CANBERRA — While global agriculture grapples with rapid change, agricultural economists are looking at using technology and data to solve some of the sector’s looming problems.
At the Australasian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society’s 2019 conference held in Melbourne, Australia, in February, Devex spoke with three key presenters for their takeaway messages and insights.
Genetics for food security
Alison Van Eenennaam, an extension specialist in animal biotechnology and genomics at the University of California, Davis, brought the controversial topic of genetic technology to a discussion. In her talk, she urged for greater discussion and less “fake news” on science, which she says can help create food security.
“Misinformation is threatening the use of innovation of agricultural production systems,” she explained to Devex. “It’s not just genetics — there are so many urban myths around agriculture. And this is creating barriers to safe innovations in agriculture.”
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The key beneficiary, she said, would be developing countries.
“More productive genetics is the key for the developing world,” Van Eenennaam said. “There is a yield gap in developing countries where each plant or animal produces less than they do in the West.
“Genetic improvement can help close that yield gap without increasing animal numbers. And given the projected increase in demand for animal-source protein in the future, we can either address that by producing more animals or more productive animals.”
Van Eenennaam said developing countries should not be prevented from accessing technology that could solve growing food challenges: “I am concerned that in areas where they especially need disease resistance or climate adaptability in their plants and food animals, they will not be able [to] access and use technology.”
Monitoring global value chains
Keynote speaker Will Martin, senior research fellow with the International Food Policy Research Institute, discussed the economic rise and importance of developing countries, which he said has been unprecedented in the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution began.
“Many East and Southeast Asian economies have done well, including Indonesia and Bangladesh, which have grown rapidly since the early 1990s,” Martin explained to Devex. “Bangladesh used to rely on rice — creating nutrition problems. Now they have farmed fish, for example, and there is an expectation this growth will continue.”
But he said trade relations subsides posed a risk for food security, as agricultural protection and policies of price insulation were increasing the volatility of world markets.
“The barriers that are being put up between the U.S. and China adversely affect both economies,” Martin said. “The worst thing would be is if a trade war exacerbated and spun out of control. The Great Depression started off as a tariff increase that was part of a downward spiral in world trade that hurt very badly.”
While Martin said he did not believe the result would be drastic, it is important for policymakers to consider broader implications on economies, access to markets, and development outcomes, including poverty reduction and nutrition.
Big data for big agricultural outcomes
With changing climate conditions, there is a growing need for agriculture to predict demand and get the most value out of agricultural land. Data plays an important role in this.
Phil Pardey, director of the International Science and Technology Practice and Policy Center at the University of Minnesota, spoke to Devex about a new big data platform his center launched to facilitate data sharing and analytics currently being used by public and private sectors.
“The platform, GEMS, incentivizes data sharing, access, and analytics to forge new innovation partnerships,” Pardey told Devex. “Data providers, which include private sector users, can upload data and make it available or not to other organizations for collaboration.”
PepsiCo is one of the private sector partners using the platform daily to generate insights. Through the platform, it has established a partnership with the University of Adelaide, the South Australian Government, and another private sector partner, for a joint research venture on oat breeding to support yield-enhancing, as well as reduce the impact of oat rust that affects crops worldwide.
The platform enables organizations to share data that supports global food systems, as well as understand and fill gaps. And while there were obvious commercial benefits, the platform aims to support global development challenges and the economic growth of developing countries.
A new research project utilizing GEMS is seeking alternatives to growing tobacco in developing countries — reducing their reliance on the tobacco industry for income while supporting sustainable economic growth.
For policymakers globally, Pardey sees the platform as an important avenue for economic development and food security — and it’s open for new partners.