Digital innovation for sustainable development

Digital innovation for sustainable development

January 03, 2020

Digital innovation for sustainable development

A report by the Barilla Foundation takes stock of the pros and cons of new technologies in agriculture. Not only drones, but also big data and the Internet of Things

To achieve greater sustainability in food production, we need to focus on digital solutions. This is the message of the “Digitizing AgriFood: Pathways and Challenges” report produced by the Barilla Foundation, presented during the International Forum on Food and Nutrition organized in Milan

Our planet's already limited resources are running out at an alarming rate. Reversing the trend is therefore a matter of urgency. We use too much land and fresh water for agriculture, too many pesticides, we waste about a third of our food production and we rely too much on single-crop farming. Social inequities are strong, to the point that more than 820 million people are currently in a state of undernourishment, with even more people at risk of premature death due to an unhealthy diet. In this scenario, implementing digital solutions could be part of the solution for achieving greater sustainability.


Digital innovation, necessary but insufficient

Digital technologies are an important tool to overcome food challenges, for example by increasing crops, reducing waste and effectively changing consumption patterns to healthier diets for people and sustainable means for the planet

The premise of the report drafted by the Barilla Foundation is that when we talk about technology, we mean not only computers and machinery, but the whole complex system ranging from the use of big data to the Internet of Things, i.e. the global connection of computer systems, machines and people. 

Artificial intelligence, for example, through personalized nutritional advice and various forms of conviction, could help consumers reconsider the implications of their choices on society and the environment, while the possibility of using drones as a means of transport would consolidate the purchasing power of small farmers. Not to mention the endless forms of cooperation between farmers themselves who, via the internet, can increasingly control the relationship between the supply and demand of agricultural products in order to reduce waste.


All that glitters is not gold

Technology is not free of challenges: most of them require specific skills, network coverage and financial resources, which are lacking in many parts of the world. They also consume energy and contribute to the increase in electronic waste. Small farmers, who might be able to benefit most of all from a digital transformation, in the absence of specific public policies could paradoxically be excluded from the supply chain and enter a circle of economic dependence. While they own the land they cultivate, they would need to rent digital equipment from other large agri-food companies. 

Through best practice analysis, the Barilla Foundation report focuses on strategies to revolutionize agriculture, reduce food waste (minimizing losses) and inform consumers, taking into account the opportunities and challenges

This produced a set of ten commandments, useful recommendations for policy makers. According to the summary, in order to enable the proper digitization of the agri-food system, policy makers should: 


1. Ensure adequate connectivity for all; 

2. Distribute technological resources among all the players in the sector; 

3. Promote entrepreneurship, develop skills and facilitate technology transfer; 

4. Generate and share data for distributed and sustainable governance; 

5. Rebalance the bargaining power of farmers, distributors and data management managers; 

6. Attribute responsibility for negative externalities throughout the value chain; 

7. Provide incentives to shorten the food supply chain; 

8. Develop policies to allow the reallocation of surpluses and the reduction of food loss and waste; 

9. Create an ethical and political framework for artificial intelligence and data management in the business-to-consumer relationship; 

10. Improve the skills and awareness of farmers and consumers.


In order to embark on a true pathway of transformation and ensure that the processes are correct at all levels, Europe must therefore reform the Common Agricultural Policy, by establishing local organizations and providing funding and non-financial support for the development of solutions that meet local needs. Globally, the European Union should help developing countries overcome connectivity problems while offering integrated technological solutions, reducing inequality and the gender gap.

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