Agricultural Development in the Next Decade: Technology, Collaboration and Smart Systems
Two decades ago, we entered into a new millennium. Since then, our world has been revolutionized. We have entered into the electronic age — the age of technology — in which knowledge and skill can be shared globally at almost no cost, even to “last mile” communities. The advent of COVID-19 has only reinforced these lessons. Many of our assumptions about international travel and in-person instruction, training and mentoring have been challenged and, in many cases, changed for good. Our world has become electronically accessible. We interact in a virtual world, sharing information through web-based resource sites like Agrilinks and various social media platforms.
At the same time, our growing global population continues to challenge our food systems. We glance to the future not without some anxiety. The United Nations has predicted that the world's population will reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. Without another revolution, green or otherwise, current food systems will not be able to sustain this growth. Land will be at a premium in the near future. We will have to press into service every available piece of arable land. Also, through our newly advanced understanding of genetics, we will have to develop new technologies that will allow us to press into service lands once thought non arable and make greater use of vertical agriculture in urban areas in order to meet the needs of this growing population.
The future decade of agricultural development will challenge us to be even more innovative and efficient with limited resources. Legumes will play a crucial role in this future. As the need for land increases, the costly and inefficient use of grazing land, not to mention the contribution of cattle to greenhouse gases, should make us question whether we can afford the luxury of meats and, if so, at whose expense. Legumes provide a nutrient-rich source of protein and the fixating properties of legumes are capable of maintaining soil health even under challenging circumstances. The advantages of legumes in vertical farming are also obvious. There are also many nutritional advantages to legumes that will make for not only a well-fed population but also a healthy one. The savings in social costs from a healthier population due to a reduction in the consumption of animal-based proteins would be enormous and makes it more and more difficult to defend a meat-based diet.
We have the knowledge and science to ensure a bright future for the agricultural development landscape. However, it is critical that we cross our boundaries, dismantle barriers and leave our silos and our comfort zones behind to work with non-traditional partners to advance and accelerate nourishing food systems. As the world grows and becomes more unified, we understand better that our future depends on the future of our global neighbors. We cannot isolate ourselves, pursuing individual interests, and then shake our heads at the woeful reports on the evening news. We have a mutual destiny and a moral obligation to one another as a human race. It might be a bit of an overreach to say that legumes will be our rescue but, nevertheless, legumes have the potential to deliver immediate solutions to hunger and nutrition issues. And this is why we at the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Legume Systems Research work in a collaborative way to bring sustainable solutions to our global family so that the future is better than our past.
Innovation labs were introduced by USAID in 2012, as part of Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food initiative. These innovation labs have become the main driver of U.S. government-funded agricultural development efforts. Today, as we stand on the doorstep of celebrating a decade of innovation labs, there is much to consider as we assess our role for the next decade of development. Two key words in our name guide our thinking and practice. First, we are an "innovation" lab. This means that we are scanning the horizon for new, or newly-applied, technologies that can address key, and at times critical, issues in legume cultivation. Many of the research technologies that we support are potentially revolutionary in the ways we approach legume cultivation specifically and food security generally. Through these technologies, there are breakthroughs on the horizon that will improve the livelihoods of millions.
There is a second operant word — "systems" — in the name of the lab, that we want to give due and explicit attention. As we all know, and have at times been supported or frustrated by, these technologies are being introduced into systems. Systems can be good or bad, but one thing is certain: if a good technology is introduced into a bad system, the system wins every time. While many of the food systems challenges are global, we have to look at them contextually in local systems. For that reason, we at the Innovation Lab for Legumes Systems Research are doing a deep analysis of the local and regional legume systems in west and southern Africa, because we know that introducing new technologies — and the skills and knowledge that accompany them — alone is not enough. We know that we need to work at the systems level in order to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of introducing new technologies. When introducing the concept of innovation into agricultural systems, in our development programs, a vital question to ask is, if a new idea is never adopted or taken up into the system, can we call it an innovation? This question usually sparks some intense debate and ultimately it boils down to a question of semantics; in other words, how you want to define the word innovation and how do you operationalize it in a meaningful way? Yet, clearly, when promising technologies remain on the shelf and are never put into production, they are of little use.
Today, we consider it our responsibility to work at the individual level, developing the capacity of researchers, but we know that we need to look beyond the training of individuals in order to have lasting impact. In the next decade, we need to focus on organizational issues, institutional issues and, ultimately and unavoidably, system issues. From research to seed multiplication and certification to production inputs, improved varieties, linkages to the private sector, product life cycles and consumer preferences; if we do not pay attention to the entire value chain, the chances that we will maximize the potential of amazing new technologies will remain remote.
Big data and artificial intelligence incorporated into current and developing remote sensing and electronic information pathways will most likely drive the innovations of the next decade. Harnessing these technological advances and applying them to real-time systems approaches in developing environments could have profound effects. Imagine, for a moment, having a functioning trade platform app in every country in which we work, from which we are continually gleaning up-to-the-minute data on prices, volumes, supply and demand. Such a network would be invaluable in eliminating inefficiencies in trading practices and would help anticipate and avoid future gluts and scarcity through the modeling of legume production and product flows, not to mention the reductions in post-harvest loss that this would imply. Innovations achieving immediate, real impacts, such as digitalization of transactions along the value chain, connecting producers and consumers to markets, are some illustrative examples of meaningful technologies that should be leveraged at scale.
This level of system integration is key to resilience. Resilience is the science of overcoming exogenous and endogenous shocks. But systems nest in systems, which nest in systems, like matryoshka dolls — the wellbeing of one eventually depends on the wellbeing of the other. Although there is benefit in addressing systems at the local level and such work can and must be part of the work of innovation labs, we are reaching a stage in our scientific advancement as a human race where we have the data, information, knowledge and, hopefully, the wisdom to rethink the way our global food distribution systems work. We do not currently have a food problem, we have a distribution problem. According to the Millennium Institute, "The world’s average daily calorie availability is projected to rise from 2,789 kcal per person per day in 2000 to 3,130 kcal per person in 2050, a 12 percent increase." Your average diet app will tell you that that is more than any one person should consume in a day (except under rare circumstances). There is no reason, then, that per capita caloric intake should range globally from 1,590 (Democratic Republic of the Congo) to well over 3,000 (the U.S.) calories per day, when 1,800 calories is considered the daily minimum in order to maintain health. We have the means at our disposal to put an end to this type of imbalance and to ensure that we preemptively act rather than react to crises.
There is a lot of good to be done in the world, and with our collective contributions of intelligence, time and effort, we will achieve it. This will bear rich dividends and establish our legacy for both the immediate and future food systems.