Tech boost for farming UWI scientists to make app widely available

Tech boost for farming UWI scientists to make app widely available

UWI scientists to make app widely available

Observer senior staff reporter

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

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A group of scientists at The University of the West Indies, Mona has created a portal that will take a lot of the guesswork out of farming. There are plans to eventually make the technology widely available as an app, but for now it is a free-to-use online portal that can provide information on how to get the most out of growing 45 different crops.

Dr Dale Rankine, Agricultural Climate Modeling Research Analyst in the Department of Physics at The UWI, Mona, says the portal -- which has taken years of work to develop -- is a crucial game-changer for the country's agricultural sector, even as concerns mount about national food security. He is one of the members of the Climate Studies Group behind the project.

According to Rankine, farmers will be able to use the platform to make assessments based on rainfall projections, the price of major inputs and even irrigation costs.

“Farming is a risky business, any help the farmer can get to have an idea of what he is likely to get in any scenario is [priceless]. It... spares him the headache of going and making the investment and losing [money]. If you can show them a means by which you can help them save, they are willing to try,” he told the Business Observer.

Conceding that some farmers may be less technologically savvy than others, he was nonetheless confident that the information being offered would be easy enough to access -- even outside of the portal.

“Our collaboration with the meteorological services is critical because they provide a very user-friendly farmers' bulletin which is disseminated widely and has a feedback mechanism. So there are different avenues through which we are going to be providing information,” Rankine explained.

“We have direct collaboration with RADA [Rural Agricultural Development Authority] as well. They are in on the portal; they want to be able to disseminate the information to their farmers.”

The portal uses geographic information system (GIS) technology and information from the closest weather station to predict productivity. Farmers, extension officers and other sector stakeholders can see predicted yields and biomass of different crop types under varying scenarios. The model can also identify drought-tolerant crops and varieties, which may prove useful for farmers in geographical locations perennially plagued by insufficient water.

“We want it to be available across platforms. Currently, if you have a smartphone you can still access it... The portal is very simple. You type in a location that you are interested in [and] you select from the menu of options the crop you want to plant,” Rankine said.

A lot of work has already been done with varieties of sweet potatoes, dasheen and cassava. There has also been a successful collaboration with Red Stripe Limited under its Project Grow initiative, which focuses on growing cassava to use as a substitute for imported high-maltose syrup in the production of its various brewed products. Going forward, members of The UWI's Climate Studies Group also have their sights set on the optimal production of pineapple.

“One of the critical things we have to look at if we are going to improve agriculture is not just the whole notion of primary production, where everybody goes to the field, plants and harvests and tries to find somebody to buy the product, because there are so many [other aspects to farming]. We had an exposé with people out of Japan and they showed us over 2,000 value-added products out of sweet potato alone, and that's [only] from the edible part. Other parts of the plant are used for pharmaceuticals,” he pointed out.

Rankine and his colleagues' efforts to use technology to boost farming is being done through the Agricultural Climate Change Evaluation for Production, Transformation and Resilience (ACCEPT Resilience) project. Their online platform is called ACCEPT Agri.

It grew out of the Climate Studies Group's determination to move climate change studies from the merely theoretical to something that can have an impact on real life.

“One of the things we have been trying to do is to ensure that the whole notion of climate studies does not remain only [the act of ] looking at the physical science of climate -- meaning how things are going to change, how much rainfall we are going to have in the future, changes in temperature. And that's good, but what does that have to do with anybody?” said Rankine. “And so there is what we call a tier-two modeling group that looks at how these changes in climate will impact different socio-economic sectors at the end of the day, which we think is important.”

He added, “My specific area of interest is looking at how climate change will impact agriculture, and looking at it from the vantage point that if we are going to have a change in the productivity of the future we must be able to anticipate what those changes will look like, identify and scope adaptation options and prioritise those options.

“If we are going to do that, given that nobody knows [how] the future will unfurl, you need to have some kind of virtual environment or model to look at several different scenarios.”

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