By Vassilis Gkisakis
Will hi-tech save agriculture from its otherwise intractable problems? Certainly technological stakeholders want it to appear so, as digitisation increases both in the fields and in the policy documents and future plans for the sector. Hi-tech solutions are promoted as unavoidable and necessary and are broadly publicised as the ultimate innovative path for the modernization of farming. In the quest for increased productivity, reduced costs and, notably, environmental sustainability, agtech is a core part of the answer – frοm the Commission to the companies invested in it.
The trend goes by several attractive names, like “smart” farming, “precision” or digital agriculture. The vision is common though: a ‘technocentric’ approach, including gradual to extreme mechanization of farm management supported by algorithmic, data-driven procedures and sophisticated tools, like cloud computing, specialized software, drones and Internet of Things.
The agri-industry and policy makers are majorly implicated in this new digital era: Giant agri-corporate mergers, like Bayer/Monsanto, develop a very strong parallel agricultural data-science agenda and market policy, buying smaller companies which specialize solely in data management related to soil, irrigation, weather or climate, like Monsanto did with start-up Climate Corp. Another mix of smaller, ambitious, and often opportunistic entrepreneurial players enter as well the agricultural sector with a multitude of promises on digital solutions to important agricultural and environmental issues.
Both EU and global data economy policies back these efforts by facilitating the creation of a market players’ ecosystem, including corporations, researchers, developers and infrastructure providers, in order to ensure that value will be extracted by data and a novel economic sector will rise. Of course, this new business expresses a genuine market-oriented and neoliberal approach, for delivering profits and entrepreneurship opportunities from new topics.
But, before evaluating the effectiveness of such solutions, we must identify the well- documented problems, stemming from the modern food production system. What is taken for granted both by scholars and international institutions like FAO, is that combating the scarcity of resources, the reduction of soil and water pollution, the greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of species and habitat are major issues that have to be managed quickly. It is also undeniable that this kind of global change requires developing much more sustainable agricultural systems, which will depend less on high synthetic inputs and fossil fuels and will be characterised by efficient resource use, low environmental impacts and, last but not least, climate change resiliency, in order to produce sufficient and healthy food.
So, can digital and (bio)technological innovations really meet these goals? Despite the hype, it appears not to be the case. The paradigm derived by such approaches is largely conceived to aim only at a “weak” ecological modernisation of agriculture, as many scientific authors suggest. Their effect is restricted to 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 tools developed ignore main ecological processes, under whose principles the agricultural ecosystems function. In a better case scenario, these innovations may just lead to partial substitution of inputs with some short-term positive effects on the sustainability and stability of the food system. And that’s it. They fail to address serious concerns on the structural weakness of the modern food system, which generates a major part of the negative impact to environment and society.
Another key issue is the problematic innovation process followed. In the above mentioned approaches, the narrative and practice of innovation is restricted to a framework of economically driven developments promoting technological solutions. The innovation transfer’s mode mainly follows a top–down procedure towards the end users, farmers or agronomists. Under this framework, as innovators are regarded only the scientists and agricultural advisors, who design and promote tools and practices, and companies, that develop and provide the technological solutions. Technological development is mostly out of reach to any but the agTech giants, as highlighted in the debate’s opening article. Suddenly sort-of-solutions become ‘one size-fits-all’ recommendations: farmers then must follow strategies and practices that evolve along with their research outputs and corporate technologies. In other words, these are innovation processes that create vertically developed and hierarchically-based tools, obviously fitting to serve better an industrially-scaled and profit-oriented farming system and the market itself.
Of course, the above criticism does not suggest some kind of agro-Luddism approach condemning advanced technologies, which are here already – like it or not. It has been already recognised that alternative examples of digital or analogue agricultural innovations that support the transition towards truly sustainable food systems can exist and are not inherently incompatible with the framework of an agroecological approach. The examples of open source agricultural technology initiatives, like farmhack in US, collaborative projects for the creation of technology solutions and innovation by farmers, as l’Atelier Paysan in France or international research projects, like Capsella. As many times described, agroecology is an emerging concept which provides a holistic approach for the design of genuinely sustainable food systems. It does not simply seek temporary solutions that will improve partially the environmental performance and productivity of the food systems. It stands mostly for a systemic paradigm of perception change, towards a full harmonization with ecological processes, low external inputs, use of biodiversity and cultivation of agricultural knowledge.
The important thing about agroecological design of the food systems is that they emphasize independent and participatory experimentation and not the reliance on high technology and external suppliers, with a high degree of dependency on additional support services. Therefore, it becomes obvious that hi-tech and any other technological solutions can stand as a complementary element to agroecological innovation processes, and only when the development of innovative tools includes a peer-to-peer planning framework and user involvement within the reach of an economy of the commons, as the above mentioned examples do.
Thus, the main issue is related to the way innovation processes evolve – in whose interests, and with who’s participation, do they emerge? We should realise that innovation lies in the creative process, not only in the generated tool itself. Bearing this in mind, it becomes evident that it is the lack of autonomy that matters – in other words, the absence of the end user’s engagement in the technology’s development. Appropriately used, technology can share power with all actors collectively involved in developing the innovation. And this appropriate use of technology allows us to democratize knowledge.
Vassilis (Vasileios) Gkisakis, Agronomist (MSc, PhD): Vassilis specialises in Sustainable Agriculture and Agrobiodiversity, with a background in Food Science. He worked previously in the organic farming sector, while he has collaborated with several research groups across Europe on organic farming/agroecology, olive production, biodiversity management strategies and food quality.
He is a contracted lecturer of i) Organic Farming and ii) Food Production Systems in the TEI of Crete and visiting lecturer of Agroecology & Sustainable Food Production Systems in the Agricultural University of Plovdiv. He is official reviewer in one scientific journal, Board member of the European Association for Agroecology and moderator of the Agroecological Network of Greece and also the owner of a 20 ha organic olive and grain farm.