Nobel laureate outlines how new technologies measurably boost farmers

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15 October 2020, Rome – Mobile technologies and digital agriculture hold great promise for the world’s farmers, making it all the more important to foster appropriate institutions able to generate innovation whose benefits reach smallholders and disadvantaged groups, Nobel Prize-winning economist Michael Kremer said today in a special lecture hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

“Digital agriculture has allowed governments to support smallholders during this pandemic, and it should also be a path to creating a better system for the future,” said Kremer, who drew on recently published research that found information sharing through mobile telephony catalyzed significant and measurable improvements on yields and adoption of recommended agro-chemical inputs across sub-Saharan Africa and India.

“Digital technology is not only about economics, but digital governance, digital society and a digital world” said FAO Director-General QU Dongyu. He also noted his invited guest’s lecture was held on International Day for Rural Women, who often have limited access to mobile phones- which he calls a “new farming tool”. Emphasizing the importance of rural areas and smallholders, he urged that the “development deficit” between countries must not be replicated in a similar digital divide.

Kremer discussed future prospects for digital agriculture, including the provision of higher-resolution weather information, customized pest-control advice, opportunities to improve supply chains and ways to improve extension services.

Now a professor at the University of Chicago, he won the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel together with Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee in recognition of work that took experimental approaches to alleviating global poverty, including the innovative use of randomized control trials to answer key development questions related to agriculture, water, education and health. His personal and professional output also involves leading roles in organizations that promote precision agriculture, advanced market commitments to stimulate development and distribution of vaccines in the developing world, and private philanthropy to effective charities.

Under Qu’s leadership, FAO has accelerated promotion of digital agriculture and the use of smartphones to boost the productivity and livelihoods of the world’s poorest – an effort that became even more critical due to the disruptions to the world’s food systems – as well as work methods at FAO and other organizations – caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Highlights include the creation of an Office of Innovation headed by the  first ever FAO’s Chief Scientist, the launch of the Hand-in-Hand geospatial data platform – which provides public, verified and impartial data as part of an initiative to bring more stakeholders into development efforts –  and an agreement backed by more than 70 agriculture ministers to establish an International Platform for Digital Food and Agriculture – which Qu invited Kremer to join.

Ongoing FAO work uses mobile and digital technologies to help Members and farmers to combat invasive species and deforestation, optimize water management and land use patterns and spread knowledge on food safety standards and e-commerce opportunities.

Professor Kremer noted FAO’s leading role in investing in research into “global public goods for the future.”

The Director-General said that Kremer’s work – which elicited a lively question-and-answer session with Permanent Representatives, FAO directors, technical staff –  is “close to our heart and mandate” and highlighted the importance of understanding that “farmer, agriculture and rural”, while interlinked, are three distinct issues articulated in local cultures.