The digital age has been a boon to farmers. Need to know when its going to rain, how to identify and eradicate pests, or keep track of poultry flock performance and efficiency? Yeah, there’s an app for that. In today’s farming climate, if you don’t have the technology, you get left behind. With the roll-out of 5G, this might be especially true for hundreds of millions of producers.
A new study out of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) has found what many in the farming business already know: those producers in 2nd- and 3rd-world countries are seeing a widening schism open up between them and the more technologically-advanced. Depending on the region, this gap is due to a lack of devices or a combination of nonexistent, extremely expensive or outdated network coverage.
As an example, across Mexico — Latin America’s second-largest economy — virtually everyone has a cell phone but only 25% of farming households have internet access. Across many locations in sub-Saharan Africa, an area which has the potential to be a global breadbasket, fewer than 40% of farming households have access to the internet. While Asian and Latin American farmers have almost universal mobile phone ownership, less than 70% of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa have handheld devices. And access to 4G networks required to run more sophisticated apps is only 9%.
“There’s an assumption that we’re going to be able to target everyone with these new technologies and everyone is going to be able to benefit,” said Zia Mehrabi, a scientist at the University of British Columbia who led the analysis published in Nature Sustainability, in a statement. “There’s a lot of 5G coming online. If access is not addressed at lower-end technologies, this is only going to aggravate the divide and create more inequality.”
The study also showed major differences between farm size and mobile network services. Globally, 24-37% of farms under one hectare had access to 3G or 4G networks, while service availability is as high as 80% for farms over 200 hectares. 2G access, which provides voice and text service, has wider availability but is not compatible with most smartphone technology.
An affordability analysis in the study found that for many rural poor who do live in areas with coverage, getting connected to farming technology could eat up the majority of their budgets.
“We face a digital poverty trap – those who are already marginalized fall further behind while others benefit from the myriad of opportunities offered by digital innovation in farming,” said Andy Jarvis, a co-author from the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT. “The study points to the need not only to expand coverage but vastly reduce the costs to make it affordable. We need to consider digital connectedness as a basic need, and design next-generation innovations to work in every corner of Africa.”
In nitrogen-deficient cropping areas, that which has low yields without proper fertilizer management, 3G and 4G availability was 60% and 22% respectively. Areas dependent on rainfall for production had 71% and 54% availability, while arid environments, which pose large but surmountable production challenges, only had 37% and 17% coverage.
“These coverage gaps pose important roadblocks for developing data-hungry nutrient advisories, climate services, and financial services that require mobile internet,” the authors said.
The report also found large differences for those affected by food insecurity. 3G/4G coverage was 61%/45% and, in Africa, 52%/22%. Global access for people afflicted by malaria, which caused more than 400,000 deaths in 2018, is only 37%/17%.
“This lack of coverage for at-risk populations poses serious concern for responding to food security and health impacts of emerging diseases including COVID-19. This lack of coverage is more problematic today than ever before,” said Mehrabi.
However, technology is in the works which would bridge the gap. One example is Space X’s Starlink system. Starlink aims to provide high-speed Internet globally in a cost-effective manner by leveraging a constellation of several thousand satellites. If successful, the network ought to support half a million users simultaneously with a 100 megabit-per-second internet speed by its completion in 2027.
Another system aimed at bringing universal internet to the world is Google’s Loon. Instead of satellites, the company will use high-altitude balloons in the stratosphere at an altitude of 18 km (11 mi) to 25 km (16 mi) to create an aerial wireless network with up to 1 Mbps speeds.
While this may hold universal internet access for the world, the reality is that delivery of these products could be a long way off.
“They’d better get their skates on, because we desperately need universal access in farming landscapes. And the longer we delay, the more problematic this is going to be,” said Mehrabi.
The study also included authors from the World Bank and Germany’s Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research.