Geospatial technology can ensure nothing stands between the 7 billion strong world population and their fair share of safe and nutritious food.
We are currently facing challenges that none of our earlier generations ever dreamt of. On one hand, there is enough food produced in the world that can feed everyone in the planet, but, there are at least 800 million people going hungry to bed every day. About a third of the total food produced gets wasted either before crossing the farm gate or at the other end of the food chain. Climate change induced natural disasters, inclement weather that affects crop production, increasing competition for cultivable land, price volatility of commodities, civil and communal wars, and unfavorable socio-economic situations, all are influencing the agri-food policymaking process and regulatory environments across the world.
Why Asia? Why now?
Asia is one of the fastest growing regions set to power world economic growth in the next decade and further. Yet, it remains highly vulnerable in the context of food security. This is a region with over 4 billion people and is much younger in terms of median age of around 30, only behind Africa. Although overall dependence on agriculture has reduced over time, the sector still remains the mainstay for employment and livelihood for over half of its population, barring a few developed countries, such as, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea. From a macro-economic perspective, the declining share of agriculture sector as a percentage of GDP is seen as an indicator of progressive growth and economic development. However, the primary driver of the trend, as learnt from the experiences of the developed economies, is the focus on efficiency through use of technologies that help liberate labor from agriculture to be employed in other sectors.
Cloud and sensors
Farm mechanization has been quite instrumental in helping traditional agriculture get transformed into agribusiness that is more efficient and sustainable. If we can say these machines revolutionized farming in the previous generation, it is going to be data that will bring the next big revolution in our generation. Agriculture will always remain dependent on two kinds of ‘clouds’. One for ‘rain’ and another for ‘data’. In fact, the latter is the key for agriculture to improve its resilience, enhance its capability to manage and get itself insulated from the vagaries of the former. Globally, farming has started moving on the information superhighway and it’s no longer a ‘sow seeds and reap produce’ story but ‘plant sensors and harvest data’.
Building resilient, food-secure communities
Extending further from food production, disaster management and emergency humanitarian response, particularly related to floods, cyclones, and various other natural calamities can and has already become one of the most significant examples of application of these technologies to help countries and vulnerable communities improve their resilience and responsiveness. These technologies help to estimate the extent of damage and provide accurate spatial data on the affected areas so that response can be targeted better and faster. There would be massive benefits in terms of providing food and other basic necessities to the affected people, prevention of diseases and any possible social unrest that may ensue. Similarly, in case of sea water intrusions that are common after natural disasters like tsunamis, geospatial technologies can be very useful for accurate assessment of damage and pursue reclamation works on the affected areas. In conservation and sustainably fronts also, the potential is enormous. For example, geospatial technologies can help accurately measure, map and track forest areas and help in efficient land use planning, administration and management of natural resources. Several plantations particularly, palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, widely use these technologies already as a critical component of their commitment to sustainable production more specifically relating to deforestation.
Benefits for stakeholders
Farmers: Geospatial technologies are not silver-bullets that can solve all the issues related to food security or disaster management. They cannot yield holistic benefits without other necessary elements. For example, sensors and drones are becoming popular among farmers for accurate estimation of soil moisture, pest and diseases infestation levels and as a result of their usage, enormous amount of data is being collected. However, without proper understanding of how all these technologies can help the decision making process of the farmers, necessary regulatory framework to tackle issues including privacy, and a conducive policy environment that encourages innovation, use of any advanced technology will remain futile. Firstly, when used in combination with other branches of sciences such as genetics, agronomy, and business concepts, including marketing, these technologies pave way for significant improvements in efficiency of input-use, result in huge cost savings on inputs and precious resources (e.g. water); manage risks (e.g. weather, price and market) better; improve yields, food quality and ultimately profitability of farmers.