The United States must leverage digital technology to ensure that progress in agricultural research and development can reach more farmers and advance global food security, according to a new report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The report recommends intensifying focus on digital tools for shared knowledge and innovation to bolster U.S. agriculture and serve as a model for low-income countries that continue to struggle with food and nutrition insecurity.
“Agriculture is a key part of the American economy and it is also the primary opportunity for the world’s poorest to lift themselves out of poverty,” said Alesha Black, director of the global food and agriculture program at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Embracing digital technology to empower farmers with the information they need will not only excite the next generation of farmers here at home, but it stands to significantly contribute to achieving the goal of global food security around the world.”
According to the report, "Reaping the Digital Return: Enhancing Communities through Modern Extension," the historical model of agricultural extension deployed agricultural experts, referred to as “extension agents,” straight to the farm to deliver science-based advice. This model enabled the United States to become the breadbasket for the world, but it has evolved significantly. As the internet, smartphones and social media become more ubiquitous, digital technology has changed how information is shared and there is now opportunity to embrace this and further adapt extension. The report recommends greater emphasis on empowering extension agents and farmers with digital tools. These tools can enable the exchange of critical information in real time – helping American farmers to compete and surmount challenges while also creating models and tools that can contribute to global food and nutrition security. Shifts to digital capacity can also help scale at lower costs to provide more efficiency of dollars spent.
The needs of small scale farmers, who are most often the world’s hungriest and poorest, are as diverse as the agriculture sector itself, with over 500 million of them around the world growing various crops and speaking hundreds of languages. Investment in shared digital platforms and tools can generate customized solutions for farmers across the globe – from addressing the impact of shifting weather patterns to enabling faster response to pests and disease threats to better connecting farmers to profitable markets. In a year when famine threatened numerous countries and the number of chronically hungry people increased, access to real-time information and advances in agriculture technology must be championed to empower the world’s farmers to sustainably feed the world. The report calls for businesses, governments and NGOs to work together to help move the world towards greater food security.
In order to achieve these goals, the report recommends the following policies.
- Make investments to upgrade extension’s digital capacity at the national level and create new incentives to reward greater use of digital technology and modernization across county, state and regional U.S. branches.
- Work in greater partnership with the private sector to digitize agricultural information, especially working with land-grant universities, to enable better and broader access (especially for underserved farmers).
- Increase the emphasis on digital innovation for agricultural extension in global food security efforts.
The full report is available online.