The problem of world hunger is complex, and the threats to our global food supply are many. They include growing populations, loss of arable land, dwindling water supplies, and climate change.
As if these present-day challenges weren’t enough, there is another – far older – adversary that farmers have grappled with for centuries: Crop disease.
Crop losses due to pests and plant pathogens continue to rob world markets of much-needed food and cost farmers billions of dollars every year.
But innovators like Ad Bastiaansen believe that modern information technology might finally help turn the tide of battle against this ancient foe.
There’s an app for that
Bastiaansen is the chairman of Netherlands-based Waterwatch Cooperative, a company whose mission is to make essential information services accessible and affordable across the agri-food value chain.
“We want to contribute to the food security of the entire planet,” says Bastiaansen. A good example of this mindset is the Crop Disease Alert app, which Waterwatch Cooperative created to help farmers identify when their crops are at risk of disease.
The app – which can run on a farmer’s smartphone – monitors a crop’s growing conditions, detects changes in the environment, and analyzes the specific risk for certain diseases on a crop-by-crop basis.
“It can be a big challenge to make very complex algorithms simple to use,” Bastiaansen says. But that is exactly what this app does.
Farmers are presented with an intuitive “traffic light” indicator. Green means that little or no threat currently exists. Yellow indicates that conditions are developing that increase the risk of specific infectious pathogens. And finally, a red indicator alerts the farmer to an imminent danger of disease that requires immediate action.
The simplicity of the interface belies the volume of information used in the background. The app collects and analyzes a host of geospatial, weather, and agronomical data. It is capable of drawing from data sources such as satellites, drones, on-ground sensors, and even the feedback of other farmers.
In short, Crop Disease Alert is a Big Data approach to an age-old problem. And the app, which was developed in association with a number of partners including SAP AG, relies on the Big Data management capabilities of the SAP Cloud Platform.
The power of agriculture’s Big Data
The power of Big Data has already had a significant impact on farms using the Waterwatch Cooperative app. Bastiaansen describes a 25% to 40% reduction in incidents of crop disease and more efficient use of resources such as water, fertilizers, and pesticides.
Bastiaansen explains that almost 70% of the food on this plant is produced by smallholder farmers. So making the app affordable has been a keystone of the project. “The Crop Disease Alert app will cost the farmer about US$1 a year,” he says. “We want to reach more than 500 million farmers, making sure they have the right information for their crops.”
In fact, Waterwatch Cooperative continues to seek new partnerships to help them develop additional applications that provide smallholder farmers with the information they need to grow more. Current projects include a crop selector for farmers in Burundi that advises which crops to grow based on soil quality, weather conditions, available seeds, and market information. Another app offers coffee farmers in Vietnam a digital calendar of seasonal tasks.
Turning the tide of battle
The global impact of crop disease remains enormous. To cite just one example, Ugandan news sources report that a single disease costs that country the loss of $299.6 million worth of bananas annually – a crop that over 13 million Ugandans depend on for food and income.
Finding more effective ways to fight crop diseases and improve yields can provide a more secure income to smallholder farmers and help create a more sustainable global food supply for all of us.
And as Ad Bastiaansen sees it: “If you want to improve crop yields, you can use better seeds and advanced farm machinery. But you can also do it by having the right information at the right time.”