The Punjab government deserves some commendation for initiating a digital solution to strengthen its wheat monitoring and regulation mechanism, and to prevent hoarding and price hike. According to a report published in local English daily, the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB) has developed software to help the province’s food authorities to track and regulate wheat and flour delivery in the open market. Though, a good initiative, this will not benefit farmers, the key stakeholders in food. Thus there is a need, keeping in view the latest trends, to digitize the basic farming — the core activity of the agriculture sector. A recently published report says that farmers who received digitally delivered recommendations were 22 percent more likely to adopt the recommended agrochemical inputs, yielding USD 10 in benefits for every USD 1 spent.
According to a recent paper co-authored by Michael Kremer, a 2019 Nobel laureate in economics, “With the coronavirus pandemic still running its course, now is the time to think about not just building back, but building forward. By accelerating investment and innovation in digital agriculture, we can protect the world’s poorest people from some of the worst effects of the current crisis. When we all emerge from lockdown, one hopes that we will have already laid the foundation for building a fairer, more prosperous, and sustainable future.”
According to a report ‘Farmers’ use of mobile phone for accessing agricultural information in Pakistan’, available on net, majority of the farmers had mobile phone possession but indicated very basic operating skills limited to call only. Due to this limited aptitude of mobile phone farmers were unable to access information from various Internet-based information sources like web portals and android applications. The report termed lack of awareness of information sources as major constraints in farm-related use of the mobile phone. So all what required is development of an app.
The mission of our Ministry of National Food Security and Research is to ensure a modern and efficient food production i.e. farming and distribution system that can best contribute towards food security and nutrition, in terms of availability, access, utilization and stability. Now is the time for the ministry to digitize agriculture – I mean the basic farming — by encouraging the famers to use smart mobile phones to access customized, actionable agricultural information in real time. To begin with the farmers can be given smart phones equipped with a user friendly app that seamlessly connects them with all of their respective needs and useful suggestions, at concessional price.
Kermer paper adds, “For starters, digitization can help many of the world’s poorest by giving them remote access to advice, inputs, and markets. Moreover, it can increase the overall food supply and boost food security through higher yields. It can accelerate the adoption of a proven, cost-effective, scalable strategy for increasing long-term farm production and improving the livelihoods of poor, rural people. And, finally, it can give farmers a voice, enabling governments to direct and measure the impact of agricultural investments.”
According to a report, today, most farmers in the world’s remotest places have mobile phones, and thus are equipped to receive targeted agriculture advice through simple text or voice messages, even without access to the Internet. For example, in Odisha, India, Precision Agriculture for Development delivers customized, crop-specific, free agricultural advice to almost 800,000 farmers through their phones. It is encouraging to note that now 75 per cent of Pakistanis use cell phones and the number is growing rapidly. All what required is to evolve a system to digitize agriculture in the country.
There are numerous reports that such advisories delivered to the farmers at a very low cost increased their per acre yield by following the alerts and useful information from the ministry of food and agriculture. Such advisories helped the farmers in taking appropriate measures, in time, to prepare themselves against warnings received by them regarding flooding and heavy thunder storm. By providing data driven solutions inefficiencies in food production can be reduced to a very great extent. These information facilitate the farmers with effective, environmentally sustainable use of land.
Ross Hunt, the founder of Cainthus, a computer vision and AI company creating a new vision for animals, farmers and food production software, is of the view that digitization of agriculture will allow farmers to make decisions based on data rather than emotion or hype. Hunt stressed the importance of this, emphasizing the need to base decisions on what is happening on your own farm and not anecdotal evidence from another farm, even the one next door.
In short there is a need to digitize the farming of the country irrespective of crops. Digitizing of just marketing of wheat is just not enough. Our Ministry of National Food Security and Research with the help and assistance of the Ministry of Science and Technology can play an effective role in digitizing our agriculture sector. As we know that under the banner of ‘ThinkFuture’, Federal Minister for Science and Technology has started an ambitious program for reimaging the future of Pakistan, starting with seven key emerging technologies, including 3D Printing, Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Blockchain, Internet of Things, Intelligent Vehicles, and Smart Robots. The digitization of our agriculture rightly fits into his vision of developing a roadmap to create technological solutions to indigenous problems, and launch national scale projects to accelerate the adoption of these technologies.