Over the past 25 years, the digital revolution has drastically increased the amount of information that people can record, share, and store. For most of that time, the quantity of information produced by digital innovations has outstripped human capacity to organize and analyze all of this data. Recent breakthroughs in data analytics and computer processing now allow scientists to put this data to meaningful use—translating data into conclusions that can guide decision making. Collectively referred to as Big Data, these tools are providing the foundation for the next stage of scientific research in the digital age. The new CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture is putting these tools to work for farmers around the world.
CGIAR (formerly the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) is made up of 15 research centers and 12 research programs and works with more than 10,000 scientists in 96 countries to improve agricultural systems. In 2017, CGIAR launched the Platform for Big Data in Agriculture as a five-year initiative to integrate Big Data tools into all of their research centers and programs.
Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Brian King and Andy Jarvis from the CGIAR Big Data Platform to learn more about their vision for the project. Brian is the Coordinator for the Platform and is based at the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Cali, Colombia. Andy is one of the founders of the Platform as well as the Director of the Decision and Policy Analysis Area at CIAT and is a Flagship Leader on the CGIAR Research Program for Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).
Food Tank (FT): What are the greatest challenges in agriculture?
Brian King (BK): People may not realize that the global food system is in danger. About 60 years ago, after World War II, global food production was not going to be enough to meet the demand of growing global population, and together the world and CGIAR rose to meet the challenge. Today, that is true again, and it is complicated even more by increased climate variability, an uptick in extreme weather events, environmental degradation, and catastrophic loss of biodiversity.
FT: What is Big Data and why is it important for agriculture?
BK: We think about Big Data in terms of some important digital trends that should be better harnessed for agricultural development, including the mobile revolution and the widespread availability of mobile phones to both collect and send data; rapid improvements in satellite imagery availability and resolution that make it more applicable for agriculture; the spread of cheap sensor technologies that make it possible to develop new business models and approaches to on-farm measurement; and distributed computing and storage that democratizes and expands analytical power like never before.
Big data can unlock novel research methods, new technologies, and vast amounts of insights into modern social and economic life. These tools can reveal and help to build sustainable food systems at a scale and in a way that has not been possible before.
Doing this is a matter of urgency. To meet food demand sustainably, we need to be able to accelerate our understanding of the world, predict scenarios several years in advance, and develop responsive strategies to the challenges we are facing. We can’t do that without digital data—the future of food depends on it.
The agriculture sector is way behind when it comes to adopting digital technologies. For example, a 2015 report by McKinsey found that, even in an industrialized economy like the United States, the agricultural sector ranked 22nd out of 22 industries in digitization, and the rate of adoption is slow. When it comes to low and middle-income countries, these innovations have an even smaller foothold. Recent World Bank research in Kenya, Senegal, South Africa, and Armenia found that actors in the mobile application ecosystem of these countries perceived the agricultural sector to be the least impacted by digital technology and well behind other sectors; only 5 of 73 digital technology firms surveyed identified the agricultural sector as a source of potential revenue.
FT: How can digital technology address concerns like sustainability and improving farmers’ livelihoods?
BK: Due to modern factors such as climate change, farmers can no longer rely on the knowledge and strategies that have been successful in the past. For farmers to successfully protect against challenges such as extreme and unpredictable weather conditions, they need access to the knowledge and information enabled by digital technology. It is now possible to have true interactivity with very rural and resource poor farmers through digital channels in ways that were simply not possible five years ago such as mobile money, interactive voice response, text message, and social media.
There have also been great research successes for improving the precision of the timing and location of farming practices so that farm operations can be more resilient and productive. The challenge is figuring out how to combine the analytics and the interactive channels together in ways that foster improved livelihoods for the long term. Putting these things together will enable us to see whole systems and help individual farmers navigate them better.
FT: What is the Big Data Platform and how do you want it to be used?
BK: We are building the Big Data Platform to be an innovation platform to digitally transform agriculture in developing countries. Almost five decades ago, the world realized that population growth and agriculture production were not in sync with each other, and governments, foundations, researchers, and universities all around the world aligned to create CGIAR, an amazing global infrastructure for human adaptation. Today, we need to accelerate the digitization of that infrastructure and link it to public, private, and non-profit actors across the world so we can play an even greater role in enabling a food secure future.
FT: How do you hope to transform local and regional economies?
BK: Digital tools and channels provide new ways to help rural, low-income households survive and recover from shocks to their livelihood. In addition to creating a digital framework for better and more efficient use of agricultural data, we are supporting innovative projects. We have five pilot projects unfolding right now that are demonstrating some revolutionary proofs of concept for linking whole market systems over interactive voice response, diagnosing crop health and disease in the field in real time, interacting with farmers at scale over social media, and performing in-field gene sequencing to get ahead of particularly devastating strains of disease. All of these cases demonstrate how to use digital channels to connect rural farms with the analytic power of research institutions in order to foster economic resilience of both households and whole market systems.
FT: Where are the greatest opportunities in research and development to improve our food system and the lives of those in it?
BK: We first need to get site-specific agriculture right for developing economies in order to deliver the right advice to farmers by crop, year, location, etc. We can use channels and technologies in developing economies to push the limits of innovation for the global agriculture sector.
Researchers all over the world are working on creating precise operations in agriculture, but the full end-to-end successes have proven more elusive than one might think. If you look beyond the hype of so-called precision agriculture in developed economies you will see that the rates of adoption are actually not that great beyond some of the very large farms or those growing high-value, specialty crops. Even in industrialized economies, the technology sector is not serving farmers. We have learned from other sectors, like financial services, that emerging economy innovations can change a whole sector. Agriculture is next.
FT: Andy, what have been the greatest lessons you have learned from your role in the Big Data Platform?
Andy Jarvis: I feel like we have already validated the very premise that we developed this platform on: that digital agriculture shows promise, but also that concerted action is needed to ensure that the benefits reach farmers in developing countries. Right now, much of the innovation is in the global north, and developed for the global north. I’m excited by the prospects of the platform turning that around.
FT: Brian, what is your vision for the future of the Platform?
BK: Our goal is to drive down the cost of innovation and tease out the common architectures and approaches to this kind of work. We want to inspire more proactive links between agriculture researchers and innovators in the financial sector. It is important for us to find a way for our data analytics to intersect more directly with financial inclusion, to help financial sectors better meet the needs of small farmers, and to link sustainable productivity with household resilience.
We need to bridge the different types of knowledge and apply them in new ways, in real time, from the local to the global.