The founder of AGRI-TREND, Robert Saik, was one of 15 people from around the world invited to Seattle in early May of this year to discuss technology with Bill Gates.
Saik was tapped by Gates to share his views on how modern farming technology can be leveraged to feed a growing population in an environmentally sustainable way. With Gates and his advisors, Saik shared case studies and success stories from his experience working with farmers from Canada to Uganda.
“The day was all about new ways to leverage technology to lift some of the poorest farmers on the planet to a new level of prosperity,” says Saik.
The potential is great, he adds, suggesting that farmers’ adoption of ag technology in these regions could follow the same quick trajectory as they did with cell phones. “In Kenya, they never went through all the iterations with phone lines. They went direct to what has become one of the most robust cellular systems in the world, complete with electronic commerce. With leadership from Trimble and AGRITREND, there is the same opportunity here to leapfrog ahead.”
In the Gates meeting, Saik expressed his concern when seeing farmers tilling their soils in Africa. “We do not need to be doing this, all it does in those regions is degrade the organic matter very quickly,” he notes. “They could go from subsistence farming to practicing no-tillage — without resorting to the age-old problem of land erosion.”
One of the greatest problems in Uganda, where Saik has worked with farmers, is their lack of understanding around what’s in their soil. “Soil analysis is the Achilles heel right now,” says Saik. “It’s not like these farmers aren’t spending money — they will spend it on fertilizer and seed.
But the question is, does that fertilizer match the needs of the soil?”
Another issue Saik brought forth during the Gates event was the value of using GM seeds engineered to resist the myriad of insects and pests that can decimate crops in these regions. “Why are we spraying insecticides eight times a year when we could be controlling insects through genetic engineering?” he asked.
Saik says he was proud to be in a room with 14 other presenters, including some of the top thinkers in agriculture, to find new ways to integrate technology to help improve the agronomic practices and prosperity of farmers in the developing world.
“And when you look at the need, AGRI-TREND’s model is pretty appealing because we have a way to train the trainer — or coach the coaches who work with the farmers — in a way that is scalable in all parts of the world,” he says. “In the beginning, it’s as simple as helping farmers select seeds and manage their crops, but that’s just the start. It really comes down to a powerful combination of ‘High Tech and High Touch’. Lots of people are using technology and imagery, but at the end of the day, so what? You need to have a strategy on how to fix the problem, and that is where High Touch comes in. We can use technology to help them with agronomics.”
The day after the presentation, Saik was invited to the office of the Bill and Melinda Foundation to discuss strategies around implementation of an agricultural program in India.
“I had a chance to share with them concepts around soil analysis, and how we could all be thinking about ways to use remote sensing technology in satellites to better understand problems in our fields,” he says. “It comes down to algorithms — but algorithms are only as good as your ability to ground-truth them to see if they are accurate.”
Saik suspects that the catalyst for his invitation to take part in this special event was his TEDx Talk in Red Deer, Alberta, called Pushing the Boundaries in Agriculture.
“I think it was my work as an advocate for genetic engineering that caught Gates’ eye,” says Saik. Saik is also producing a documentary film, KNOW GMO The Movie Project.
According to Saik, this global focus on embracing technology and leveraging agronomic precision to meet the challenge of feeding the world is the foundation of AGRI-TREND, and is integral to the work its coaches do with farmer clients every day.
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