Digitalisation for a Socio-ecological Transformation in Agriculture
The future vision of food production is often portrayed as a tech utopia. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), for example, published a future image of food production that includes self-driving tractors, drones, sensor equipped cows, and field robots alongside high-tech aquaponic urban agriculture (BMBF, 2023). There is still quite a way to go until these technologies become all-encompassing or even widespread, but they have made huge headway in the agricultural sector in the Global North in the past five years.
New digital technologies are often presented by politicians and large agro-food companies as the silver bullet to solve all of agriculture’s problems:
The food system
contributes between 20%
and 37% of global greenhouse
The food system contributes between 20% and 37% of global greenhouse gas emissions (Mbow et al., 2019). Most of these emissions are generated by agricultural production, particularly crop and livestock activities within the farm gate as well as land-use change and deforestation for agriculture. Large-scale industrialised agriculture is also a key driver of the global biodiversity crisis. At the same time, many, especially small-scale, farmers as well as farm workers around the world struggle to make ends meet as they are often the first to suffer from the negative impacts of a changing climate. Digital technologies, so a widespread promise, provide the solution to making agriculture more profitable, more productive, more independent of a seasonal workforce, and of course more environmentally sustainable. As such, the promise continues, they will provide a veritable fourth revolution in agriculture.
Many of the digital
are far from revolutionising
the dominant agro-industrial
model of food production.
Yet, many of the digital technological innovations currently being rolled out by large agro-food companies such as Bayer, John Deere, or Syngenta are far from revolutionising the dominant agro-industrial model of food production. More to the point, they minimally optimise the current production model through precision agriculture that can slightly reduce the use of fertilisers and water or through robots that reduce the need for seasonal labour (Prause et al., 2021). They do not, however, offer a radically different way of doing agriculture, one that might, indeed, offer ways forward for a pesticide free, more climate-resilient and socio- and ecologically sustainable way of producing food. Instead, data-based decision support tools such as farm management platforms increase the risk of locking farmers into the current system of using large-scale machinery, chemical inputs, and standardised seeds (Bronson, 2022).
Alternative technological and social innovations for food production
However, once we look beyond the dominating digital technologies, we do see a technological niche system that has developed in recent years. Here, technological innovations are developed in close relation with social innovations in food production. These social innovations include community-supported agriculture (CSA), direct marketing of organic produce to local consumers, and different forms of agricultural production, such as permaculture. CSA in particular constitutes a transformative social innovation (Pel et al., 2020). Its agricultural practices are based on organic or agro-ecological principles that are environmentally friendly and produce high-quality food. Just as important, however, is that it also establishes a new form of economy and
It establishes a new form
of economy and thus replace
the dominant institution of food
as a mere commodity.
thus replace the dominant institution of food as a mere commodity. Instead, food consumers share the costs of agricultural production as well as the resulting harvest. Farmers and consumers share the relatively high risk of agricultural production (CSX Netzwerk, 2023). The following image gives an overview of some alternative digital technologies for CSAs and other forms of agro-ecological food production that are currently available in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The illustration is certainly not comprehensive and similar technological innovations have also sprung up in other contexts, such as FarmOS in the US. These alternative technologies can contribute to more strongly linking local food producers and urban consumers, be it through digitally supported CSAs or digitally enabled direct marketing. Robotics for small-scale agriculture can partially replace labour intensive and monotonous tasks, such as weeding on agro-ecological farms,
and free up new capacities for farmers and farm workers to experiment with new farming practices. Digital platforms for learning and AI-based recommendations for agro-ecology allow optimisation and dissemination of non-industrial farming practices and offer important resources for people who want to engage in agriculture but do not have any formal education in the sector. Digital tools for planning horticultural production, such as the Gemueseanbauplaner, can likewise make it easier for people to start producing food and also keep knowledge within the farm, if, for example, the gardener changes: The predecessor’s planning and knowledge are to a certain degree saved within the programme.
Developing alternative digital tools
Dominant digital technologies for agriculture are generally constructed in a top-down process with corporate profitability in mind. They are usually proprietary and do not pay much attention to data privacy. Many allow profits to be generated from the extracted data and thus reinforce some of the systemic challenges facing food producers (Fraser, 2022). The alternative technological innovations are not only different in that they aim to support a different model of food production, distribution, and consumption. For many, but not all, different principles have been followed in their design.
The example from OpenOlitor, a digital platform for CSA administration, shows what an alternative approach to creating digital tools for agriculture can look like.
- is open-source, avoiding vendor lock-in and guaranteeing the four software freedoms (Free Software Foundation, 2023);
- is built on an association as an organisational body incorporating all involved parties, centring on maintenance and further development of the platform and assuring cooperative financing;
- establishes hosting communities that share the task of operating IT infrastructure and function as a platform to organise mutual technical support and knowledge transfer;
- has a long-term focus on assuring availability and support;
- was built based on a bottom-up requirement analysis in close collaboration with farmers and consumers.
Through this collaboration with a number of CSA initiatives, the OpenOlitor team became aware of the many challenges CSAs face as small-scale innovative bottom-up projects. They generally unite very motivated individuals who often lack a formal education in agriculture and work for little or no remuneration. As such, many CSAs face both agricultural challenges in producing high-quality organic food and logistical and administrative difficulties. A tailored software-backed process such as OpenOlitor helps reduce the workload of the personnel and frees forces, allowing them to centre on the main activity: producing healthy and sustainable food.
However, people working in CSAs often face a huge everyday workload, making it hard for them to get involved with designing a technological tool, even if the tool would make dealing with administration and logistics easier in the long run. Some CSA projects also have a relatively critical stance towards technology, which needs to be addressed during the bottom-up design process. And once a software-backed solution such as OpenOlitor has been developed, CSAs still need to find time and space to set it up and to analyse and remodel their current work processes. Thus, having external support that is bringing in knowledge and practical help in setting up software-backed administrative routines can be important.
Upscaling new tech for food system transformations
So, what can these alternative digital technologies achieve when we look at a socio-ecological transformation of food production? Alternative digital technologies are still part of a small niche that caters to a small section of agricultural production.
A deep socio-ecological
transformation of the food sector
will never be achieved
through a mere techno-fix.
But niches can always be scaled up, as we have seen with the expansion of organic agriculture. This up-scaling would require dedicated political support for niche technologies AND for alternative ways of producing, distributing, and consuming food. A deep socio-ecological transformation of the food sector will never be achieved through a mere techno-fix. It cannot be stressed enough that hardware and software tools alone are never the answer to the problems the food system is facing. They can only serve as additional tools that, if used appropriately and in tandem with socio-ecological innovations, may support a broader food system transformation. Nevertheless, by bringing new tech, agro-ecological farming practices, and social innovation, such CSAs offers new and exciting ways forward for a food system based on different economic and agro-ecological principles.Next page