Extreme weather patterns and volatility pose a difficult challenge for farmers to overcome. But technology can help.
After a year of record-setting global heat waves that swept the planet in 2018, climate change experts are predicting yet another roller coaster ride for 2019. The harrowing damage inflicted by Cyclone Idai in Mozambique is only the latest reminder of how much extreme weather can dramatically impact wide swaths of the globe, threatening not only communities but also the global agriculture industry.
Among its other effects, climate change will significantly alter rainfall patterns in southern Africa and other key production regions around the world. That will have lasting impacts on the global food supply. Faced with these threats to the future of agriculture, can farmers use data to fight back?
A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identifies the regions that have experienced extreme weather events and changes in rainfall patterns that can only be explained by global climate change. “For many crop-producing regions, average precipitation will change by more than the long-term natural variability, even under a low-emission scenario,” the authors explain.
Such extreme weather patterns and volatility pose a difficult challenge for farmers to overcome, forcing them to face yield inconsistency paired with high-risk investments. The most vulnerable agricultural populations impacted by climate change tend to be in the tropics, typically in areas that do not have resources – such as crop insurance – to fall back on when crop losses are imminent.
Looking at global grain production, a 2018 paper published in PNAS suggests that “unabated warming will lead to substantial declines in mean crop yields by the mid-21st century, and that the most serious agricultural impacts will occur in the tropics, where the majority of the world’s food-insecure population resides.”
The U.S. and Europe won’t be immune
However, this is not to say that the U.S. and European markets will escape unscathed. Instead, they will also suffer from extreme yield loss due to climate change. “Changes in total available precipitation are a major risk for the global supply of food in the 21st century. Recent climatic changes and climate variability have already put a stress on global food production,” according to the study.
Andrew J. Challinor, a co-author on the paper, adds that “changes in rainfall patterns have been challenging to predict in the past, making it difficult to offer advice on how growing conditions may change.”
To take one example: the U.S., China, Brazil, and Argentina, which collectively produce more than two thirds of the world’s corn, are collectively projected to experience a decline of at least 8% – and potentially as much as 46% – in mean total production, depending on how much global temperatures rise. That translates to somewhere between 53 million to 139 million metric tons of annual corn production lost.
As global temperatures continue to fluctuate unpredictably due to climate change, more farms are turning to data to save themselves and the industry. New data-driven innovations in agriculture fit into broader efforts to reduce environmental impacts and improve the sustainability of food production by offering resilience against unpredictable weather. Tech and IoT advancements allow better data collection systems that can be easily made available to farmers and calculated to fit local needs.
The European Union’s Horizon 2020 research arm is already responding with €30 million in investments for the Internet of Food & Farm 2020. This program is “designed to generate maximum impact right from the outset and in the long-run, bringing closer together and integrating the supply and demand sides of IoT technologies in the agri‐food sector,” with initiatives spanning nine European countries alongside numerous international partnerships.
The U.S.-based tech company DTN has recently showcased its partnership with the International Informatization Academy (IIA), which provides advanced precision farming capabilities to farmers in Kazakhstan facing weather volatility that effects crop yield. Hyper-localized weather information, satellite imagery, and GPS technology provide tools that can help to make informed decisions regarding crop insurance, fuel, investments, seeds, and fertilizer.
Over time, such a wealth of data can also be used to determine patterns and trends that may give insight into future climate conditions under the influence of climate change conditions. Data and new technologies help farmers in all parts of the world prepare for shifting weather patterns by leveraging localized and relevant data collecting systems to offer more predictability.
“We are able to work with governments around the world and provide them access to weather and agriculture insights that can inform their policies and reduce the impact of weather volatility on their citizens,” says Ron Sznaider of DTN. Using these systems, farmers can avoid devastating losses, such as the worst-ever olive harvest seen by farmers in Italy this past season.
Kenya-based UjuziKilimo, meanwhile, uses wireless sensor networks that monitor soils to generate insights based on data and provide advice regarding fertilizer, seed, weather and best practices. By sharing knowledge via SMS, farmers benefit from the power of informed decision-making. In Uganda, the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) has employed drones to provide crop inventory and predictions based on plant health data inputs. This can be used to create crop management advice and calculate yields, as well as tailoring fertilizer and seed applications to minimize the use of chemicals while maximizing yields.
Access to localized, timely, reliable weather data and crop health information means that farmers are better equipped to deal with difficulties that arise due to climate change. Additionally, vulnerable farmers can also find improved access to loans, insurance and other financial services that make a big difference when dealing with drops in production. It should come as no surprise, then, that farmers and government organizations are both seeking ways to integrate these types of data into the future of the industry.
Fighting climate change is a long-term challenge that has already negatively impacted farmers all over the world. Yet with the implementation of technology and data-driven decision-making tools, the agriculture industry could still mitigate the worst of the impacts.