Remarks by Ambassador Kip Tom at the Digital Agriculture Transformation Seminar at FAO

13 June 2019, Rome, Italy - Digital Agriculture Transformation Seminar ", Morning session, FAO headquarters, (Green Room). rrPhoto credit must be given: ©FAO/Pier Paolo Cito. Editorial use only. Copyright ©FAO.

Remarks by Ambassador Kip Tom at The Digital Agriculture Transformation Seminar at FAO

Closing the Digital Divide

 

Rome, June 10

When my grandfather was a young boy, there were very
few tractors in Indiana. Almost every farmer tilled the land
with horse, oxen or mules. My family traveled to town by
horse and wagon to buy supplies for the farm and to grow
crops. Electricity was not very common in the rural
communities until the 1950’s. People heated their homes
with wood, and the toilets were outside. Everyone went to
bed when the sun disappeared behind the long stretch of
prairies, and they woke to the crow of a rooster. Corn was
ground in a stone mill powered by farm animals or the
current of the rivers. Our family, like most others, ate what
they grew during the summers, and in the fall, winter and
spring they lived on canned vegetables and fruits. There
was no refrigeration, so meat was preserved by smoking
or salt-curing.

When my father was a boy, modern farming techniques
began to take root. The rural electric program brought
power on a grid, which was eventually directed to the
farm. Many companies began to develop tractors and farm
implements. Mule barns were converted into sheds for
storing farm equipment. Farmers quickly adapted to the
changing technology and began to increase their yields.
Tractors that could work two rows at a time turned into
tractors that could handle four, then six, then eight rows.
Today, tractors can plant up to fifty-four rows in one pass.
While there were some setbacks during the Great
Depression, the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, and World War
II, progress on our American farms soon returned.

In the 1950’s and 60’s, when I was a young boy, hybrid genetics
began to be widely adopted by both American and
European farmers. What was a good yield of 75 bushels of
corn in the 1950’s was soon pushing 120 bushels in the
early 1970’s. Today with GMOs and other advanced
agronomic tools, we can produce 220 bushels per acre–
almost double the production of the 1970’s. The Green
Revolution not only swept across North America, we also
saw it begin to move around the world.

Neither my grandfather nor his ancestors who had settled
in America four generations prior to him, could have
imagined the possibilities that these changes in agriculture
would offer. We began to believe the world could be food
secure.

I have had the privilege of living in an age when
knowledge has expanded at an exponential rate. Today,
tractors drive themselves guided by satellites. Our tractors
have become our offices in which we use cell phones,
satellites, Bluetooth and numerous other forms of
connectivity. We can communicate with a data scientist
half-way across the world and update a seeding, fertility or
crop-care prescription in real-time to manage our farm.
Companies are creating apps that allow all farm sizes to
manage every aspect of farming from financial and
agronomic to the marketing of their crops.

We are in the early years of the digital revolution as it
relates to farming, and we are seeing the convergence of
biotechnology and digital sciences transform our ability to
measure, monitor and control our farms.

As a farmer, and as an investor and co-founder of various
digital farming technologies, I understand that our industry
is slow to adapt to new innovations. But after twenty years
of use, we now understand how to leverage the digital
revolution to increase productivity, improve resilience, and
adapt to climate changes while protecting the environment
and our natural resources. With today’s digital revolution,
a farmer has thousands of opportunities to experiment in a
given year, to measure and monitor his successes and
failures and then adapt and learn. As blockchain
technologies develop, farmers can seamlessly, from end
to end, connect food systems and production to the
customer.

While I have been blessed to live in a country with
abundant resources and a stable government, there are
places in the world that have missed the equipment
revolution and the green revolution and could be left
behind by the digital revolution.
Across the developing world, many are still farming like my
grandfather did 100 years ago. Their low yields and their
inability to increase the size of their farms is not allowing
them to live the lives they so much desire. We must help
lift small farmers out of poverty and subsistence farming
by giving them the tools to embrace business principles,
and grow their farms as we have in the developed
economies.

We have three challenges as we seek to improve lives
and livelihoods using these innovations in biogenetics and
digital technology:

1. Access to knowledge. For the last 60 years we have
promoted an extension service to deliver knowledge to
farmers. The average extension worker per farmer in the
most developed countries in Africa is 1 in 3000. Many
countries have no extension workers at all. Extension in its
current form is not the answer, but it is one of the solutions
for the transfer of knowledge. Internet connectivity is the
most efficient method for this transfer of knowledge but
rural areas around the world lack access to Internet.
Connectivity is crucial to modern farming, allowing
farmers to run their farms as businesses. To address this
problem, I recently met with the president of Microsoft to
discuss a technology that uses “white space” (the
frequencies between UHF television channels) to
affordably and effectively broadcast Internet over large
areas. Microsoft is testing the use of white space
technologies in Kenya and South Africa right now.

2. Urging the Private Sector to focus on developing
countries and bring them not only digital solutions, but also
agronomics that include modern breeding techniques,
crop care products and knowledge. Companies must turn
their focus to small-holder farms in developing countries
and help them to grow their farms. Many technology
companies have traditionally focused their efforts on
agriculture producers in developed countries, but we are
beginning to see private sector companies develop digital
tools for the small-holder farmers around the world, and
this needs to continue.

3. Convincing small farm holders to invest in themselves
and their youth. Producers who hope to leverage these
new tools in a digital world need to understand how to use
them and apply them to drive the effectiveness on their
own farms, whether it be one hectare or 5,000 hectares in
size. These technologies can benefit anyone who makes
the effort to learn. As these technologies evolve, and
become more broadly deployed, they create opportunities
for all farmers from young to old, small to large and for all
types of farming systems. To the extent that you can
remove all biases and beliefs and focus on using data to
make decisions, farmers, consumers and our environment
around the world will benefit.