Why family farmers need greater access to technology

13 April 2023

UNCTAD supports efforts to expand family farmers’ access to innovative technologies to boost livelihoods and fight global hunger.

© Shutterstock/Akarawut | A farmer uses hydroponic systems for his organic farm, where plants grow in water containing nutrients.

With new technologies cropping up, family farming – one of the world’s oldest economic activities – is evolving to harness emerging opportunities for productivity and sustainability gains.

Family-owned farms make up around four fifths of Earth’s farmland and are responsible for over 80% of global food production in value terms, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Despite producing much of what we eat – paradoxically – family farmers, many operating on a small scale, face hunger and poverty, especially in developing countries.

A global action plan launched in 2019 to shore up support for family farmers in a rapidly changing world highlighted the need to empower family farmers with technology and tailored innovations that meet their needs.

“Technology boosts family farming by enhancing agricultural productivity and livelihoods and promoting environmentally friendly solutions to agriculture,” said Clovis Freire, who leads UNCTAD’s work on technology and innovation policy research.

“Increasing the access of young farmers to technologies can expand rural employment opportunities and enhance the sustainability of family farming,” he added.

Technology as a game changer for family farming

Technology strengthens all four dimensions of food security – availability, access, utilization and stability, according to experts.

Genetic modification, for instance, can increase food supply by speeding up the process of creating new varieties with desired traits.

Agro-processing technologies reduce post-harvest losses and improve the quality of processed products, making food more accessible.

Biofortification, known for improving nutrition, helps mitigate human micronutrient deficiency.

Drones and satellites, used for territory surveillance, mapping and crop health monitoring, contribute to more stable agriculture production.

Promoting cooperation and knowledge sharing

Backed by the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development, to which UNCTAD provides substantive support, various South-South cooperation initiatives – from a science, technology and innovation perspective – are underway to bolster developing countries’ technological capacities.

During a recent workshop on the use of advanced technologies for family agriculture, UNCTAD and its partners jointly launched an industrial innovation cluster of agribusiness, based in Petrolina, Brazil.

The cluster aims at helping Brazilian family farmers tap technology to raise productivity, generate more jobs and make their farming practices more sustainable.

The workshop brought together participants from 14 developing nations, who shared experiences on cooperative practices, technology assessment and the environmental benefits of precision farming – where modern technologies, such as data and digital tools, help monitor and optimize agricultural operations.

How family farmers benefit from technology

Kenya, for example, is carrying out a precision agriculture pilot project using satellite technology to analyse soil carbon and fertility. It includes advising smallholder farmers – through mobile apps and text messages – on when to plant and how much fertilizer to apply.

In Seychelles, farmers are trained to use fertigation technology – combining soluble fertilizers with micro-irrigation techniques – to improve crop quality while reducing energy consumption.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, enables farming families to add more value to agricultural products by providing modern machinery and production centres, which convert raw materials to primary and secondary products such as wool, dry fruits and cosmetic oils.

And Uruguay’s ministry of livestock, agriculture and fisheries is designing a digital inclusion strategy targeting rural populations, particularly women farmers.

What policymakers need to do

To narrow the tech gap for family farmers, UNCTAD calls for greater investments – nationally and globally – in research and development to make technologies more affordable, accessible and user-friendly.

Skills training and capacity-building are key to enabling technology adoption by smallholder farmers.

UNCTAD also underscores the need for adequate infrastructure – such as farming equipment, internet broadband and waste management facilities – to reach family farmers, particularly those living in rural areas.

Also, promoting knowledge transfer and international cooperation is crucial to fostering inclusive transformation of family farming, as well as resilient agrifood systems worldwide.