June 19, 2014 12:00 am JST

Rice institute puts vital data at farmers' fingertips

VICTORIA HO, Contributing writer

SINGAPORE -- The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines is the leading authority on the staple food of half the people on the planet.

     With over half a century of research at its disposal, the institute is looking for new ways to pass along vital information to rice farmers battling climate change, plant diseases and stagnating crop yields.

     A big part of the answer to these challenges lies in the mobile Internet and cloud computing -- technologies that allow IRRI to educate farmers cheaply and easily.

     A new service at cropmanager.irri.org offers instant advice to farmers on fertilizers and crop management, using the latest weather and other data.

     Marco van den Berg, IRRI's chief information officer, told the Nikkei Asian Review that the institute decided to launch a mobile Internet project since prices for smartphones had come down and many farmers have access to the Internet. With fewer farmers relying on knowledge handed down from previous generations, many are open to receiving advice from a mobile site, he said.

Bang for the buck

Van den Berg said that since IRRI's Rice Crop Manager app was released two years ago, it has raised Asian farmers' annual income by $100 per hectare, on average. "Other than labor, the cost of nutrients is huge for farmers," he said.

     Roland Buresh, who leads the mobile project at IRRI, said he had heard from a Filipino farmer in his 50s who used to spend more than 5,000 Philippine pesos ($114) on fertilizers annually. After using the IRRI mobile app, he cut his expenditure to 2,000 pesos.

     According to the institute, between 2012 and mid-2014, about 90,000 customized nutrient recommendations were sent to farmers. The number of users is increasing. In May 2014 alone, 20,000 farmers received crop recommendations through the app. The software currently covers Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and West Africa. Farmers fill out a questionnaire, including where they are and what they grow, and instantly receive detailed recommendations on how to manage their crops.

     IRRI was established in 1960 and is the largest nonprofit agricultural research center in Asia. The data for the mobile site comes from various IRRI projects. One, called Riice (Remote Sensing-based Information and Insurance for Crops in Emerging Economies), began in 2002 and uses satellite data from the European Space Agency and other sources. It combines this data with information from partners on the ground to monitor rice crops in each region. The information is analyzed to generate maps of planting dates and crop growth rates so that farmers can better forecast their yields.

     Another project, called Prism (Philippine Rice Information System), was launched last year and aims to gather detailed information from plantations. It uses new cloud-penetrating satellites to keep an eye on crops. With radio wave technology, the system can collect more comprehensive data, down to moisture and temperature levels, and assess damage from natural disasters.

     IRRI's mobile project is funded by savings from transferring its back-end IT systems to Amazon's cloud service, which allowed the institute to get rid of most of its own servers.

     The institute has cut IT costs by about 50% since 2009. Before it moved its data to the cloud, IRRI used to upgrade its IT systems every four to five years. Because the institute gets its funding from donations, it had difficulty keeping up with the latest technology, van den Berg said. Outsourcing some of its IT work has allowed IRRI to scale down its 30-by-20-meter data center into an 8-by-5-meter space -- no larger than a typical office.

High-tech, down to earth

Shifting computing power to the cloud has not compromised the institute's ability to crunch numbers. It is trying to sequence all of its 120,000 database entries for genetic information on rice -- a process IRRI hopes will allow researchers to crack the code of the crop's DNA.

     This will help determine which rice strains are resistant to floods, drought, pests or disease, such as a flood-resistant variety developed by IRRI called Submarino that was first introduced in the Philippines in 1997. An improved variety became available in 2009 and is now grown by more than 5 million farmers in Asia.

     The pressure to lift crop yields on the continent where 90% of the world's rice is grown has risen because both farmers and farmland are becoming scarce in rapidly industrializing economies. IRRI hopes improving rice yields and reducing costs to consumers will lift 150 million people above the poverty line by 2035.

     IRRI's mobile Internet site is an important part of reaching that larger goal. By helping farmers increase their productivity, the site can alleviate problems caused by excessive use of fertilizers, which can pollute water supplies and spoil cropland. The formula is simple: Smarter farmers make for a better future.