Smallholders need access to big-data agronomy too

Related GLP Member: Zia Mehrabi

Big data, field robotics and new sensing technology are set to revolutionize agriculture (see, for example, A. King Nature 544, S21–S23; 2017). The international community will need to step in to democratize access to these advances, and modify them to suit the smallholders who comprise the majority of farmers worldwide.

Around one-quarter of the world’s food is produced on farms smaller than 2 hectares, and about half on farms less than 20 hectares (M. Herrero et al. Lancet Planet. Health 1, e33–e42; 2017). Such farms are restricted by limited infrastructure and a lack of money, so relatively few can afford advanced digital technologies. The majority must rely on mobile phones.

Although mobile-phone coverage has increased and cheap sensors can be deployed in the field, many smallholders have no Internet access and are unable to buy goods such as fertilizer or irrigation systems. There are shortfalls in the organization of supply chains, market access and advice for small farms. Such factors could stymie the vision of an agricultural revolution that is technology-based, inclusive and equitable.

To bridge these gaps, research institutes, governments, the private sector and agricultural-development organizations must commit to creating data-driven agronomy that is accessible to all.