Global food security – play to the rescue

| August 29, 2013

Crop losses due to plant pests and diseases have a huge impact on global food security. Jonathan Marshall from Bondi Labs introduces the Plant Doctor Game, an educational video game that trains local agricultural workers in developing countries to diagnose destructive crop health damage.

Well, maybe not quite to the rescue, but there is tremendous potential for Australian developed mobile based educational games to facilitate the transfer of knowledge and skills which can significantly improve the productivity and effectiveness of farmers globally – especially small scale/subsistence farmers in developing rural economies.

If we look at one major contributing factor driving Global Food Security – crop losses due to plant pests and diseases – then we can start to understand and appreciate the potential for educational games to play a role in addressing knowledge and skills gaps as well as raise general awareness levels of this challenge.

Approximately 35% of crop harvests in the developing world are destroyed by pests and diseases, a staggering amount, and any initiative which can begin to address this devastating damage is worth exploring. Especially as such crop losses significantly impact the viability and sustainability of subsistence and small-scale farmers with limited storage buffers to manage such crippling losses.

Initiatives that improve crop yields have a direct and significant impact not only on the individual farmers and their local communities but also their broader economies prosperity which are often based on the productivity of its agricultural sector.

The earlier the cause of crop health damage is accurately diagnosed and treated, the greater the opportunity of substantially reducing the destructive impact of plant pest and diseases. Now most subsistence and small-scale farmers have limited scientific plant health knowledge and rely on local agricultural extension support services to provide advice on how to manage plant health issues.

What has play got to do with all this?

Our innovative approach is to develop a visually engaging interactive educational video game, the Plant Doctor Game, which can be played on low end mobile smart devices to train local Agricultural Extension workers in developing countries. Games that develop better diagnosis of crop damage caused by plant pest and diseases can lead to significant improvements in the productivity of small scale and subsistence farmers.

Based on considerable educational research there is substantial evidence demonstrating people learn through play, and for long term skills acquisition there needs to be regular application and assessment of those learned skills. This is almost the ideal opportunity for well designed, engaging and contextualised educational video games, which are based on the experiential learning model (learning by doing).

By leveraging engaging interactive digital media and rapidly expanding access to mobile communication devices our objective for the Plant Doctor Game is to support ‘knowledge transfer’ which enables farmers to better manage the health of their crops (plant biosecurity) and thus their productivity. Key is to also ensure environmentally sustainable plant health advice is promoted and thus the use of excessive pesticide and chemical plant treatments minimised.

This is an opportunity for Australia’s globally respected and valued agricultural science knowledge and expertise to be digitized and distributed to the world in a cost effective and highly scalable manner that has the potential to have direct impact on the productivity of literally millions of farmers.

The much touted Australian Food Bowl strategy which entails developing the North of Australia is an attractive and worthwhile strategy to pursue, but at best it is expected to feed perhaps 100 million addition people over the next 40 years at considerable cost (ANZ estimated over $1 trillion). Feeding an additional 100 million people will thus only make a relatively small dint in the challenge to feed the over 9 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by 2050.

But Australian agricultural knowledge and expertise, our IP so to speak, has the potential to improve crop productivity by reducing crop losses, which could result in yield increases that could feed billions.

This could be a game changer.