Agriculture and Climate Change: Call “Plantix — Your Crop Doctor” for Help
At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) Conference, President Biden announced an annual $3 billion Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (also known as PREPARE) aimed at supporting developing countries that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Samantha Power, administrator for USAID, will be one of the U.S. officials spearheading these efforts.
“We are devoting a larger and larger share of our budget to humanitarian assistance, because there are so many more climate-related disasters happening,” Power explained in a recent interview with National Public Radio’s (NPR) Ari Shapiro. “A whopping 1.7 billion people, in fact… since 2000, have been affected by climate-related disasters.”
The last seven years have been some of the hottest on record, and despite worldwide efforts to mitigate climate change, temperatures are expected to climb dramatically in coming years. “We will help support more than 500 million people to adapt to climate change through efforts like scaling drought-tolerant agriculture, establishing early-warning systems for storms and creating new insurance schemes that can support people when their harvests fail or livestock perish,” Power announced in her “A New Vision for Global Development” speech.
The changing climate will have a particularly profound impact on agricultural production and food security. “Even as the global population continues to grow and the climate crisis threatens more corners of the world each year, it seems each passing day, we still have an opportunity to harness agricultural research and innovation to grow the pipeline of crop varieties that can protect the world’s food supply,” Power remarked. Farmers around the world are already suffering the consequences of severe climate change, including drought, erosion, flooding, crop disease and falling crop yields. In the face of such vast and interrelated threats, development practitioners everywhere are looking to the frontiers of science and technology to develop and pilot innovative solutions.
“As smallholder farmers across the globe navigate the increasingly dire challenges presented by climate change, artificial intelligence offers a solution to help support decision-making at the farm-level,” posited Araba Sapara-Grant, a digital specialist with DAI. “This is critical because, as we know, with a changing climate comes increasingly volatile weather patterns that can — and have — forced farmers to make increasingly risky decisions on how best to use resources like water and inputs such as seeds and fertilizer,” she explained.
The ever-growing field of digital agriculture must turn its attention to cutting-edge emerging tools and technologies. Aware of artificial intelligence’s (AI) potential as an important tool in agricultural adaptation, USAID’s Feed the Future Bangladesh Digital Agriculture Activity (BDAA), as a part of DAI’s Digital Frontiers Project, recently supported the pilot of Plantix, a highly specialized and AI-driven smartphone application for farmers and extension workers in Bangladesh.
“In Bangladesh right now, we have the second generation of farmers. If we look at the previous generation of people, they knew how to farm,” said Tasnuba Sinha, BDAA digital tools specialist. “They were experts in the sense that they could look at the sky and they could understand whether it would rain or what the weather would be like. But now, with climate change, the weather is not as certain as it used to be. Agriculture right now is a bit unpredictable, and what Plantix can do is actually help you instead of the usual trial and error.”
When downloaded for the first time, the free “Plantix — Your Crop Doctor” application allows users to select their preferred language, location, crops of interest and growing conditions. Plantix can provide users with customized recommendations for the amount of water, light, pesticide and fertilizer necessary for a successful yield. The application interface also acts as a weather monitor, providing farmers with updates on rainfall, temperature and other sudden environmental changes pertinent to the user’s crops. The application’s most unique feature, however, is its remarkable ability to diagnosis a pest-infested, disease-ridden or malnourished crop from a simple picture.
“You can take a picture of a crop or plant, and the app, using its AI technology, will assess, and it will tell you what the problem is with the plant and how to take care of it,” detailed Sinha. “If it’s suffering from a disease, if it’s underwatered or it’s overwatered, or if it [needs] fertilizer…” the application is capable of diagnosing over 400 different ailments of 60 different crops and prescribing recommended solutions or treatments. When delivering advice, the Plantix application also considers data from a soil map and reports of any previous cases of crop disease in the user’s area.
If the response received from the AI feature is not sufficient, however, Plantix users also have the opportunity to connect with local experts and discuss potential remedies through the “community tab” on the application. “They have another tab in which anyone can ask the question, and then the active group members answer the question… It’s very active… I tested that [feature myself], and I posted a few questions and got answers in a couple of hours,” Sinha confirmed.
The community tab also allows users to directly engage with local agricultural experts and extension officers. Typically, agricultural extension officers are responsible for providing services to as many as 800 different farming communities, significantly limiting their ability to visit all farms in need of assistance. This circumstance usually shifts the travel obligations and costs to the farmers and their families. Thus, a free mobile application provides a great alternative to traveling to the nearest agricultural extension office, a process both inefficient and expensive for the farmer. “For people who reside in a very rural area, they have to travel a distance in order to reach these extension offices…” shared Sinha. “There’s also the cost of transportation to consider and, also, in regard to time, because for some it could mean like a half day’s journey.”
Changing weather patterns experienced across Bangladesh in recent years have led to an increased dependency on agricultural expertise — in person or digitally. Due to climate change, farmers are also having to contend with completely new crop diseases, many of which even agricultural extension workers are not yet familiar. If unable to predict the weather patterns and anticipate or even identify crop disease, many farmers who are unable to access real-time, collectivized information have had to resort to trial-and-error strategies. This, BDAA experts explain, is ineffective given the speed and magnitude of climate change. A.S.M. Monirujjaman, a DAI expert working on the ground to socialize the Plantix application, commented, “The recent seasonal shift in the Barishal region of Bangladesh… relabeled the October-November months as a part of the rainy season rather than winter, which put additional pressure on rural farmers.”
The Plantix tool has also proved uniquely beneficial for rural women. “Women can also use this Plantix app, because in rural areas lots of women are involved in homestead gardening… And [in] the cultural context of Bangladesh, women are not allowed to go far from their homes,” said BDAA technical expert Sutapa Biswas. “So, if they use the Plantix app, they can gain similar benefits [to visiting an agricultural extension office].” By working within the sociocultural framework of Bangladesh, the Plantix tool provides women with direct access to agricultural resources that may not have been previously available due to social or familial restrictions on traveling or conducting business as a woman.
Agri-input businesses have also adapted Plantix’s features to their unique needs and services. Agri-input businesses are engaging with the application to improve their reputation among customers and to increase seed sales by “identify[ing] what their clients suffer [from] and what solutions they need to provide their customers in the future,” elaborated Monirujjaman. The community tab feature allows agri-input business owners and operators to establish legitimacy, build relationships with local farming communities and increase sales of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. While the tool was not explicitly created for this use, it seems that the tool can be easily adapted to serve the wider agricultural value chain.
“The majority of farmers in Bangladesh face crop losses due to pest and disease, lack of knowledge, overfertilization or soil nutrient deficiencies and climate change,” reported BDAA. “They depend on other farmers or experts like extension officers… to resolve the problems. Most of the time they cannot reach the experts in time.” By using the Plantix image recognition and intelligent automation technology, farmers, homestead gardeners and other value chain actors can receive immediate access to highly accurate diagnoses and recommendations for treatments and corrective measures.
“Through AI-enabled mobile phone applications, farmers and digitally-enabled extension officers have the opportunity to receive time-sensitive decision support on issues from how best to treat crop diseases (some of which are spreading or increasing in severity due to changing climates),” reiterated Sapara-Grant. Since the pilot began in Bangladesh, Plantix has demonstrated this capacity to protect and prepare the country’s next generation of farmers for what could be challenging days ahead.
AI technologies are still novel in digital agriculture, and experts call for further research and refinement of AI-enhanced digital tools. “While the international development community must still address barriers to the use of AI, such as unavailable or incomplete data sets, AI is a critical tool in helping smallholder farmers combat the effects of climate change and maintain productivity through forthcoming shocks,” remarked Sapara-Grant. While AI technology alone cannot mitigate climate change and foster resilience in farming communities, its potential for high impact, sustainable change and scalability cannot be overlooked.