Category Archives: Environmental Policy

Harvesting the Agricultural Potential of Drones

Source: MIT Technology Review, 2016

The world’s food system sits at a precarious intersection. Rising temperatures and erratic rainfall, political instability and conflict throughout the developing world, and rapid movement of people to urban hotspots are just some of the global trends threatening global agricultural production today. Experts predict the global population will increase to 9.7 billion people by 2050, greatly increasing the demand for food and pressure on an already constrained global food supply.

At the same time, biological advancement has enabled the production of genetically engineered crops resistant to pests and droughts, promising future resilience from climate change. And governments around the world have committed to increasing agricultural production through legislation and agricultural investment plans.

Today, scientists, agricultural experts, government officials, and farmers are preoccupied with tackling one of the biggest questions: how can we maximize global agricultural production to feed a growing world?

Solutions to this problem were presented at the ICT4Ag conference in Washington, DC where technology geeks and agricultural experts had some truly innovative answers: mobile phone apps, Uber for tractors, and drones. Yep, you read that right: the same technology used in military strikes and modern warfare is being applied to Rwanda’s maize fields and Benin’s cashew farms.

At first it might be difficult to make the connection between drones and agriculture. Established 12,000 years ago, agriculture is literally one of the oldest practices of humankind. Drones, on the other hand, emerged only in the last century, with commercial drones gaining popularity over the past ten years. Growing food requires basics inputs – good soil, water, and the sun. Drone technology draws from new advancements like remote sensing, high-optic cameras, and gyro-stabilization (the technology behind how drones are able to smoothly fly through the air).

However, agriculture and drones are not as distinct as one might think. Rather, the two concepts are important complements to each other. With strained natural resources and a growing global population, we can no longer afford for agriculture to be a practice of the past. Could drones be a missing piece in the global yield gap puzzle by maximizing effective agricultural practices and empowering farmers?

The Perks of Drones in the Sky

Drones have the potential to transform the ways smallholder and low-resourced farmers in developing countries make key decisions with better data.

Drones can pinpoint areas where crops are damaged faster and more efficiently than a farmer or extension agent could do through field monitoring or random sampling. Farmers are able to identify areas of concern earlier and more accurately, which in turn increases the likelihood of success from efforts like additional fertilizer or pesticides. Identifying problem areas in a field early is critical in ensuring a good crop yield.

Drones can help farmers save significant costs by targeting an intervention on areas that need it most. Instead of applying pesticides or fertilizer to an entire field, farmers can reduce costs (and health risks) by focusing on one problematic part. Farmers also save money by knowing exactly where they should plant certain crops in their field. Differences in slope or soil quality even within a field can produce different yields, so farmers can maximize their investment by planting more effectively. Some estimates find drones can reduce planting costs by 85 percent.

What’s even more effective is that when layered with weather and climatic information, drones can help low resourced farmers anticipate rainy or dry periods and make better decisions regarding pesticides, watering, and fertilizer use. Not only is that great for the pocketbook but also for the environment.

Drones can also help farmers secure land rights over their fields, by providing clear images of field boundaries. This benefit is especially important for female farmers who face a higher risk of land grabbing by male family members or the community.

Drones help empower smallholder farmers with more information about their fields. When farmers can see the images and maps captured from drones, they gain a new perspective of their livelihoods. Farmers gain power when they have more information and can make more informed decisions.

Current Challenges

Using drones to increase agricultural productivity for low resourced farmers is not without its challenges.

One challenge is, unsurprisingly, cost. Although the price has decreased substantially over the past few years, drone services still prove prohibitively expensive for most smallholder farmers in developing countries to afford. In some emerging economies, medium to large scale farmers are currently helping facilitate demand for drone services. Elsewhere, groups of smallholder firms are banding together to create aggregate demand for these services.

Government drone regulations can also restrict the use of drones for agricultural purposes. Approximately 77% of African countries lack drone regulations. This can make it very difficult for organizations promoting drone use in agriculture.

Progress Towards a Drone-Friendly Future in Agriculture

So what does a world with drones look like? Turns out, we already have a pretty good idea. The agricultural drone market is expected to reach $3.7 billion by 2024 as governmental policies become more favorable and services expand.

Development organizations like We Robotics and RTI International currently provide drone services to low resourced farmers around the world. Investors are already taking notice of drone entrepreneurs like Ranveer Chandra, a former Microsoft researcher, who is developing a system using drones and soil sensors to improve soil quality of smallholder farmers. And attention is also focusing on startups like Kenya’s SunCulture, an agro-solar organization that sells drip irrigation systems and uses drones to determine the placement of their systems.

A future of drones and shrinking yield gaps in agricultural fields around the world is on the horizon. Now we just need to ensure that these services are accessible and affordable for the smallholder farmer to use.

Emily is a second year Masters of Public Policy candidate studying agriculture policy and international development.

Opinion: We’ve Got a ‘Oui’ Problem

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the Sanford Journal of Public Policy.

The decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement befuddled many experts, precisely because we know the factors that did not inspire the decision. Trump did not pledge to leave the deal because Trump-voting states no longer want to participate. The majority of residents in every state support the Paris deal. Some of Trump’s high-profile advisors and cabinet members came out against the decision, including Gary D. Cohn, Director of the National Economic Council, and Rex Tillerson, Secretary of State. Even Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, opposed the decision to withdraw.

Despite pulling the country out of the Paris Agreement, Trump does not believe America is better off without a seat at “la table” (the French word for table). Trump made it clear he intends to negotiate a new climate agreement that allows America to get more and pay less: The Art of the Deal before our very eyes. Trump has made his (unsubstantiated) billions using this methodology. Buy low, sell high; buy one, get one free. Trump is always looking for a bigger, “better” deal.

Source: Peace Palace Library (2016)

Here’s how Trump’s deal making works: Let’s say I was a billionaire business tycoon (an unrealistic fantasy) with untamed hair (my daily reality). I have something you want, and you have something I want. But you need me more than I need you, so I feign disinterest until finally, in desperation, you come to me with a better offer. Transactional relationships are quite frequently fueled by an uneven power dynamic, and often result in the dominant player coming out ahead. Shoot, I hope I didn’t spoil the ending of Marx’s Capital for you.

But a globalized economic system is a lot more complicated than a two-person transaction. Trump’s constituents are already undermining his refusal to participate in the Paris deal. Individuals, corporations, and municipal and state leaders, including North Carolina’s Governor, Roy Cooper, are pledging their commitment to the Paris Accord. Michael Bloomberg pledged $15 million to the UN’s fight against climate change. $15 million barely scratches the surface of America’s commitment to the Paris Agreement, but indicates, in Bloomberg’s words, that Americans are “forging ahead.”Consumers want to buy green, and companies and governments are responding. Companies are more profitable if they promote and engage in sustainable initiatives. The public has spoken! They want those silly little light bulbs with the curly glass tubes.

Trump’s decision was nothing more than political stubbornness. I have faith in corporate America’s pursuit of profit (is anything more reliable?), and I believe economic incentives will continue to inspire a shift toward renewable energy and sustainability. But if exiting the Paris Agreement leads to a decline in cooperation between America and the rest of the world, then Trump’s “American Exceptionalism” will become “American Isolationism.” If relations with other countries sour, as nearly happened with Mexico, American consumers, particularly low-income Americans, will feel the burden of this artless negotiation.

Annie Krabbenschmidt is a second-year Master of Public Policy candidate interested in social psychology and organizational behavior.

COP-22 highlights need for American leadership in combating climate change in India

The skyline of Delhi remains hidden on a November morning. Photo Credit: Prakash Singh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The skyline of Delhi remains hidden on a November morning.
Photo Credit: Prakash Singh/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

New Delhi, India: My father has struggled to complete his morning run for the past few weeks. Thick and unrelenting smog has settled over New Delhi, forcing residents to wear facemasks and invest in air purifiers. “My whole family has bought facemasks and air purifiers,” says Nikhil Dugal, long-term resident of the city.

Pollution levels are on the rise in developing cities like New Delhi, as president-elect Donald Trump has threatened to cancel the Paris Accord. This frustrating dichotomy and the need for American leadership in the fight against climate change were highlighted at United Nations COP22 summit that took place earlier in November. Continue reading

Biggest Threat to Zika? Mosquito Love.

Photo Credit: James Gathany

Photo Credit: James Gathany

As of November 18th, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) declared that Zika is no longer a global emergency. However, Dr. Peter Salama, executive director of the W.H.O.’s health emergency programs, stated that “we are not downgrading the importance of Zika. We are sending the message that Zika is here to stay, and the W.H.O response is here to stay.”

Though the W.H.O. has downgraded the threat of Zika, combating Zika remains a goal of the global health community. At the end of October 2016, $18 million was put towards a project to release millions of genetically modified Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. These mosquitoes were infected with a bacteria called Wolbachia to mate with Aedes aegypti mosquitos that transmit Zika, as well as Dengue and Chikungunya.

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The changing landscape of U.S. electric utilities

econf-squareAt the annual Duke University Energy Conference yesterday, I had the opportunity to hear four women – all holding top management positions in the energy industry – speak about the evolution of electric utilities in the United States. Having worked in the energy sector prior to graduate school, I have been to my fair share of energy conferences. This is the first time I have attended an all female panel on energy that was not featured as a diversity event.

The change in the demographic make-up of the panel itself is analogous to the dramatic changes we’re seeing in the changing landscape of electricity today. While the electricity sector in the U.S. still operates as it has for the last several decades – with investor-owned utilities, municipalities, and rural electric cooperatives running the show – today’s utilities are still facing political, social, and economic environments like we have never seen before.
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Climate Change: Action Without National Policy Will Only Get Us So Far

Household panels for solar power and hot water in Kapolei, Hawaii. Photo Credit: Kent Nishimura for The New York Times

Household panels for solar power and hot water in Kapolei, Hawaii. Photo Credit: Kent Nishimura for The New York Times

A “1,000-year” flood in Louisiana. A record-setting drought in California. The creeping northward spread of tropical, mosquito-borne diseases like Zika. People across the U.S. are already experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change. Yet Congress remains unmoved and has yet to pass comprehensive legislation addressing either climate change mitigation or adaptation.

Individuals, corporations, and states are stepping into this policy vacuum—all compelled to take action on one of the most pressing challenges currently facing the world.
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