fairly,” Lampietti says, “And the public sector has a major role in seeing that it happens.”