Democratising AgTech? Agriculture and the Digital Commons | Part 2

Free/ Open Source Software for agricultural knowledge sharing (CCO)

By Gabriel Ash

Agriculture 3.0 describes the increasing implementation and promotion of digital technologies in agricultural production. Promising more efficient farming, higher yields and environmental sustainability, AgTech has entered the mainstream, pushed by the EU, international corporations and national governments across the world. Increasingly, serious questions are raised about the impact of such market-oriented technologies on the agricultural sector. Who has access to these technologies? Who controls the data? In this second of a two part piece, Gabriel Ash investigates the potential of Free/ Open Source Software (FOSS) to make agricultural digitisation more accessible. 

Can FOSS stem the tide towards the commodification of agricultural knowledge?

Acting against the grain of current economic and political structures and offering both valuable access and inspiring ideas about collaboration, the sharing of ‘the commons,’ and the future of work, these FOSS-modelled schemes are unlikely to be the last of their kind. But if they are to realize their full potential, it is essential that both the lessons of the history of FOSS, and differences in context between IT and agriculture, as well as the impact of the quarter century that separates the two moments in time, become subjects of reflection.

The reality of FOSS is significantly more complicated that the simple distinction between open and proprietary. In many products—the Android phone, for example—‘open’ and ‘closed’ elements co-exist, and tiered commercial projects with an Open Source base and proprietary additions are common. Furthermore, ‘open’ itself is a continuum, with various licensing schemes offering a range of different degrees of control. If FOSS models become widespread, forms of accommodation between open and proprietary technologies are likely to emerge in agriculture as well, which could further advance the interests of agribusiness at the expense of farmers. It matters therefore how and to what ends FOSS schemes engage and mobilize users and producers.

Blueprints for agricultural technology and machinery can be found on websites like FarmHack or Atelier Paysan (CCO)

The history of the evolution of agricultural knowledge is also more complicated than a simple binary between proprietary and public. The Green Revolution replaced the informal, tacit knowledge of farmers with formal, scientific knowledge that was nevertheless organized as public knowledge, primary through institutions of research and higher learning. This phase of development elicited resistance and criticism for both the damage to farmers and ecosystems, primarily in the Third World, and for the denigration of centuries of accumulated local knowledge. This conflict was instrumental in the emergence of agroecology as a discipline[1] as well as in a range of efforts to foster better interactions between scientists and farmers.[2]

A second process that began shifting funding, control, and eventually the ownership of knowledge from the public to the private sector occurred later. In contrast to agriculture, software development never had the equivalent of farmers, and FOSS emerged purely out of resistance to the second process. This difference implies that FOSS-inspired schemes in agriculture could be more complex and resilient, and potentially more effective alternatives. But it also opens more room for misaligned interests and internal conflicts.

The ideas of unfettered collaboration and democratic creativity that FOSS schemes invoke are not external to the development of the privatized knowledge economy and its attendant intensification of intellectual property rights. Workforce creativity, technological innovation, intellectual property rights, and economic growth are widely perceived today by policy makers as linked.[3] By advancing ideas of knowledge as common and knowledge production as free, FOSS-inspired schemes expose some of the internal contradictions of a model of economic growth premised on profiting from immaterial labour and the control and selling of knowledge. But they will not buck the trend towards privatized hi-tech agriculture alone.

Agriculture, however, may offer unique opportunities for linking FOSS-inspired schemes with other forms of engagement and mobilization on issues such as environmentalism and farmers’ and peasants’ rights, and the different ways each of the latter raises the question of the commons. Let these projects be the early shoots of a wide wave of reflection, experimentation, and mobilization around these questions.

Read part one: Democratising AgTech? Agriculture and the Digital Commons

Democratising AgTech? Agriculture and the Digital Commons | Part 1

 

[1] Gliessman S.R. (2015) Agroecology: the ecology of sustainable food systems, 3rd Ed., CRC Press, Taylor & Francis, New York, USA, p. 28.

[2] World Bank (2006) Global – International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Project. Washington, DC: World Bank http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/753791468314375364/Global-International-Assessment-of-Agricultural-Science-and-Technology-for-Development-IAASTD-Project , pp. 65-68.

[3] See Barry (2008), pp. 42-43.

In Part 2, Gabriel Ash examines whether Free/ Open Source Software (FOSS) can really counter the commodification of agricultural knowledge.

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