Farm and food policy innovations for the digital age

The prototype of an autonomous weeding machine by Swiss start-up ecoRobotix is pictured during tests on a sugar beet field near Bavois, Switzerland May 18, 2018. Picture taken May, 18, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse - RC18908CB500

Imagine you are the prime minister of a country that wants to improve the lot of its food producers, consumers, and the environment: Where should you invest time and resources? What policy levers should you pull?

Not a week goes by without news of digital disruption in traditional industries and sectors. We’ve already seen long-standing business models from taxis to hotels upended, and we’ve got to wonder where this will take the world’s oldest industry—agriculture.

We urgently need to rethink public policy interventions to help countries navigate opportunities and challenges linked to digital advances in the food economy.

The promise of digital disruption in agriculture is enormous. Producing food and fiber is a data- and capital-intensive business. On the data side, a farmer’s feel for how to combine seeds, soil, water, and weather can now be complemented by mobile-phone based extension services, remote sensing data, and artificial intelligence. On the capital side, the “sharing economy” creates amazing new opportunities for the optimal deployment of capital assets—tractors are agriculture’s Ubers and grain elevators are its Airbnbs. Advances in fintech are changing traditional land-based collateralization models and mobile banking is putting access right into farmers’ pockets.

Arguably, what is happening to product and factor markets is even more disruptive than what is happening on the farm. The race is on to streamline a hugely complex food system that relies on multiple upstream and downstream intermediaries and industries to match the world’s 570 million farmers with its soon to be 8 billion consumers. The complexity is being simplified as technologies such as blockchain improve traceability from the farm to fork and e-commerce platforms facilitate direct linkages between producers and consumers.

Digital disruption is occurring at a time when food systems are evolving under the pressure of rising incomes, changing consumption patterns, and the emergence of more business-oriented small- and medium-scale farmers. Add to the mix shifting climatic patterns, alternative proteins, and genetic editing breakthroughs, and it’s easy to feel both excited and overwhelmed.

Looking at digital impacts through a development economics lens may be a good place to start disentangling promise from peril and designing appropriate policy innovations.

Digital technologies disrupt the level and allocation of physical, human, and natural capital. While the impacts on efficiency are expected to be mostly positive, the impacts on equity and environment are not as clear-cut. They require a more careful assessment.

For example, will the digital transformation of the food system create new jobs or destroy them? Will data generated by food producers and consumers be used to improve the sharing of economic benefits or will information be captured by a few powerful players? On the environment, will precision technologies lead to a sound use of natural resources or will they instead accelerate their depletion?

Experience shows progress is not linear and change often brings unintended consequences: Agriculture is keeping pace with global population growth but it now generates an enormous amount of environmental degradation—26 percent of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, 32 percent of terrestrial acidification, 78 percent of eutrophication, and two-thirds of freshwater withdrawals. The modern food system is also contributing to a public health crisis fueled by cheap calories and lack of diversity: Poor diets are now a leading cause of premature death.

The World Bank is embarking on a study on digital disruption of agriculture and food to ask hard questions on the role of public policy in maximizing potential gains in efficiency, equity, and sustainability.

We hope to crowd-in some of the world’s best minds and are launching a global conversation on this topic through a series of blogs called “What’s Cooking? Rethinking farm and food policy in the digital age” starting October 15. We invite people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to join us.