During a virtual panel on broadband expansion organized by Food Tank and the Refresh Working Group, experts argue that internet connectivity is crucial to building more resilient communities and food systems.
Moderated by Food Tank President Danielle Nierenberg, and journalist Chloe Sorvino of Forbes, the event is part of a weeklong series about the intersection of food and technology. Panelists include Michelle Miller, Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems at UW-Madison; Leanna Mulvihill, PM – Customer Engagement for Farm Generations Coop; and Kim Olson, retired Colonel for the U.S. Air Force and Democratic nominee for Texas Agriculture Commissioner in 2018; and Ankita Raturi Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Purdue University.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, approximately one-quarter of the rural population in the United States lacks fixed broadband service at threshold speeds. And in tribal areas, this is true for nearly one-third of residents.
The panelists say that the lack of broadband can impact farmers ability to expand into new markets, transition to more sustainable practices, and connect with other farmers about best practices.
Miller explains that a number of factors have led to this situation. In some areas, landscapes can make the installation of internet service a challenge. But in other areas, population density comes into play.
“Where it’s not dense enough, companies aren’t interested in providing services because there’s no money to be made,” Miller tells Food Tank.
This, Olson argues, is why broadband “should be a public utility, just like water and electricity.”
Mulvihill and Miller say that such a change would benefit not just farmers, but the food system as a whole.
At Farm Generations Coop, Mulvihill works to create technological, scale-appropriate solutions for farms. She says that stronger connectivity could help farmers reach more customers and, in turn, help consumers diversify their diets.
Miller also believes the broadband expansion will help to create greater transparency in the food system. With a better flow of information, more farmers could share what they’re doing as well as best practices. All of this can bring equity into the food system.
Raturi and Olson point out that the positive effects go even further.
“When we talk about tools, we often think about them as tools for work, but they’re also tools for community,” Raturi tells Food Tank. “This is a means for us to communicate with each other.”
Olson adds that internet access also has implications for public education, healthcare, and more — something more people are recognizing during COVID-19, as people attend school and see doctors online. Broadband, she says, “is not just good from a social point of view, but is also good from a health point of view, from an economic point of view.”
To support efforts to expand broadband access, Miller believes that the policymakers must do more. “We’ve been talking about internet access for at least a decade,” Miller tells Food Tank, “and it’s time for the administration to be thinking about this as a ‘build back better’ effort and put some support…to make this a utility.”
Raturi argues that it is also essential to ensure that solutions are affordable. And also acknowledge that there is no one-size-fits-all approach.
Olson agrees, adding that it will be necessary to ensure that more people have a seat at the table so they can represent the diverse needs of their communities.
Despite these hurdles, the panelists are hopeful that a new administration will bring some of the changes they want to see. Miller and Raturi are also heartened by a growing interest in participatory approaches to the design of policy and technology as well as greater collaboration among communities in the food system.
“These sorts of approaches, which are collaborative ways of doing things, give me hope that we’re going to actually be able to put some of these pieces together,” Raturi tells Food Tank.
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