The plight of the 300,000 small farming families in my native El Salvador, whose livelihoods and diets are at the mercy of crop pests and extreme weather events, inspired me to enter agronomy. As in many other farming countries worldwide, they are competing against some of the 30,000 species of weeds, 10,000 species of hungry insects, and 3,000 species of fungal pathogens that threaten food crops across the globe.
Imagine how significant this threat is for a subsistence farmer — faced with limited access to information and technology, markets and services, and purchasing ability — earning less than $130 per month with only three hectares of land in El Salvador. A single pest outbreak can reduce a family to destitution in just one season.
Pesticides have long played a crucial role in helping farmers protect their crops, harvests, and livelihoods, sparing up to 60% of global crop production annually. But a new wave of digitalization — and drones, in particular — stands to address the inequality of information and access to vital products to better help farmers protect their crops, improve their productivity, and achieve greater profitability.
The agriculture drones market size is expected to grow from $1.2 billion in 2019 to $4.8 billion by 2024 at a compound annual growth rate of 31.4%.
Typically, in developing countries, farmers rely heavily on applying pesticides with backpack sprayers, but effective crop protection depends first on farmers knowing which product is needed and when, and then, secondly, being able to afford it and accurately apply it.
By comparison, drones can both monitor the health of entire fields of crops, identifying any changes that indicate a pest outbreak, and then also spray the pesticide accurately based on evidence of need.
This is just one example of the emerging innovations in crop technology that are helping to improve agriculture and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals as a result.
A head start
Most fundamentally, technologies used to protect crops against pests directly contribute to food security for the most vulnerable. Without these products and innovations, annual crop losses would likely double.
In particular, drones can help identify pest threats more effectively than a farmer relying on manual monitoring and surveillance, which gives farmers a head start in mounting a defense and saving more of their crops. With this data, drones can also deliver the right treatment in the right place at the right time to safeguard crops, resulting in the potential for higher yields, which bolsters food security in developing regions — including El Salvador, where 9% of the population is affected by undernourishment.
Beyond food and nutrition security, innovations in crop protection also improve rural livelihoods and lives. As well as potentially boosting productivity and therefore incomes, drones can help reduce costs to smallholder farmers. Under an affordable farm service model involving drone sprayer providers, for example, farmers can access a lower-cost way of applying pesticides than expensive conventional applications by airplane or tractor.
Drones are also up to 50 times faster than the typical backpack sprayer, reducing exposure to chemical products and time spent on spraying.
This kind of technology also generates secondary employment opportunities in rural areas, from drone operator to computer engineering positions, contributing to the professionalization of agricultural services.
Finally, more accurate and efficient crop protection technologies can also help build climate resilience.
In our experience, drones use up to 90% less water than backpack sprayers, helping farmers to conserve vital resources, particularly in areas of water scarcity. And with greater accuracy, there is less waste and less risk of runoff or unintended environmental impact.
With an estimated 500 million small-scale and family farms worldwide, often poor and food insecure, improving agricultural productivity is the key to building prosperity in smallholder communities, supporting their local economies, and contributing to the SDGs. Crop protection plays a vital role in this, and just as important are the technologies that get them where they are needed.
There are still challenges to overcome: Some countries do not yet have regulations around the use of drones, while farmers and potential drone sprayer providers also need support in accessing training and equipment — as with conventional pest management, drones need to be used responsibly. But the potential to transform agriculture in low- and middle-income countries makes drones a promising innovation in leveling the field for smallholder farmers worldwide.