It’s no surprise that the world’s population is increasing. If you read the headlines, you’ve probably heard that we’ll have 9 billion mouths to feed by 2050 – meaning that farmers will have to double food production to meet this growing need. Climate change makes this challenge even bigger. How do we produce enough food for everyone, without clearing more forests and savannah, while volatile weather patterns, pests, and crop diseases are making farming harder every day?
Prospects are certainly difficult, but there’s a lot of reason to be hopeful. Global grain yields have already increased substantially in recent decades, and there’s still a lot of room for gains, especially in Africa. Many new ideas and technologies are coming to the forefront to enable farmers to produce bigger crops with fewer resources. Here are just a few of the things we’re most excited about:
1. Diagnosing crop diseases with the touch of an app
Crop diseases and pest outbreaks can have devastating effects on yields, leaving communities that rely on agriculture to go hungry until the next season’s harvest. Diagnosing problems early is often the key to preventing crop failures. One novel way to do this is by using smartphones and tablets. QED is one company that has developed an app where farmers can send snapshots of their affected plants to an online database and later receive a crowd-sourced diagnosis. In the future, machine learning may be able to eliminate the need for human experts. As more photos are added to the system, the app may be able to identify problems on its own, allowing farmers to receive an instantaneous diagnosis and advice for treatment.
2. Tailoring crop recommendations down to the single plant
Agronomists often advise farmers about what crops to grow, fertilizer to use, and techniques to practice based on broad assumptions about the regional environments where they live. In reality, conditions are a lot more complex than that. Soil types and moisture levels can vary even within the same field. Precision farming in the U.S. is already allowing some farmers to optimize their crop yields by applying fertilizer based on the needs of every individual plant. While it may still be a while before this practice becomes widespread, One Acre Fund is working on trials in Kenya using farmers’ soil and harvest data to make field recommendations that are more finely tuned.
3. Bringing water to thirsty crops
As the climate changes, rainfall patterns are becoming more and more erratic – as evidenced by East Africa’s 2016 drought, one of the worst in decades. Developing efficient, low-cost irrigation systems for smallholder farmers might be one way to ensure that crops survive even in very dry seasons. One Acre Fund is currently running trials on drip irrigation kits that collect rain water and deliver it to plants in slow, gradual amounts. In the future, a number of other high-tech innovations could also become more readily available, such as remote sensors to determine plants’ moisture needs or irrigation pumps operated by solar power.
4. Growing crops to be nutritious
In the future, we won’t just need to grow more food – we’ll also need to produce food that’s better for us. Child malnutrition is huge problem across rural sub-Saharan Africa, with about one-third of all children under age 5 suffering from stunting, which can have lifelong physical and mental health effects. Biofortification might be one way to help solve this problem. Biofortified crops can be bred naturally, without genetic modification, to contain higher concentrations of essential nutrients, such as iron-rich beans or orange-fleshed sweet potatoes rich in vitamin A. Improving the soils where crops are grown can also increase the nutritional value of food. Zinc is strongly associated with child stunting, and as much as 37 percent of people in Sub-Saharan Africa are zinc deficient. One Acre Fund is currently running small-scale trials to see if maize grown with zinc fertilizer can improve the nutritional value of the grain.
5. Making markets work for smallholders
Currently, many small-scale farmers don’t receive adequate prices for their crops because markets don’t work efficiently. Farmers often sell their crops in local markets at harvest time, when prices tend to be the lowest. Smallholders would have more market power if they could aggregate their output, building economies of scale that could help them negotiate better prices, sell directly to businesses, and tap into growing urban consumer markets. For now, there are only a few farming groups in East Africa working on market aggregation at a large scale, but one company that’s starting to make a difference is Twiga Foods. Twiga is a Kenya-based supply-chain platform that aggregates farmers’ produce and uses mobile technology to match products with vendors.