Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2017. This post was originally posted on March 14, 2017.
When we think of agriculture and food, we think of a farmer working in a rural area producing food for consumption and selling some surplus. With growing urbanization and increasing demand for food, food system has moved away from just agricultural production. It involves aggregating, value addition, processing, logistics, food preparation, restaurants and other related services. Many enterprises from small to large are part of the enterprise ecosystem. The potential for new jobs for youth who start and are also employed by their enterprises is significant. The Africa Agriculture Innovation Network (AAIN) has developed a business agenda targeting establishment of at least 108 incubators in 54 African countries in the next 5 years focusing on youth and women among other actors. At least 600,000 jobs will be created and 100,000 start-ups and SMEs produced through incubation and 60,000 students exposed to learn as you earn model and mentored to start new businesses.
In recent past, there have been many innovations in areas of technology, extension, ICT, education, and incubation leading to new generation of enterprises and enterprise clusters resulting in the creation of good quality and new jobs in agriculture and food systems. A key challenge in the future is how we create more and better jobs in the agriculture and food system value chain. One of the major requirements for creating more jobs is a radical change in the way youth are taught agriculture and entrepreneurship. The skills required for a modern agriculture and food system are of a higher order and need to be upgraded significantly.
As part of the 2017 Global Learning Forum more than 250 staff in the Agriculture Global Practice from around the world are learning how Agriculture and Food Systems are going to look like in future. The group participants visited the Urban Food Hubs Program being managed by the University of the District of Columbia (UDC). The Urban Food Hubs focus on four components: food production, food preparation, food distribution, and waste and water recovery.
Last year, we showcased how Vietnamese farmers in the Mekong Delta are adapting to climate change. You met two shrimp farmers: Nguyen Van Khuyen, who lost his shrimp production due to an exceptionally dry season that made his pond too salty for raising shrimp, and To Hoai Thuong, who managed to maintain normal production levels by diluting his shrimp pond with fresh water. Now, let’s suppose Nguyen diluted his shrimp pond this year, another year with an extremely dry season. That would be a good start, but there would be other issues to contend with related to practical application. For example, when should he release fresh water and how much? How often should he check the water salinity? And what if he’s out of town?
Nguyen’s story illustrates some of the problems global agriculture faces, and how they unfold for farmers on the ground. Rapid population growth, dietary shifts, resource constraints, and climate change are confronting farmers who need to produce more with less. Indeed, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that global food production will need to rise by 70% to meet the projected demand by 2050. Efficient management and optimized use of farm inputs such as seeds and fertilizer will be essential. However, managing these inputs efficiently is difficult without consistent and precise monitoring. For smallholder farmers, who account for 4/5 of global agricultural production from developing regions, getting the right information would help increase production gains. Unfortunately, many of them still rely on guess work, rather than data, for their farming decisions.
This is where agriculture can get a little help from the Internet of Things (IoT)—or internet-enabled communications between everyday objects. Through the IoT, sensors can be deployed wherever you want–on the ground, in water, or in vehicles–to collect data on target inputs such as soil moisture and crop health. The collected data are stored on a server or cloud system wirelessly, and can be easily accessed by farmers via the Internet with tablets and mobile phones. Depending on the context, farmers can choose to manually control connected devices or fully automate processes for any required actions. For example, to water crops, a farmer can deploy soil moisture sensors to automatically kickstart irrigation when the water-stress level reaches a given threshold.
To feed up to 9 billion people by 2050, the agriculture sector will need to produce about 50% more food.
But the natural resources needed to grow food are overstretched, and in many cases, severely depleted. Agriculture is also vulnerable to climate change and a changing climate could reduce crop yields by up to 25%. At the same time, agriculture is a big contributor to the climate problem, generating close to a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. Without targeted interventions, that number could rise further, threatening the world’s food supplies.
Food price spikes happen when stocks are low and when unpredictable events occur. That was the main message of Professor Brian Wright at his Development Economics Lecture at the World Bank on March 11.
Wright, who is Professor & Chair Department of Agricultural & Resource Economics, has long followed the markets for storable commodities. He is also an expert in invention incentives, intellectual property rights, the economics of agricultural research and development, and the economics of conservation and innovation of genetic resources.
Today’s food and fuel concerns do not constitute the ‘perfect storm’, Wright said. However, he warned that if several important crop-producing countries have a bad season in the coming year, and if the demand for biofuels rises faster than the rate of production of major grains, we could be in real trouble.
What’s the best fix for this situation? Wright argues it’s keeping food supplies cheap and investing in the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), since it will be super-seeds, drought resilient crops, and innovations to boost yields that will turn things around. He also emphasized that, during a crisis, it’s essential to put minimum food needs above animal feed and fuel uses.
The current food crisis—increasing poverty linked to price volatility and high food prices—have put agricultural growth and food production issues back on the development agenda. Is productivity growth the only way to address the short-run challenge (the food crisis) and longer-term needs (meeting increased demand for food)?
Even though today agriculture is the main source of livelihood for 2.5 billion people, including 1.3 billion smallholders and landless workers, public investment in agriculture in developing countries, as well as the share of agricultural expenditure in total government spending, have been gradually declining since the 1980s. Bilateral and multilateral assistance to agriculture, after an increase in the 1970s, also fell starting in the mid-1980s. It is only in recent years that the World Bank and other aid agencies have increased their lending and boosted their investments. But will these investments be effective? This depends on whether they will have a sizeable impact on agricultural productivity.