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Empowering Family Farmers through Technology: The Key to Productivity and Sustainability

Family farming has been one of the world's oldest economic activities and continues to play a vital role in global food production. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 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. However, paradoxically, family farmers, many operating on a small scale, face hunger and poverty, especially in developing countries.

To address this issue, a global action plan was launched in 2019 to empower family farmers with technology and tailored innovations. Technology can be a game changer for family farming by enhancing agricultural productivity and livelihoods and promoting environmentally friendly solutions to agriculture. Clovis Freire, who leads UNCTAD's work on technology and innovation policy research, emphasized that "Increasing the access of young farmers to technologies can expand rural employment opportunities and enhance the sustainability of family farming."

Technology can strengthen 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.

To narrow the tech gap for family farmers, policymakers need to make 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. Adequate infrastructure, such as farming equipment, internet broadband, and waste management facilities, is crucial to reach family farmers, particularly those living in rural areas.

Promoting knowledge transfer and international cooperation is also crucial to fostering inclusive transformation of family farming, as well as resilient agrifood systems worldwide. Backed by the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development, 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.

Kenya, for example, is carrying out a precision agriculture pilot project using satellite technology to analyze 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 centers, 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.

In conclusion, technology has the potential to transform family farming and make it more productive, sustainable, and profitable. However, policymakers need to invest in research and development, skills training and capacity-building, and adequate infrastructure to reach family farmers, particularly those living in rural areas. Promoting knowledge transfer and international cooperation is crucial to fostering inclusive transformation of family farming and resilient agrifood systems worldwide.

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