New era of "customised agriculture" needed to meet development goals

by Chuck Magro
Wednesday, 1 April 2015 12:59 GMT

A French farmer sprays his wheat crop using GPS satellite-generated data as he works in a field in Chateaubriant, May 29, 2012. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

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Challenge of growing more with less is being discussed in UN negotiations to create new Sustainable Development Goals

We marvel that Nike can let us design custom shoes to fit our own needs and style, or that we can use healthcare apps to access round the clock, tailored health resources we may require.

Very quietly, the agricultural sector is going through a similar transformation of “mass customization”, in order to increase food production by 50 percent by 2030 to meet growth in demand and to alleviate malnutrition.

This challenge of growing more with less is being discussed in the ongoing U.N. negotiations to create a set of new “Sustainable Development Goals” which will replace the Millennium Development Goals when they expire this year. I believe that customized technologies will play a central role in delivering the sustainable development goals for agriculture and food security. Let me explain why.

HARVESTING DATA 

In the context of these U.N. meetings, precision agriculture is the key to giving each farm the exact things it needs to sustainably intensify its production over the long term. We call it the Four R’s: delivering the right nutrients, at the right rate, at the right time and in the right place. And at the very core of precision agriculture is the effective and customized use of technologies and innovations.

For example, many farmers today are using sophisticated GPS technology on their tractors and combines to inform their decision-making. This technology allows them to map the precise range of soil types on their farm so that they can choose the right seeds and apply the right amount and type of fertilizers on their fields – not more, not less – to achieve the best yields while helping avoid runoffs. 

The same technology can help them to identify potential pest problems, when to plant or harvest, and even how much water is required, so that less is wasted. 

Maximizing productivity also reduces the need create more farmland by cutting down forests or converting other natural habitats, thereby preserving biodiversity. In fact, it is estimated that improvements to crop yields, as opposed to putting more land into agricultural production, have saved around 34 percent of the total carbon emissions caused by humans through the year 2005. 

In essence, data is enabling farmers to get the most out of their land while also being good stewards of the environment.

In some regions, this shift may look like a more streamlined use of inputs. Even an agricultural powerhouse like China has committed to more targeted fertilization as a strategy from 2020 on.

In other regions, most notably in sub-Saharan Africa, where fertilizer use is lowest, 65 percent of soils are degraded due to continuous farming without replacing vital nutrients in the soil, and better access to fertilizers will be needed. 

Declining soil health has contributed to cereal crop yields of only around one-tenth those in the United States, which perpetuates hunger and malnutrition on the continent, never mind the estimated economic loss of $68 billion per year. 

For those farmers in Africa without access to more complex technology, even simple methods like microdosing of fertilizers, whereby small amounts are delivered specifically to each seed during planting, can play an important role.

CONNECTING RURAL AREAS 

Helping to get precision agriculture to scale will require several barriers to be overcome. To begin with, the right rural infrastructure must be in place, in the form of electrification, roads, railways and ports. This facilitates the flow of goods not only from farms to markets, but it also helps deliver the right equipment, technology, information and services farmers need in their fields.

More should be invested in helping rural areas be connected to the Internet and via mobile phones. In my home country, Canada, broadband penetration is still 15 percent lower in rural areas than in cities, which puts the rural economy at a disadvantage.

Lastly, education and research must continue to be supported. It is estimated by the International Food Policy Research Institute that an extra $88 billion spent on agricultural infrastructure over the next 15 years would give benefits of $2.96 trillion. But it doesn’t have to just be spending on long-term research; there is value all along the agricultural value chain if the right talent, especially youth, is educated on how to generate more agricultural innovation and deploy existing innovations more widely.

Increasing investment in infrastructure, markets, technology and good and coherent policies are all key, and the private sector must help drive this transformation forward. My company Agrium is already a global leader in providing agricultural inputs and services around the world, but we are also further diversifying our business to offer farm services and solutions as well in order to be at the ready to assist in meeting the Sustainable Development Goals.

The challenge to feed the growing population of the world and eradicate malnutrition is huge. When farmers have access to the right products, knowledge and tools, they feed our planet, but they can also lift themselves out of poverty and contribute to their countries’ broader development. 

Chuck Magro is CEO of Agrium and a board member of the International Fertiliser Industry Association. He is in New York this week talking to Sustainable Development Goal negotiators about business' role in meeting proposed goal two on food, hunger and agriculture.