Neil Palmer / FAO PPLPI

The Financial Times Future of Agriculture Summit: Did Smart Farming Really Meet Smart Business?

Launched to address the twin imperatives of climate change and feeding a growing population, the Financial Times (FT) Summit aimed to bring together experts and practitioners from across the value chain in a unique forum to explore the future of crop production and debate the trends.

In its scene setting, the FT Summit highlighted that agri-food systems, both nationally and globally, face an unprecedented set of opportunities and challenges. On the one hand, there are major concerns over the sustainability of production systems and the expanding and changing patterns of demand placed on this by an increasing and urbanizing population. On the other hand, we live in an age of extraordinary technical opportunities in a globally connected world where business and social solutions are emerging at the interface of agriculture, energy and health. 

The FT Summit indicated that agriculture technology development is the new frontier for venture capital. It subsequently showcased some of the new technologies and business models across the agricultural sector, to suggest that advances in technology, including fertilization, digital soil-mapping, weather data analytics, drone and sensor application, and precision climate predictions, could increase the rate of crop production efficiency tenfold. A number of subsequent panel interventions, also emphasized the increased need to solve problems through farmer-led and farmer participatory research. 

In some sense, smart farming met with smart business. The question of how far this could or is addressing the aforementioned challenges and opportunities, however, was never really broached. That said, the FT Summit was definitely filled with an air of suggestion that technological widgets and the slight tweaking of agri-food systems would provide the answers to averting imminent disaster. And while there was some mention of the need to take a system perspective, the overriding sentiment remained one of ‘transformational technology to the rescue’. Moreover, in this atmosphere of technological adaptation to climate change, the fact that agri-food systems contribute at least a quarter of all greenhouse emissions hardly got a mention!

The FT Summit is undoubtedly right in highlighting that smart farming and smart business can and should provide an increasing contribution to the future of agri-food systems. The lack of reflection, at least during the first installment of the FT Summit, on the where this fits in an era of transformational change, remains, however, curious. It also left an overriding impression, at least with this participant, that that the FT Summit believes that technology alone, will save the day. A quick glance at a recently published study by the World Bank, however, would have reconfirmed the widely acknowledged fact that there is no such thing as transformational technology; just transformational innovation. 

Much of the ISPC’s work in this area has highlighted that to realize transformational impacts, technology must be accompanied by multi-stakeholder action to change values, behaviour, and networks, which are equally reflected in markets and policy. Strong alignment between public, private and civil society interests and agenda at a macro-level is thus another key ingredient in system change. It has also revealed, however, that unless we’re able to unpick some of the lock-ins, such as short-term funding models with unrealistic impact expectations, evaluation traditions focused on historical performance measures and weak learning orientation, the excessive focus on quick wins versus long-term change, it will be difficult for research to keep in step with rapidly evolving agri-food systems trends.

Tackling these issues, many of them deeply political, is not going to be easy. It will, for example, require vision and leadership, and the building of consensus across society on the meaning and objectives of agri-food system transformation. 

Changing the world, however, like charity, must start at home. Moving this agenda forward within the CGIAR System requires reflection on the institutions required to unleash the power of agricultural science and technology in innovation, and on what the System’s International Public Goods (IPG) niches are in an era of transformation framed by the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Such reflection, against a background of the different transformational dynamics that the CGIAR System is likely to encounter, will not only help with identifying the questions that need to be answered, but also in seizing the opportunities presented by this changing context. It will also be a first step in ensuring the enduring contribution of smart research to innovation to shape agri-food system transformation.

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