Agricultural Information, the Global Food Crisis, and Effective Use

Posted on July 25, 2011

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Community Informatics colleague Ajit Maru, in a posting on the Community Informatics Research elist suggests some disturbing questions concerning the relationship between “Information Access” and “effective use” and its possible links to the rising food crisis globally.

He comments on the increasing shift of governments to making agricultural information available primarily in electronic form via the web or through mobile access. This is inevitably linked to declining support for the provision of agricultural information through the more traditional face to face connections of agricultural extension:

The so called “food price explosion” and consequent crises of hunger and poverty especially for the world’s poor is a classical case of market failure primarily due to lack of symmetry of information access and ability to effectively use it within various agricultural actors, especially small producers, organized major market intermediaries, the multinational corporates, financial institutions etc and the governments.

Current information models for agriculture, ranging from those contributing to production and to marketing and consumption, especially for resource poor small holder producers who make almost 80 per cent of all farmers and 60-65 per cent of the global poor are extremely weak. Barring a few highlighted pilot projects in providing these poor communities the information they need for their livelihoods, there is a growing vacuum in enabling information access and its effective use in these communities.

The public and civil sectors have and are withdrawing from providing information, even when they know that agricultural is ever increasingly becoming knowledge intensive, while governments liberalize domestic trade regimes removing even the most minimal protection especially in procurement of commodities and with it also availability of information to these farmers. With trade liberalization and procurement being shifted through policies from government and public sector to the private sector alongside promoting complex market chains, the stage is being set for a disaster of extreme hunger and poverty especially in rural areas of economically developing countries. The main cause is that the private sector is selective, because of its interests, in providing information to its clients at both ends, producers and consumers and the public sector cannot be bothered and does not care.

It is also concerning that almost all information in resource poor small holder agriculture is generated by the agricultural communities themselves but there is hardly any investment made to collate, aggregate and amalgamate and disseminate the information through public, open and transparent means. There is almost a conspiracy by governments to promote asymmetry in information access and use by resource poor agricultural communities across the world and more so in economically developing countries. Very few in the public and civil society understand that information is a very critical resource for agriculture and food production even among very small farmers who mainly produce only for themselves to feed their families and bring little (which is highly precious to these producers) to the market.

The potential of new information and communications technologies, not only mobile computing and cell phones but modeling, simulation, GIS based spatial information, knowledge based decision support systems on data based on clouds and using local small devices when used can do a lot to change these information asymmetries. However, hurdles exist in policies, rules, regulations, investment, capacities etc to reduce them.

To add to these very important comments… There is currently an overwhelming pre-occupation of donors and those concerned with ICTs and development with “mobiles for development” that is with additional means for the infrastructure for “accessing” information. However, there would appear to be little or no related concern (or resources) for ensuring that the pre-conditions for ensuring the effective use of this information particularly by rural small-holders—that the information to overwhelmingly non- or only marginally literate end users is in the multiple languages of the end users, is accessible on devices available to end users a, provides sufficient information context to be usable by end user, is structured in such a way as to enable necessary collaborative action by small-holders and so on.

In the absence of provision in these areas (or at least clear evidence that such is not required) then these potentially very exciting innovations in information provision could end up simply being additional instances of empowering the already (information and technology) empowered. There is a risk, without evidence it is hard to determine how great, that the truly astounding statistics concerning the uptake and very widespread distribution of mobile communications will be used as a surrogate for assuming that all mobile users are equally capable of making effective use of the variety of applications including in this instance applications providing information support for agriculture.

Equally there is the risk associated with the multiple service providers enabled by mobiles that the agricultural information being provided – in many cases either sponsored by or directly provided by providers of agricultural products will be inappropriate to small holder requirements meanwhile with their superior financial resources crowding out not for profit and less self-interested sources of information.