5 ways technology is helping farmers to adapt
The world’s farmers are racing to adapt to the changing climate. More extreme floods and droughts are interrupting production and eroding soil quality. Shifts in temperatures and rainfall patterns are raising the risk of diseases and pests, such as the locust swarms that ravaged East Africa and the Arab peninsula in 2020, and changing which areas are suitable for which crops.
C OVID-19 and the policy response have worsened food insecurity: the FAO estimates that the number of people going hungry has almost doubled. As in other industries, though, the pandemic has opened the door for change in agriculture. In north-western India, for example, labour shortages led more farmers to switch to direct seeding of rice, rather than transplanting from nurseries. It’s less labour-intensive, but also better for the climate as it saves on water.
On current trends, feeding the world will require 120% more water by 2050 – and 42% more land. We will have to depend on new technologies to make agriculture more efficient in the context of a changing climate. Here are five promising trends.
1. Climate-resilient and yield-enhancing seeds
Different new traits are needed for different crops in different areas, whether greater resilience to heat, drought or flooding, quicker growth to cope with shorter growing seasons, or ability to tolerate saltwater intrusion from rising sea levels.
Increasingly precise techniques for genetically modifying crops promise to deliver varieties that can help farmers to keep pace with climate change. The challenge of delivering the resulting innovations quickly and affordably to farmers across the world has been taken up by the new nonprofit Gates Ag One, an initiative from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
It is also important to tap farmers’ seed systems, as some historical varieties known to farming communities have traits that enable them to thrive in changing conditions. The Seeds for Needs program in Ethiopia found that some traditional varieties of durum wheat contributed by local “citizen scientist” farmers outperformed others that emerged from high-tech labs.
2. Precision agriculture
The term “precision agriculture” covers a range of technologies that generate and analyse data to help farmers optimise inputs such as water and fertiliser. Using algorithms that combine information from satellite imagery, drone footage, weather forecasts and data from sensors in soil, farmers can understand day-by-day and field-by-field how their crops are doing and what inputs they need.
Although pioneered for large-scale agriculture, these tools are increasingly coming within reach of smaller-scale farmers, as shown in this IADB video:
3. Climate projections
Algorithms can crunch through historical climate data and project how growing conditions in a particular area are likely to evolve. This can help governments to advise farmers on which varieties or crops they should consider moving away from, and which they should start to grow instead.
In some rice-growing parts of India, for example, analysis of 40 years of climate data showed that later monsoon seasons and the concentration of rainfall in fewer days were reducing yields to a point where farmers would be better off growing millet instead. The government distributed millet seeds and held an awareness-raising campaign in local farming communities.
4. Vertical farming
As the climate becomes more unpredictable, it makes more sense to grow crops indoors where every aspect of the environment can be controlled – with plants getting their light from LEDs instead of the sun, and their nutrients from hydroponics or aeroponics rather than soil.
Vertical farms – so called because crops can be grown in layers – can be housed anywhere from purpose-built warehouses to disused mine shafts.
Smartphone apps developed by startups and NGOs are transforming small-scale agriculture. Examples include weather forecasts, micro-insurance products, remote diagnostics of livestock disease, and apps which inform farmers about the current market price for their crops and connect them to buyers without the need for middlemen.
The need tends to be greatest in places with the least internet penetration: in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, about 60 percent of people depend on smallholder agriculture, while only around 20 percent are online. That makes it important to create an enabling environment including policies, institutions, infrastructure and support services.
“Start-ups and established businesses, NGOs and government agencies, users and service providers need to come together to set priorities and pool resources,” argue the GCA’s CEO and Chair, Patrick Verkooijen and Ban Ki-moon, in a recent blog on the digitalization of farming. Everyone has a role to play in ensuring that innovations spread quickly to where they are needed most.
The ideas presented in this article aim to inspire adaptation action – they are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Global Center on Adaptation.