Dear Colleagues,

As this e-discussion advances, it appears that we agree that ICTs may contribute to change Agri-food systems in Asia, among other drivers of change. We also agree on these major drivers of change currently at work both in Agrifood Chain and ICT. We have discussed a lot the likely changes and we know that current trends might not lead to desirable futures for the agrifood chains and in particular for Asian farmers.
I would like to share with you some questions and thoughts about disruptions leading to different paths for ICT and Agrifood chains in Asia (and not only).

The Major Disruption: change the way ICTs are designed. Most ICTs used in agriculture and to be used in agriculture are not initially designed to serve the needs of (Asian) farmers. Most Asian farmers are “ICT technology takers” in the same sense that they are “price takers” for the product they sell. This leads to a standardization of the ICT user while we all acknowledge the diversity of farmers in Asia and the diversity of their needs. Design ICT that will make people happy to farm, to work and to live in rural areas. The true “ICT for sustainable agriculture” transformation will not be in the pursuit of the top down conception of ICT adoption by farmers. It will not be either in the continuation of the development of technologies by a class of innovators from the West and the North, carrying their own views about what farmers need or could use. It will be, in Asia, but also elsewhere, through co-creation of locally generated technologies where the users team up with innovators in the design of the new ICTs.

The following disruptions are related to the “How we implement this major disruption”:

Disruption 1. Design ICT for people and welfare not just for goods and profit
Most recent development of ICT expected to impact on the agricultural sector target the production of goods per se. They are not designed for different type of users but for one type of usage and function (producing more, and eventually for less). Implications on people’s life is at best indirect (by reducing production cost, or improving access to market information, one expects that the lives of small farmers will significantly improve), and the chain of causality between the use of ICT and the final transformation of the lives of people is very loose if not inexistent. This just requires every inventor to ask him(her)self what their innovation will change in the life of those who may be using it. And of course it is easier done if the users are there when this reflection takes place.

Disruption 2. Put clearly sustainability and resilience before productivity in the design of ICT for Asian farmers.
Asian farmers produce more than one crop. Most of Asian farmers do much more than farming. ICTs are needed to improve the livelihood of Asian farms and rural inhabitants, and not just their productivity. For example how good would it be to disseminate thousands of sensors at field level, registering soil and climate conditions, if they are linked to a decision support model offering just one conventional model of pesticide application? This just requires every inventor to ask him(her)self how their innovation will improve resilience and sustainability where it will be used. And of course it is easier done if the users are there when this reflection takes place.

Disruption 3. Give more information than you take.
ICTs are media providing a two-way flow of information and communication (in and out), not to extract information from farmers and communicate recommendations to farmers. For example how good would it be to disseminate thousands of sensors at field level, registering soil and climate conditions, if they are linked to a decision support model offering just one conventional model of pesticide application? This just requires every inventor to ask him(her)self what their innovation give in exchange of the data it will extract. And of course it is easier done if the users are there when this reflection takes place.

Comments

[The first email contained only the first paragraph; this updated version is re-sent by the web site administrator on behalf of the author, Robin Bourgeois]

Full post: http://www.ciard.net/community/working-groups/e-discussion-forward-think...

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Dear Colleagues,

As this e-discussion advances, it appears that we agree that ICTs may contribute to change Agri-food systems in Asia, among other drivers of change. We also agree on these major drivers of change currently at work both in Agrifood Chain and ICT. We have discussed a lot the likely changes and we know that current trends might not lead to desirable futures for the agrifood chains and in particular for Asian farmers.
I would like to share with you some questions and thoughts about disruptions leading to different paths for ICT and Agrifood chains in Asia (and not only).

The Major Disruption: change the way ICTs are designed. Most ICTs used in agriculture and to be used in agriculture are not initially designed to serve the needs of (Asian) farmers. Most Asian farmers are “ICT technology takers” in the same sense that they are “price takers” for the product they sell. This leads to a standardization of the ICT user while we all acknowledge the diversity of farmers in Asia and the diversity of their needs. Design ICT that will make people happy to farm, to work and to live in rural areas. The true “ICT for sustainable agriculture” transformation will not be in the pursuit of the top down conception of ICT adoption by farmers. It will not be either in the continuation of the development of technologies by a class of innovators from the West and the North, carrying their own views about what farmers need or could use. It will be, in Asia, but also elsewhere, through co-creation of locally generated technologies where the users team up with innovators in the design of the new ICTs.

The following disruptions are related to the “How we implement this major disruption”:

Disruption 1. Design ICT for people and welfare not just for goods and profit
Most recent development of ICT expected to impact on the agricultural sector target the production of goods per se. They are not designed for different type of users but for one type of usage and function (producing more, and eventually for less). Implications on people’s life is at best indirect (by reducing production cost, or improving access to market information, one expects that the lives of small farmers will significantly improve), and the chain of causality between the use of ICT and the final transformation of the lives of people is very loose if not inexistent. This just requires every inventor to ask him(her)self what their innovation will change in the life of those who may be using it. And of course it is easier done if the users are there when this reflection takes place.

Disruption 2. Put clearly sustainability and resilience before productivity in the design of ICT for Asian farmers.
Asian farmers produce more than one crop. Most of Asian farmers do much more than farming. ICTs are needed to improve the livelihood of Asian farms and rural inhabitants, and not just their productivity. For example how good would it be to disseminate thousands of sensors at field level, registering soil and climate conditions, if they are linked to a decision support model offering just one conventional model of pesticide application? This just requires every inventor to ask him(her)self how their innovation will improve resilience and sustainability where it will be used. And of course it is easier done if the users are there when this reflection takes place.

Disruption 3. Give more information than you take.
ICTs are media providing a two-way flow of information and communication (in and out), not to extract information from farmers and communicate recommendations to farmers. For example how good would it be to disseminate thousands of sensors at field level, registering soil and climate conditions, if they are linked to a decision support model offering just one conventional model of pesticide application? This just requires every inventor to ask him(her)self what their innovation give in exchange of the data it will extract. And of course it is easier done if the users are there when this reflection takes place.

 

Valeria Pesce (Italy)

Dear Colleagues:

Robin has indicated from a different vantage point, as Bharath Krishnan had suggested earlier in this discussion, some disruptions of Agri-food chains that would lead towards some of the emerging objectives for agriculture globally such as reducing poverty, bringing sustainability and resilience.

The Asian farmer and producer is a smallholder, largely poor in all resources, land, water, finance, labour, concurrent agricultural knowledge etc. She has unique problems to her farm and in her family’s livelihoods. She is looking for customized solutions with options she can choose from for all her problems. The same is the case for many actors in Asian Agri-food chains. Most chains, as noted in this discussion, are in various stages of development under whatever category they are put. They also have very different and unique information needs.

Today’s ICTs after the development of the IBM Personal Computer (PC) has largely been modular in their design, development and sourcing. Different technologies developed by different sources are today used in to develop the ICT hardware. And many of these technologies can be assembled in different ways to serve customised needs. Similarly, software also has been largely modular with specific objects available in libraries that can be assembled for different purposes.

The free and open source movement has brought about new ways of assembling hardware and software so much so that it has now become to overshadow proprietary software. We now have literally thousands of “apps” useful for agriculture (See: http://aged.illinois.edu/sites/aged.illinois.edu/files/resources/Apps-fo... http://www.croplife.com/editorial/15-best-new-agriculture-apps-worth-dow...).

There is a similar story in connectivity with a variety of new ways in which data and information can be communicated among their users using ICTs.

There can easily be a match between the needs, as Robin indicates, of Asian farmers, producers and actors in Agri-food chains and the way hardware, software and connectivity is today and in future will, be available so that it can be customised appropriately. In my opinion, the “Apps” approach linked to customisable hardware for agricultural use can be one of the major pathways we may now need to follow for ICT use in Asian Agri-food chains.

In my opinion, the major constraint in this approach is our agricultural research and data generation systems. We have been, in our formal agricultural research followed a reductionist pathway that has focussed not only on a single crop (or sometimes even a variety) but also on one aspect of it, for example, nitrogen requirement or pest and diseases affecting it. We have very little to offer at the total farm, farming and production systems level. We may have individual objects of information but we have not yet looked at how to make it useful and meaningful to the farmer and other actors in Agri-food chains. This is a massive challenge in integration of data, information and information systems whose best solution may lie only in restructuring and transforming agricultural research in Asia and other developing regions of the World who will have to evolve and develop their Agri-food systems to meet their own needs.

Warm regards,

Ajit

Ajit Maru (Italy)

The Future we (don’t) want.

Dear Colleagues, I would like to share with you some thoughts elaborating a bit further on disruptions.

Major uncertainties about the future of food, agriculture, and rural areas prevail. Uncertainties are due to the possible combination of adverse driving forces and the possible occurrence of disruptions in existing trends. Futures Studies help us to better understand them. What can we learn from Futures Studies?

First, policies and societal values are increasingly considered as direct and important forces shaping the future. They are not seen any more as external issues to call upon in order to fix food, agriculture and rural development issues once problems have been identified. They are central dimensions of the issues at stake. Second, consumers and their consumption patterns are having an increasing impact on the future of food, agriculture and rural development. This is now recognised but still not well understood, in particular what drives consumer preferences, including but not only values and policies. Third, most of these Futures Studies look at the food question at a global food security level, focusing on scenarios or models for matching in the future global food supply and global food demand. However, we produce today on our planet enough food, calories or nutrients to nourish all of us today and in 30 years. The crucial questions which need to be researched are why, then, are there still food insecure people today? Who will be food insecure tomorrow, in 15 or 30 years, and why?

This leads us to the farming world question: What could be the futures of the people working today in agriculture: who would be farming; what would happen with employment and more generally with the future of (rural) societies, given that these questions must take into consideration a diversity of situations at local/national level.

These uncertainties make the future unpredictable but it does not mean that different futures cannot be explored and anticipated. They are also location specific which means that we may also consider that in the future there will be different transformations happening in different places rather one single path.

The decision we make both as individuals and as organisations of people will shape these futures. Do we let the trends go and adjust to what they will lead us to? Or do we want to make a difference and operate through inflections, disruptions, choices which may lead towards alternative futures?

When looking at the future of rural areas and the role of small farmers, there are at least seven plausible transformation paths we may consider according the type of answer that will be given to the major challenges that are the sources of uncertainty. These transformation path lead to significantly different futures and can be represented on a graph along two crossing dimensions which offer each one alternative societal choices.

The first dimension of societal choice is about abandonment or re-vitalization of rural areas. This choice is political, economic, cultural, and value-based. The trend is that more people leave rural areas and go to cities. Reasons are that more investment goes to cities, life in cities is more attractive, employment is in the city, social life is in the city; connectivity is in the cities, policies are promoting cities. And these are interconnected in self-reinforcing loops creating a path dependency. Some consider it even as an irreversible trend. This of course has implications for the food system: mass consumption in huger cities will require transportation of huger amount of food which could be easier and economically more profitable if products are standardized and massively produced in one or a limited number of places. Costs would also be reduced if products are transported from closer places including from the cities themselves or their immediate surroundings. But disruptions already occur where people leave the cities and go and work back in rural areas, not just as farmers but with many other activities in particular from the tertiary sector of services. This opposes to the abandonment of rural areas and could lead to their re-vitalization.

The second dimension of societal choice is a combination of consumer preferences and agri-food chain transformation. On one hand concentration of agri-food chain is seen as the current trend with a growing role of large supermarket chains and vertically integrated agribusiness providing standard products at low price. Reasons are the economic power of these chains, able to mould consumer preferences to fit their own standards of profit, the Western/Northern life styles they represent in a consumerist world where having is more valued than being. On the other hand, concentration and standardization of products can induce a disruption from a growing number of consumers concerned not only with quality and diversity of food, but also ethics of food production and transformation, health issues and environmental hazards. This result in more local, heterogeneous segments of agri-food chains supplying local consumers with more diversified products.

When we cross these dimensions which are not fully disconnected, we may identify at least some contrasted yet plausible futures for rural areas, agriculture and farmers:

In a future where rural areas will be further abandoned and mass consumption of cheap products prevail, we may see
• The growth of gigantic agro-industries, employing a limited number of workers living in the agro-industrial complex. Most work is robotized, unless local poverty level makes human labour cheaper than robots. These complexes are highly specialized, geographically isolated but hyper-connected to markets though roads, railways, air and maritime freight, and ICT.
• The growth of farming cities were high-tech hydroponic agriculture will be undertaken using all interstitial spaces (parks, walls, roofs, balconies) and specialized areas agri-buildings to provide a diversity of products. Farmers will be graduated technicians, employed by municipalities or city-farm companies.
In a future where rural areas will be abandoned and consumption favours diversified local products, we may see
• The growth of peri-urban farming where small farmers will grow a diversity of crops close to urban consumption centers. This includes also urban farming using interstitial spaces.
• The growth of “niche” farming where small farmers will benefit from private or public investment targeting specific market segments with a comparative advantage in producing high quality, high added value products. These areas will be connected to urban consumer markets though local segmented chains serving specific types of consumers.
In these cases of abandonment of rural areas, we will see
• the growth of rural ghettos with marginalized poor population surviving through self-subsistence. They will grow products for self-consumption and seek employment either in the gigantic agro-industries around which they will settle as rural slums or through episodic migration in urban areas or abroad.

In a future where rural areas will be re-vitalized and mass consumption of cheap products prevail, we may see
• the development of large scale core agro-industries transforming a limited number of key products (grains, meat) where risks can be limited surrounded by a plasma of smaller farms supplying the core agro-industry.
In a future where rural areas will be re-vitalized and consumption favours diversified local products, we may see

• The growth of rural agri-continuums where food production and transformation will take place in smaller diversified enterprises highly connected to local markets, operating in an environment providing connectivity, and employment opportunities also outside food production. Farmers will have several jobs and will be directly connected to markets and consumers through high-tech ICT.

Of course, these different futures are not mutually exclusive globally and locally. Some will co-exist, most already co-exist. The societal choice about the future we want we have to make is not about selecting one of them. It is about deciding which proportion of them we want, and making it happen.

I would be happy to hear from you about what ICT could/would contribute in these different cases. What future development of ICTs could change the proportion of these different patterns in the future?

Best regards

Robin

Robin Bourgeois (Italy)

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