International Digital Council for Food and Agriculture: #DigitAg contributes to the FAO concept note

During the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture held in January in Berlin, the 74 Ministers of Agriculture present undertook to use the potential of digitalisation to increase agricultural production and productivity, while improving sustainability, efficient resource use, employment and entrepreneurial opportunities, and living conditions, especially in rural areas. To help everyone to harness the opportunities presented by digitalisation, they called upon FAO, along with all stakeholders, to draw up a concept note for the establishment of a Digital Council for Food and Agriculture. #DigitAg is one of the 106 contributors to the open consultation held this autumn by FAO.

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Four questions to define the Council and its duties

Working collaboratively, the role of this International Digital Council will be to “discuss and develop voluntary guidelines, provide advice to policymakers, and enhance knowledge-sharing on best practices that would contribute to sustainable agriculture and rural development during the digital transformation”.

To establish this Council, the consultation asked the following questions: What are the potential entry points for government to address challenges and foster the development of digital agriculture? | How can the establishment of the Digital Council address the numerous barriers to adoption of these technologies? | Do you think that the roles identified for the Digital Council are suitable for facing the agrifood systems challenges outlined above? | What governance structure should be in place in order for the Council to serve its purpose?

Emphasis on interdisciplinarity and the multi-stakeholder approach

Led by Pascal Bonnet, the #DigitAg position underlines these two concepts..

The issue of the entry points to address challenges and foster the development of digital agriculture is complex. The development of digital agriculture requires the gradual implementation of a vast innovation ecosystem, based first on multiple stakeholders (governance, competence centres, training facilities), diverse agricultural and digital techniques and technologies (sensors, agricultural and non-agricultural equipment fitted with these sensors, smartphones and other connected devices integrating sensors and services) and infrastructures (communication networks and infrastructures to exchange data and communicate, Internet) and, second, on the development of “agriculturally and economically smart” information services and platforms. These rely on data, models and algorithms for decision support in production and marketing. Research is important here, as are linkages between stakeholders and organisations (producers’ associations), which integrate digital technologies into their corporate strategies and policies and collective and individual actions.

The establishment of this ecosystem is facilitated by the existence of a societal model, a sectoral environment and a political and economic context supporting the “digital economy”. It is the innovation system as a whole that must be considered, with its different components that vary in robustness depending on the country and the context.

Competence centres are particularly useful in the development of this innovation system. For example, research centres working in the field of digital agriculture for interdisciplinary research, where the digital sciences are associated with the agricultural and social sciences. This level of collaboration between disciplinary fields is not yet a given everywhere, but one example is the #DigitAg Convergence Lab (www.hdigitag.fr).

In addition to these generic aspects, there are difficulties specific to the developing countries, such as the digital divide, but also the legal divide: there is a lack of a legal and ethical framework on the use of data, which challenges confidence and the view of the real beneficiaries of such methods (see “Éviter une valorisation technologique et économique asymétrique des big data” in SPORE, Septemebr 2019).

To remove barriers to technology adoption, the inclusiveness and diversity of stakeholders will be important factors. This Council could therefore ensure the diversity of viewpoints, in accordance with the ethics and the proven value of implementing digital solutions, especially in order to commit to sustainable development objectives.

Finally, among the roles assigned to this Council, it is to be hoped that the knowledge hub will better integrate the social sciences, which study issues of technology co-design, transition and adoption. Moreover, on the issue of governance, the establishment of a global alliance and thematic panels, including a research and innovation panel, with operational working groups and clear deliverables, seems necessary to fulfil this international advisory role.