New Technologies Can Help Poor Farmers - Just Not The Ones You're Thinking Of

Modern technology has a lot to offer small farmers in poor countries - just not the GMOs and pesticides that are widely touted. But how about film, digital communications and smart phones? These new media can empower farmers and allow them to share knowledge and experience of how to produce more, from less.

During recent years we've become used to hearing that the answer to looming food security challenges is technology. For example, more sophisticated pesticides, genetic modification and machinery to grow food at ever-greater scale.

It is an especially believable narrative because - broadly speaking - this what has delivered some level of food security to most people during the period of explosive population growth that started during the 20th century, and continues today.

But while marking a success at one level, there are serious downsides, not least seen in how modern farming is responsible for driving several worsening global ecological trends.

These include climate change caused by the build up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; the progressive pollution of ecosystems (especially aquatic and marine ones) with excess nitrogen and phosphorous; and the loss of biological diversity, caused by both of the above and habitat loss, mostly driven by conversion of more natural ecosystems to farmland.

Agriculture is also responsible for depleting resources that are vital for its own future - not least soils and freshwater.

That we cannot go on like this is not in doubt. The question is, will more technology present solutions that will actually work? The answer to that is an emphatic 'yes!' - although perhaps not the kind of technology many generally associate with farming policy.

A glimpse as to what technologies might work better in producing more food while protecting the natural systems we depend upon was glimpsed this week at the Slow Life Foundation's Slow Life Symposium taking place in the Maldives.

Digital technologies supporting India's farmers

Rikin Gandhi is Chief Executive of an organization called Digital Green, and he presented to Symposium participants some of the methods being successfully deployed by his organization in dramatically increasing yields among small-scale farmers.

His basic idea is to exploit a particular fact of life that is seen right across the world. It stems from where most farmers get most of their new ideas from: namely other farmers.

Government training and information schemes can make an impact, so can advice from agrochemical companies (albeit biased at times), but by far the most convincing source of new ideas is other farmers.

Working with this reality Digital Green set out to improve yields through helping farmers make videos that would be shown to other farmers nearby.

Using off-the-shelf equipment including pocket video cameras and pico projectors, Digital Green assists farmers to generate content for use among tribal communities living in remote areas without electricity. (see photo)

Battery powered video and projection enables best practice to be shared even among illiterate groups where the written word is near to useless. Gandhi got results with better farming methods adopted more quickly and more cost-effectively than earlier attempts to do the same.

Indeed, Digital Green has demonstrated that for every dollar spent, the system persuaded seven times as many farmers to adopt new ideas as an existing official program of training and visits.

Twice the rice, half the water

Another measure of success is how many farmers have been empowered through new knowledge to the point where they are producing twice as much rice with half as much water - thereby helping to address the twin emerging challenges of food and water security, while keeping people on the land (and out of the fast expanding cities) by increasing their incomes.

And when farmers have more knowledge about soil health and the role of composts as at least a partial alternative to commercial fertilisers then opportunities are presented to cut costs while reducing environmental impacts.

Other technologies can complement this basic means of sharing ideas, including mobile phones. Although most farmers are still not yet connected in this way, the proportion that are is growing fast, in turn offering the prospect to lever further value from existing agricultural resources in terms of people and land through, for example, sharing of information about market conditions and weather forecasts.

There is of course a cautionary note to strike, as Gandhi observes: "During the Green Revolution era it was all about agricultural technology being transferred to farmers. That did boost yields but had issues coming with it.

"The same thing can be said about information technology. This is powerful but also needs to be supported through partnerships and working with social organisations. We need to think about the context for the technology, and the people using it, not just the technology."

The new 'intensification': producing more, from less

Alongside a flipping of the narrative relating to agricultural technology is a change in tone regarding the very concept of intensification. For decades that idea has been associated with ever more chemical inputs, with all the attendant consequences as seen for example in resource depletion and greenhouse gas emissions.

Those close to the emerging challenge of how best to achieve food security while maintaining ecological integrity see a new definition here too.

'Intensification' is now regarded as empowering farmers to use their ingenuity and local resources more effectively, rather than being based on strategies to import energy intensive inputs.

David Monsma, Executive Director at the Aspen Institute's Energy and Environment Programme, emphasised that "Smallholder farmers remain the backbone of food supply systems in most low income and many middle income countries."

Their "awareness of and access to agricultural technologies and techniques is often lacking", he added, but that fact opens up a huge opportunity for sustainable growth in both food supply, and rural incomes:

"Training in production techniques and technologies that conserve soil and water, or that reduce waste and loss of crops, communications tools such as cellphones and videos and organizational innovations such as setting up market-oriented farmer based organisations, can lead toward more sustainable intensification while broadly increasing food security."

The smart money is backing this new and more joined up farmer-focused approach, with big funders such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (also see here) and the Clinton Development Initiative 'going local' and backing strategies that help small actors do better.

Technologies for farmer empowerment

Among the approaches delivering results are those that improve storage and market access, thereby cutting food waste in the agricultural landscapes where food is grown.

Micro-finance and micro-insurance are proving vital facilities for many farmers in enabling them to make investments and to manage risk. Farmer empowerment via training is also increasingly seen as a vital plank for future food security.

Perhaps this shift of emphasis toward communications technologies and intensification based on farmer empowerment marks the opening of a new chapter in our multi-millennial efforts to ensure we have enough to eat.

It comes not a moment too soon. The days when technology could be thrown at the challenges linked with feeding ourselves and it assumed that the ecological damage was an acceptable price to pay for cheap food are over.

No longer is it feasible to trade one set of priorities at the expense of the others, for if nature doesn't function neither will our food system. One vital strategy for navigating these tight straits is the empowerment of small scale farmers.

This article was first published by The Ecologist 18th November 2014.