The incorporation of digital technologies has tremendous potential to improve productivity, improve social inclusion and reduce the environmental impact of agriculture in Latin America and the Caribbean, agreed leading experts from the public and private sectors convened by the World Food Prize Foundation and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA).
During a virtual forum organized by the two institutions within the framework of the Borlaug International Dialogue—considered the premier conference in the world on global agriculture—experts underscored the need for countries in the region to develop state policies on this topic.
The theme of this year’s dialogue is “Feeding a Fragile World”, in light of the recent shocks to global agrifood systems and the triple threat of the Covid-19 pandemic, the war in Eastern Europe and climate change, whose long-lasting effects are still being felt.
The Borlaug Dialogue is hosted each year by the prestigious World Food Prize Foundation, based in Des Moines, Iowa. It recognizes those who make the most significant contributions to improving the quantity, quality or availability of food on the planet.
The meeting, which seeks to build alliances in the struggle against hunger and malnutrition, includes a series of debates aimed at exploring pathways and alternatives for the future of agrifood systems. Participants include government officials, private sector representatives, international organizations, agricultural producers, academics, scientists, educators and students.
The panel “Priorities for driving agricultural digitalization in Latin America and the Caribbean”, moderated from Berlin by journalist Pía Castro, sought to promote efforts to reduce the digital divide in LAC—a major challenge for the region. Participants discussed the importance of capitalizing on the opportunities afforded by digital technologies to foster inclusive development and guarantee food security, with rural women and youth playing a key role.
Kyle Poorman, Director of International Dialogues of the World Food Prize Foundation, and Jorge Werthein, Advisor to the Director General of IICA, opened the meeting. “Digital tools are essential, but especially for rural areas to improve their economy and education”, emphasized Poorman.
“We are shedding light on this issue and helping IICA’s member countries to develop policies to meet the demand for digitization, given that the benefits for rural populations are so obvious”, said Werthein.
The challenge of involving more stakeholders
Diego Arias, Agriculture and Food Manager for the World Bank in Latin America, underscored the need for more and better information on the stakeholders involved in agricultural innovation in the different countries. “We always think of public research institutes and large companies that offer agricultural technology such as Bayer, but we forget about other stakeholders, such as universities. The challenge involves achieving a systematic interaction between the public and private sectors”, he said.
Arias referred to the need to rethink investment in innovation. In that regard, he pointed out that projects carried out in rural areas should focus on three aspects: research, extension and education. “We have a lot of data on research, some on extension and very little on what countries are doing in the field of education”, he noted. The World Bank expert also considered that technology design should place special emphasis on rural youth and women.
Mauricio Agudelo, Coordinator of the Digital Agenda of the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF), noted that Internet use in the region was high among companies, but low in the production sector, as reflected by supply and production chains. “At CAF, we promote different digital transformation models for countries, based on an understanding of and specific assessments of the issues facing such a critical sector”, he said.
Agudelo described the efforts that CAF is undertaking in Peru to foster digitization in the agriculture sector. “In that country, agricultural digitization is still in its early stages, but it has tremendous potential. New technologies offer opportunities for every link in the value chain”.
“Given the need to reactivate and develop agrifood value chains, the digitization of the rural sector affords a tremendous opportunity to advance towards greater productivity and competitiveness”, he concluded.
Ana Paulina Posso Amador, Bayer’s Food Value Chain Manager, outlined the projects being carried out by the multinational company in the region to empower and improve the situation of rural women, with digitization serving as a fundamental tool.
“We set out to determine how many small-scale producers there are in Latin America and what their needs are. And we learned that there are 16 million small-scale farmers, who suffer from low productivity levels and lack access to many of the advantages that the agriculture industry has”, she explained.
“In Latin America”, she added, “women have traditionally stayed at home while men go out to work. It is very similar in agriculture. Women are responsible for household finances; that is why our objective is to raise their voices in decision making and empower them in a role they have already assumed, but which lacks visibility. We believe that women can play a fundamental role in transforming agriculture”.
Gaps affecting rural areas
Sandra Ziegler, IICA Advisor on Rural Connectivity and the Development of Digital Skills, reviewed recent research findings of the Institute, which paint a precise picture of the penetration of digital technologies in rural areas of Latin America and the Caribbean.
Ziegler shared data that clearly demonstrate the connectivity gap in the countryside compared to cities, noting that 77 million rural dwellers do not have connectivity at the necessary minimum standards of quality.
“In rural areas, there are various obstacles to connectivity: obstacles in regulatory frameworks, problems with infrastructure, limited geographical accessibility and lack of information, among other things. There are barriers associated with investment costs and a shortage of incentives to encourage investment in rural areas”, she explained.
In addition to connectivity, the researcher pointed out a second gap, which is the limited digital skills available to make use of these resources. “It is not merely a matter of access, but also of being able to utilize these technologies. The generational transfer in the countryside offers a glimmer of hope in this regard, given that children and youth in rural households are the ones driving the adoption of these technologies”, she added.
“There is no doubt that digital technologies are completely transforming value chains. They have transformed different industries in recent years and there is no reason to think that this would not be the case for agriculture”, said Federico Bert, Specialist in the Digitalization of Agrifood Systems at IICA.
“We are only just getting started with the digital transformation of agriculture, which will generate multiple benefits that are very much in line with what humanity currently demands and will demand in the future. The digital transformation of agriculture will allow for increasing production, reducing its impact and fostering greater inclusion”, he added.
Bert warned that digitization could also generate undesirable effects and pointed out that, in order to strike a positive balance, it was important to ensure that it would not contribute to exclusion by widening gaps that already exist or marginalizing stakeholders who fail to adapt to the new digital world.
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