Agriculture ministers from 74 states met at the GFFA.

Agriculture ministers from 74 states met at the GFFA.
Photo: © BMEL/photothek.net

GFFA 2019: Agriculture goes digital – smart solutions for future farming

In late January, the eleventh Global Forum for Food and Agriculture was held during the International Green Week in Berlin, Germany. This year, the opportunities and risks of digital transformation were on the agenda.

The world’s population continues to grow and requires more and more resources, such as water, land and energy. Solutions are needed that will enable agriculture to increase yields while reducing the burden on resources and the environment. In this context, digital transformation offers great promises. But how can every farmer be given access to this technology and make use of it? And how can data security and data sovereignty be guaranteed? These were two of the main topics debated at the 11th Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) held in Berlin, Germany.

Climate change, SDGs and cultural change

Germany’s Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel emphasised the opportunities that digital transformation presented. Merkel highlighted two aspects: its potential for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), above all with a view to combating hunger and malnutrition, and the need to ensure that sustainable agriculture helped to achieve the aims of the Paris Climate Accords. Here too, digitisation could help, for example by saving on fertiliser with precision farming. However, Merkel also emphasised, for many countries, digital transformation was a giant step forward that brought with it a huge process of cultural change. Humans had to stay at the centre of this process, the Federal Chancellor maintained, and called for rules and a framework to assure the rule of law. This would have to be agreed at international level.

Danger of market concentration

One should not underestimate the risks of platforms generating and exchanging data, warned State Secretary of the Berlin Senate Department for Consumer Protection and Anti-discrimination Margit Gottstein. “Whoever is in charge of data can exercise decisive influence on value chains,” Gottstein noted. Social media had already shown what could happen – only a handful of data generating and data exchange platforms had established themselves across the board. Similar things could happen in the farming sector. Gottstein cautioned against a further concentration of power, for example among seed producers or manufacturers of agricultural equipment.

Considering farmers’ specific needs

Andrew Muchita, Director of the Community Technology Development Trust in Zimbabwe, was also worried about this aspect, maintaining that an imbalance in the system was driving farmers more and more into dependence on major corporations. Technologies were needed which were farmer-centred, demand driven and simple to apply. But which ones are suitable? “I don’t think that the European model of precision farming is what we need in Africa. We require a technology that addresses farmers’ demands, not one that replaces them,” Muchita maintained.

Achieving scale without mass

Challenges and opportunities for youth and family farmers were focused on by the High Level Panel der UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Director-General José Graziano da Silva reminded the audience that smallholdings accounted for 90 per cent of farming units around the world and some 56 per cent of food production. However, it was almost impossible for many smallholders to sell their products because they had no access to the markets. To Graziano da Silva, Internet technology was key. “With access to the web, farmers can sell even small quantities on the market and get a better income,” the Director-General of the FAO said. “You can open big spaces when you are connected.“

Linking young farmers to consumer in the cities

China’s Vice Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Qu Dongyu was of the same opinion. China aims to eradicate hunger and total poverty by 2020. The Chinese government is promoting the use of mobile phones and high-speed Internet in rural areas and in particular wants to increase online trade, which is already a booming market. Specially organised trade fairs offer apps which young farmers can use to link up with consumers in the cities. “I live in Beijing and can order my mother’s homemade products,” the Vice-Minister said.

Offline solutions also feasible

Water supply for agriculture is one of the biggest challenges that Egypt faces. “We have to optimise the efficiency of irrigation systems in order to raise yield per unit and cubic metre of water,” said Minister of Agriculture & Land Reclamation Ezz El-Din Abu Steit, referring to one of the application areas for smart technology. In addition, online currencies and E-cards listing the types of products are in the pipeline. Furthermore, advice will be available via mobile phones. However, not all of the country had Internet access.“We are therefore also attempting to make applications available that work without the Internet, such as information on plant diseases or fertilisers,” the Minister explained. 

Making farming cool and attractive for young people

“We have to show young people that being a farmer is a sophisticated and challenging profession that is also suitable for educated people,” said Rodgers Kirwa, aka “Mr Agriculture”. Agripreneur Kirwa, who comes from Kenya and was selected young farmer of the year, has developed a model farm on which he runs free training for farmers with the aim of getting young people back to the rural areas. “Social media offer Africa’s youth enormous opportunities,” Kirwa maintained. Only that the framework provided by his country was not up to standard. “The Internet and electricity are a privilege of the urban regions, which is the reason for young people moving to the cities,” he noted. It was therefore up to the government to see to it that a corresponding infrastructure was developed.

The data belong to the farmers

The Conference participants agreed that guaranteeing data security and data sovereignty were also issues that governments had to address. According to the Argentinian government’s State Secretary of Agro-Industry, Luis Miguel Etchevehere, Argentina intends to introduce an online platform via which enterprises in the agricultural sector will be asked what data they are gathering with their machines and equipment and how they are using it. Firms participating and thus voluntarily contributing to transparency are to be rewarded with a seal of quality.

Background

The Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA) has been held at the International Green Week Berlin since 2009. Representatives from politics, business, science and civil society meet at the three-day conference to discuss urgent world food issues. This year’s Conference theme was ‘Agriculture goes digital – smart solutions for future farming’. More than 2,000 participants attended 14 panel discussions and two high level panels in order to exchange views. The Conference traditionally closes with the International Conference of Ministers of Agriculture, in which ministers from 74 countries and representatives from 13 international organisations participated this year.

Silvia Richter, editor, Rural 21

More information:

GFFA Website