Biofortified food crops are now widely considered valuable elements in strategies to improve nutrition and health—especially for smallholder farming families and other vulnerable groups in low- and middle-income countries. Globally, many governments, funders, and businesses are keen to significantly scale up the reach of biofortification, both in terms of the volume of crops grown by farmers and the range of consumer food products using these micronutrient-rich crops as ingredients. 

How can technology help efforts to scale up? At an event organized by HarvestPlus and The New Fork about Using Tech Solutions to Scale Biofortification, experts in the application of technologies for food and agriculture systems focused on this question. The event was held Jan. 28 at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in Washington, D.C., where HarvestPlus has its headquarters.  

Digital and Mobile Highlighted

Much of the discussion revolved around how to harness digital and mobile technologies to reach more farmers, particularly technologies aimed at helping farmers be more efficient, productive, and market oriented. 

Jonathan Lehe, Chief Development Officer and Director of New Programs at Precision Agriculture for Development (PAD), shared how his group is using mobile SMS, interactive voice response, apps, and other methods to provide farmers with content about optimal farming practices, disease and pest outbreaks, weather, and other relevant information. He said their system, which can be customized to individual farmers through feedback loops, has been rolled out in eight countries across Africa and Asia, reaching about 3.5 million farmers so far. 

Their principal objective is to reach many smallholder farmers who aren’t easily reached by often-understaffed face-to-face farmer extension services. In Kenya, Lehe said PAD has been working with One Acre Fund on a pilot to encourage farmers to adopt biofortified bean and lentil seeds. The pilot generated strong response from the target group, and PAD is looking into how to scale up. 

Some participants at the event noted the challenge of working with or alongside publicly-run farm extension systems, given that the systems—or their government overseers—may not be receptive to new technologies or want to work on integrating them into current practices.  

Diego Arias, Lead Economist in Agriculture and Rural Development for the Africa Region at the World Bank, said, “The main issue is that [public] investments in agricultural innovation (such as in education, research, and extension) are not going toward new tech.” He said this is in part because of the lack of collaboration between the purveyors of technologies (such as start-up companies) and those in charge of public extension operations. 

“As long as agricultural innovation systems are not tailored to work with private entrepreneurs, including co-designing technologies, you are not going to be able to get that much penetration.” However, working with extension systems is critical because they “do have the power to get farmers to adopt things.” 

He noted that the World Bank is rethinking the ways the work with the private sector in order to catalyze public-private collaboration on tech solutions for development, with increasing emphasis on the post-harvest side of the equation. “Most of our current biofortification initiatives are focused on producing seed. The post-harvest issues like tracing are not there. That’s why our department is now agriculture and food; before it was just agriculture,” said Arias.  

The World Bank economist added that their teams are also focusing on improving the legal and regulatory environment for new technologies in agricultural development to ensure that developers and implementers don’t run into barriers to scaling up. The Bank is also focusing on what he described as “low-skilled bias”: making sure a farmer is not prevented by literacy, numeracy, cultural, or linguistic issues from benefitting from the technology.  

A Role for Blockchain

HarvestPlus has been working with The New Fork on ways to apply blockchain distributed ledger technology to address a key issue: the ability to track and authenticate origin of biofortified seeds and foods through value chains. This is essential boost confidence in the product, given that many biofortified goods are visually identical to their non-biofortified counterparts, and verification of nutritional value is also needed. 

HarvestPlus and the New Fork have begun assessment work on a pilot project in Nigeria about how to use blockchain in the country’s biofortified vitamin-A maize seed value chain. This work was cited in a recent report from the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, Blockchain for Food: Making Sense of Technology and the Impact on Biofortified Seeds. 

“We are in a situation where everything seems to be falling into place [for blockchain solutions],” said Jan van Iperen, Business Developer at The New Fork, which is a Netherlands-based company focused on blockchain applications for the global food industry. “Not only companies are looking into new solutions, especially also on the consumer side, they are becoming more aware that we need more transparency” about what is in the products they use and where the products come from, he said. 

“In Nigeria, the project we have has provided a base point from which we will work to bring this solution to life,” he said. 

Innovation Means Taking Chances

Brian King, Coordinator of the CGIAR Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, encouraged innovators to be bold and take changes. He recalled reading about the time many years ago when Tim Berners-Lee, considered the father of the internet, produced his original paper about the idea. King said there was a note from someone in the margins that said something like: “Interesting! But will it really work?” 

The internet “was perhaps the most successful case of digital technology scaling in history. But 30 years ago, [investing in it] would have been a really hard decision,” King said. “We should be ready to be wrong.” 

In order to boost the odds that a new technology will work, King said we should be thinking early on about interoperability—that is, making sure that the new tech will be able to interface with and leverage other solutions and systems, rather than serve only as a standalone tool. We should also be thinking about how the technology will need to evolve in the future, how it will need to adapt to changing circumstances in the scaling process. Otherwise it will become obsolete. “Be ready to be agile and iterate with your partners,” he said. 

Added David Meyer, Global Research and Development Predictive Agriculture Leader at Corteva: “It’s really important to be asking the right questions about what we want the technology to do. We need to make it simple to help farmers make the right decisions.” Corteva, a global agricultural science company, is present in 140 countries and has reached some 50 million smallholder farmers as part of its work, according to Meyer. 

HarvestPlus and our partners within the CGIAR global research network are already actively applying technologies to catalyze efficient and innovative activity in the biofortification sector. Two recent examples: 

For more information about how HarvestPlus and its partners are harnessing technology to advance biofortification, contact Jenny Walton: [email protected]