Today, digitization—the increasingly integrated use of aggregated data services and tools—is seen as part of a fourth industrial revolution which involves “a fusion of technologies” that can blur the lines between physical, digital, and biological realms.
The world has seen the emergence of drones, robots and AI, remote sensors, and Big Data, penetrating into all aspects of farming and food.
This can be a scary story of corporate takeover, disempowered farmers, and duped consumers. But there are also empowering and inspiring examples of farmers embracing the best, most culturally appropriate, and environmentally and socially sustainable technologies to do their jobs.
Digitization, however, can be part of a process of companies increasing control upstream and downstream in the entire food chain. As Friends of the Earth US recently spotlighted, the same four mega-corporations that control seeds and pesticides (Bayer-Monsanto,
Farmers buy into knowledge platforms such as Bayer-Monsanto’s Climate FieldView, DowDupont’s Granular, Encirca and AcreValue, Syngenta’s AgriEdge Excelsior, and BASF’s Xarvio and Maglis.
As advice to farmers becomes both very precise and tailored to the provided inputs and processes, other options, or other approaches, fade out of view. While a lack of training and extension services plays its part, too often the debt and dependency that emerges define the limits of the possible.
Meanwhile, who owns Big Data? When it comes to the
But according to Greek agronomist Vassilis Gkisakis, what generally emerges with digital agriculture is “a partial increase in the efficiency of inputs and resource use and some decrease of production costs, which are however accompanied by the high costs of farm management’s mechanization. Often these developed tools ignore main ecological processes, under whose principles the agricultural ecosystems function.”
These may be inappropriate for smaller producers and can lead to partial solutions divorced from holistic approaches to farming with(in) nature.
Knowledge-intensive, ecologically-sensitive, and farmer-empowering approaches like agroecology are different. Agroecology learns from nature in general and biology in particular. In the case of weeds—plants in the wrong place—a many little hammers approach is emphasized. As the Pesticide Action Network Europe Integrated Weed Management publication emphasizes, there is indeed a multitude of techniques organic farmers,
“By integrating physical or mechanical, biological, and ecological agricultural practices with the broad knowledge acquired on the biological and ecological characteristics of crop plants and weeds, farmers can successfully manage weeds without herbicides, while maintaining high yields, avoiding building resistance in weed species, protecting soil health and biodiversity, and minimizing erosion.”
A number of examples in cereals and horticulture are cited in the report—from crop rotation and mixed cropping to cover crops and green manures and from predatory insects to integrating livestock for land management purposes.
Indeed bringing livestock and crops together can make sense from a whole system perspective—composted animal manures bring in excellent fertility, there are soil and climate change benefits to mixed species swards, clover reduces the need for damaging nitrogen fertilizer, while there are many more regenerative practices bring trialed by pioneers.
The problems, as IPES Food’s Olivier de Schutter points out, “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.” Agroecology uses knowledge and nature and it could even work on a large scale in places as modernized as Europe.
When it comes to machinery, the time-honored right-to-repair machinery by the farmer is increasingly restricted. As these machines become more sophisticated and networked, and as lobbyists put the pressure on, it becomes more difficult for farmers to do important, cost-effective things. Following a legislative change in September, it was reported that farmer’s “can’t change engine settings, retrofit old equipment with new features, and can’t modify their tractors to meet new environmental standards on their own.” A somewhat spurious distinction is drawn between software and hardware—when in reality the two are ever more integrated—ask a car mechanic. Many farmers revel in fixing their own equipment and machinery—it can be a cost-effective, empowering way to keep the farm working. And it can be very timely when a crop needs to come in.
Indeed, it is these very sorts of restrictions that can lead to what is sometimes called technological sovereignty, or, more simply, the farm hack movement. This is a global movement of farmers rejecting locked-away technology, sharing and tweaking their plans for building and modifying appropriate machinery for their ecological farming practices. Mixed agroecological farming requires new tools for seeding and weeding, for washing and winnowing. Farm hackers are making them—collectively.
French farm hackers L’Alterier Paysan has five trucks equipped with the machinery and materials needed to run 80 or so courses and workshops a year, which have been attended by over 2,000 farmers over the last six years. Self-built farmer-led machinery is their specialty. And they throw great make-and-do parties all over France, most famously their ‘
Julien Reynier of the French organization explains, “We identify and document inventions and adaptations of tools, created by farmers who have not waited for ready-made solutions from experts or the industry but have invented or tweaked their own machinery. We seek to promote these farmer-driven innovations. Our internet forum, which acts as a collective sketch-book, is designed to make these contributions visible and accessible.”
He adds, “We believe we can make technical choices and invent sophisticated low-tech solutions. We don’t want to be overwhelmed by trendy, plug-and-play, and miraculous high-tech tools that will only make us more dependent while being more intrusive and less controllable.”
Big isn’t always bad, however. Even at a higher tech level, citizen science initiatives can use aggregated data for positive purposes, often incorporating smartphones. A fair chain is one example of the much-hyped blockchain where value and roasting infrastructure is shifted back to the coffee producers.
But as food rights campaigners FIAN International point out, it’s important to be aware of the power dynamics behind how food becomes immaterial—how elements are extracted from their natural and human, peasant farming core: “separated from the microorganisms, plants
So are eaters duped or well-fed? Are farmers in control or dependent? This new frontier of food, where digitization and technology pervade, is still a contested space. Let’s push for technologies, from open plans to open-pollinated seeds, from accessing your own data to modifying your own machinery, that work for everyone.