As the role of technology increases in farming and food, and corporate powers use this to extend their power, we need to strive for technological developments that are appropriate for farmers, for eaters and for the planet. Welcome to #AgTechTakeback.
ARC2020 and IATP are seeking informed opinions on this topic in September and October 2018, as we run our #AgTechTakeback debate. Interested in contributing an article? Email oliver[at]arc2020.eu
What is Agtech?
Agtech describes “the increasing technologization of farming and food”. We in ARC2020 and IATP are also concerned with some of the implications of this. #AgTechTakeback describes the initiatives and movements people are using to regain control of farming and food, in the face of this attempt at corporate capture.
Since farming began, farmers have wondered about and invested in labour saving devices. Naturally, this has meant that the methods and the tools have changed over time. So the inputs and the techniques employed in farming and food have become less human/nature derived and more technology derived. There have been changes in the inputs – such as seeds, buildings and machines, etc. – and the techniques employed – the methods and process such as changes in land/crop management, the methods of turning crops into food. In short, over time, some natural processes have been replaced by technological ones, and natural elements are replaced by artificial/manufactured ones.
On one level, what we are seeing today is just a continuation of this long process of replacement of natural inputs and processes with technological ones. As with the replacement of horse ploughing with the tractor in the early 20th Century, we see the replacement of slow selective plant breeding with synthetic biology. But there are new developments, and also serious implications for power, for people, and for nature.
Information plays a crucial role here – farming has always been dependent on flows of information about the weather, cropping techniques and markets, but, as in other fields, the nature and velocity of information generation has created new dynamics that are difficult to manage. The new kinds of information flows highlight the differences between agroecology, which emphasizes the inherent connections among nature, food production and human culture, and the drive for “high tech” agriculture that stresses increased yields through intensive application of chemicals, genetic modifications and highly integrated supply chains.
Three areas worth considering in this realm include:
Scientific manipulation and transfer of genetic codes for plants and seeds used in synthetic biology and CRISPR-CAS9 gene drive technology. In addition to environmental and health concerns, these technologies create new challenges for ownership and control over plants and seeds.
Physical monitoring and work with crops and fields using drones, sensors and robots. These can be used to specifically target pesticide or fertilizer applications, or to replace the need for pesticides with mechanical weeding techniques. When drones are used beyond a farmer’s own land they raise real concerns about privacy and the right to control the airspace over land. Moreover, these technologies are embedded so called precision farming techniques which can further lock in business-as-usual, with its inbuilt emphasis on emerging risk management, insurance-isation and corporate capture.
Analytical “big data” collection from farm machinery, satellites and other sources that is then processed using algorithms used to predict climate, cropping and market trends. Farmers might or might not own the raw data generated from their fields, but they typically have no control over the information products generated from it. That information can be used to affect prices, insurance rates, and potentially inform land grabs in the global North and South.
The history of the 20th and early 21st Century is also about the continuation of the family farm despite predictions of its demise, the rejection of inappropriate technologies (e.g. DDT, DBCP, and to an extent GM, and some ultra-processed foods), and the reemergence or revalorisation of more socio-ecologically embedded farming techniques such as organics, agroecology, and campesino farming.
These latter farming approaches do not necessarily reject technology, but, rather, integrate aspects of it into a more holistic and balanced approach to farming, food and community. These can be seen in the “many little hammers” agroecology approach, where biological, technological, physical and chemical methods are all assessed and balanced off against each other (as per Integrated Pest Management), or the peasant led social movement that is La Via Campesina. Moreover, there is a newly emerging movement that works on the small farmer scale and is busy modifying and re-appropriating low cost machinery for the kinds of farms we need to be truly sustainable and, moreover, resilient. For these groups, the point is not to reject technology but to develop, modify and appropriate technologies that work for farmers using open source (rather than patented) tools, developed and added to collectively, and shared globally.
On the ground, one prominent example is the FarmHack movement itself, established in 2010 and describing itself as “a worldwide community of farmers that build and modify our own tools.” It draws inspiration from the hacking culture of FOSS (Free/ Open Source Software) to promote low-cost, open farm technology. Participants share designs for farm tools and license them under ‘copyleft’ licenses, which means freely sharing the results and protecting that information in future innovations. FarmHack seeks to “light the spark for a collaborative, self-governing community that builds its own capacity and content, rather than following a traditional cycle of raising money to fund top-down knowledge generation.” In France, Atelier Paysan was set up in 2011 with a similar basic concept and do similar work. As we reported recently “Unlike FarmHack, whose off-line presence is limited to meetups, Atelier Paysan is organized as a cooperative that owns a certain amount of equipment and provides workshops to farmers. Atelier Paysan publishes its collaborators’ design under the same creative commons ‘copyleft’ license.”
On a bigger scale, farmers around the world are using digital platforms to share farm equipment and, in some cases, taking control over big data for their own uses, and to become creators of knowledge. With climate change impacting harder, farmers are using soil sensors and other tools to adapt. For example, Mexican farmers’ organization ANEC have initiated a project with 23 micro weather stations based in member organizations in eight Mexican states. The stations gather meteorological data that is transmitted every 15 minutes to the cloud. ANEC’s information platform then combines that information with models developed by INIFAP (a public agricultural research agency) to predict biotic (pest and disease) and abiotic (drought and flood) problems.
Relatedly, there are efforts to integrate the thinking, ethics and practices of the global peer to peer, free open-source software movement into on-the-ground agroecological approaches to farming and food, which recapture power and value from multinational corporations. We have seen the emergence of blockchain, holochain and in agri-food, movements like fairchain – and of corporate capture and hype. So, are these distributed ledgers faster, more verifiable trust and values relationships – or just hot air solutionism, ripe for ever more corporate capture? We explored this issue in recent posts on the digital commons, and on the digital revolution in agroecology.
What are the implications of ag tech?
While FarmHack has demonstrated that some of these new technologies could be used to support any kind of agriculture, in practice many new technological developments often require massive investments in equipment and sophisticated data analysis. This is out of reach of any but the largest agribusinesses. It’s no surprise that Monsanto has been acquiring information technology companies to boost its dominance over big data collection and analysis in agriculture. In a new report on corporate consolidation in agriculture, Too Big to Feed, Pat Mooney explains how these processes are reshaping power relations in food and farming:
New data technologies are emerging as a powerful new driver of consolidation. Rampant vertical integration is allowing companies to bring satellite data services, input provision, farm-level genomic information, farm machinery, and market information under one roof, transforming agriculture in the process.
At the same time, farmers all over the world are regaining power and value in the food they produce, through sharing knowledge, and developing best practices in the field. This is a core aspect of agroecology, and it is manifest in efforts underway to utilize weather and soil monitoring tools for collective use by farmers.
As Olivier de Schutter put it succinctly however, “It is not a lack of evidence holding back the agroecological alternative. It is the mismatch between its huge potential to improve outcomes across food systems, and its much smaller potential to generate profits for agribusiness firms.”
For Policy Makers
Each of these technologies brings its own challenges for public regulation. Policy makers in the EU are beginning to grapple with rules on gene drives, but standards for these new information technologies are slipperier. There is little public debate, perhaps because farmers, consumers and others in civil society feel intimidated by what seem to be incomprehensible technologies. There was a time when trade policy seemed to be the realm of economists and lawyers, but now many people see beyond the jargon to the essence of the power grabs involved in free-trade agreements. We need to find ways to generate much more public debate on these new digital technologies that extends beyond scientists, computer programmers and the corporations that fund them to engage farmers, environmentalists and potential allies from other fields.
There are also policy options to better support appropriate technology as seen through a fleeting few funding calls at EU level, for example. Moreover, can holistic policy be made, where true sustainability is reflected, and socio-economic and environmental considerations all share prominence? Reductionist readings of yield and performance exclude broader, but equally important, socioeconomic, and environmental needs, as has been emphasised in some research.
How empowered or disempowered is the eater of food – the consumer, the food citizen, the person in the chain or system? Agtech has the potential to drive people even further from the food they eat, to de-naturalise foods even more, with all the inherent implications, from nanomaterials that pass through the blood brain barrier to supermarket and eating out food choices developed by corporate controlled algorithms.
At the same time, farmer-centered Agtech can potentially bringing people closer to foods produced – even at a distance – via verification systems and shared, peer to peer knowledge. It can reduce costs without the huge embodied energy use of supposedly efficiency high tech systems, if at the farm hack end of the scale.
ARC2020 and IATP would like to begin to confront these challenges in digital agriculture with an online conversation that brings new audiences into that debate. Over the next two months, we will publish articles by contributors on various aspects of the challenges and the opportunities posed by the new AgTech, along with responses by readers. Interested? Email oliver[at]arc2020.eu.
We hope that these actions will serve to generate more public discussion among food and farming activists and contribute to developing strategies to rein in these expanding new technologies before they limit choices and decisions on food, farming and privacy.