Global Hunger & Precision Agriculture

A colleague of mine begins his presentation at professional meetings by noting the population of the world. He does this to emphasize that the single goal of agriculture is to feed the world. Like him, I too will begin this article by noting the world population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 6,967,814,676 people on Earth. This number represents a doubling of the world’s population in the last 50 years. I will also add a few facts to this population figure. According to the recently released “The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2011” report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Fund for Agricultural Development and the World Food Program, there are an estimated 925 million undernourished or hungry people. This figure represents about 13% of the world’s population. The majority of undernourished people live in rural areas and four out of five are farmers.

The fact that most hungry people are farmers seems counterintuitive. But as the 2011 report points out, farmers, especially smallholder farmers in food importing countries, are most impacted by high and volatile food prices and extreme weather events. Their livelihood and personal sustenance are tied to food. If they cannot produce a crop, they cannot feed themselves, nor do they have a source of revenue to buy food. The 2011 report also notes that while high prices worsen food insecurity in the short-term, they increase the long-term investment in agriculture. This investment is targeted at not only increasing yields but also at reducing production costs. Improvements such as seeds resilient to abnormal weather conditions, better timing and placement of fertilizers and affordable irrigation practices, attract investment and help farmers counter economic and environmental shocks.

The Role Of Precision

Precision agriculture can contribute to reducing global hunger by providing farmers the tools to create the necessary information for making good investment choices.

The more detailed and complete picture a farmer has about a field, the better the decision as to where and when seed and materials can be applied and what management practice can be implemented to improve crop production. However, precision agricultural tools cost money and take time, both of which are in short supply for many of the world’s farmers. So the challenge to the precision agriculture community is how to bring information-generating tools to the poorest of the farmers and do so in a manner that improves their production and economic situation.

Before taking up the challenge, I believe it would be helpful to introduce a measure for quantifying the contribution that information and technology make to agriculture production. The chosen measure is popular in economic analysis; it is called the “total factor productivity” or TFP. TFP accounts for the efficiency in a production system. That is, the TFP increases when there is an increase in output for the same amount of input. In the case of agriculture, there is TFP growth when yields increase with the same materials and/or practices or when yields remain the same with a reduction in materials and/or practices. The TFP can increase when either a new technology is introduced to save material, energy or time, or when there is a smarter use of resources while realizing the same output. Clearly, precision agriculture is a good candidate for promoting TFP growth in crop production.

The TFP would be important to watch worldwide because it provides a measure of how efficient one production system is over time or when it is compared to another system. It also provides a rough indicator of the sustainability of a production system. As a system becomes more efficient, it becomes more sustainable, because it either uses less of, or gets more out of, the same resources. If the same TFP calculation could be applied to many farms over time, the sustainability of a given operation could be evaluated relative to its neighbors.

Meeting The Challenge

The challenge can now be taken up by precision agriculture. As more farmers around the world adopt precision agricultural tools in their operations, there will be an ever-increasing accumulation of data and information about those operations. These data and information can be mined, organized and evaluated to create recommendations for the community of contributing farmers. These recommendations can be in the form of new seed, materials or practices that either increase yields or reduce input costs. These recommendations can be shared with farmers outside the contributing community by matching up soils, environments and operations. Farmers receiving recommendations outside the community would indirectly benefit from precision agriculture and may be incentivized to invest in it. The implementation of the shared recommendations for a more sustainable operation in a given geography would not only raise the TFP in a region, but also reduce world hunger.

In summary, precision agriculture as a generator of field-level information can play an important role in helping poorer farmers improve their crop production and attract long-term investment. Efficiency measures, such as the TFP, can be used to quantify which farming operations are sustainable and economically successful. Once identified, the technologies and practices of these successful operations can be shared with other farmers in need of assistance.

One last note, in the time it took me to write this article, the population of the world is now 6,967,842,049. It will be over 9,000,000,000 by 2040.

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