What do agroecological farmers think about agritech?

Article by Ayms Mason from A Bigger Conversation

A new report from A Bigger Conversation highlights the unique needs and perspectives – and values-based choices – of agroecological farmers when it comes to agricultural technologies.

The result of 18 months of workshops and analysis, the Agroecological Intelligence project brought together agroecological farmers and growers for a series of in-depth discussions about the role of technology in their farming systems and the main factors at play when making their decisions.

The UK-focussed project involved farmers and growers from across the various ‘strands’ of agroecology such as the Biodynamic Association, CSA Network, the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, Landworkers’ Alliance, Nature Friendly Farmers Network, Organic Farmers & Growers, Organic Growers Alliance, Pasture for Life, Permaculture Network and the Soil Association.

It evolved out of an increasing awareness of the tensions, conflicts and inequities between the competing versions of the future of farming and how these relate to technology choice.

Real change or limited change?
Lacking a real vision for the future of farming in the UK, the government’s overarching, technology-focussed narrative of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, characterised by “a fusion of technologies – such as artificial intelligence, gene editing and advanced robotics – that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological worlds” has become deeply influential across all aspects of policy, including farming and food.

Post-Brexit this narrative has promised that technical fixes can result in increased abundance, efficiency and sustainability and reduce the number of foreign workers needed in fields.

This new agritech landscape is changing rapidly and while the options may seem varied, it is, at heart, a combination of digital technology and AI (artificial intelligence) generated analysis and/or advice. It encompasses a range of machines and technologies including sensors, robots, drones and other devices to monitor crops, livestock, soil, ground temperature, water levels and weather.

These devices collect and transmit real-time data through mobile applications, network-linking edge devices or alternative channels. Most modern machinery is also connected to the internet and often remotely controlled.

These approaches, however, aim for limited change and accept – even reinforce – the existing social, economic, structural and cultural system of food and farming, built on an establishment and agribusiness view that the status quo, with its focus on increasing production and creating new global markets, can carry on indefinitely so long as it can be ‘greened’ through technology.

It is uncertain whether farmers themselves accept the Agriculture 4.0 narrative and agroecological farmers may be particularly vulnerable to its more damaging aspects.

Agroecology – rooted in cyclical systems, functional biodiversity, resilience and ecological efficiency; and built on values of justice, equity, knowledge sharing and community-based governance – has traditionally been seen as low-tech with no or limited external inputs. As such, the values on which it is based are distant and disconnected from those of Agriculture 4.0.

A (much) bigger conversation
The initial aim of the project was to see if it was possible to develop a criteria for technology choice and use in agroecological farming.

We also began with a couple of assumptions. One was that choices around technology are not values- neutral. The other is that while the agroecological ‘umbrella’, made up of these different approaches, provides a narrative canopy made up of language and concepts – such as natural, holistic, food sovereignty, social justice, equity, health, small- scale, co-creation and indigenous knowledge – strict allegiance to these concepts likely varies between the different strands, which might make consensus over technology criteria, choices and implementation difficult.

We were, therefore, interested to see whether, given the diversity of approaches that sit under the agroecological umbrella, it was possible to produce criteria for technology choice that were acceptable to all. In particular, we were interested to see what nuances might arise in relation to these different identities and their approaches to technology choice.

We also sought to identify what trade-offs, if any, might need to be made for agroecology to accept certain new technologies and what structures and processes these require. Aligned to this, we wished to understand what UK agroecological farmers and growers wanted and needed from technology developers and from the government.

We did not find definitive answers to all these things. Nor was it possible to answer with any certainty whether agritech was a transition pathway or a ‘Trojan horse’. What we did find was an eloquent antidote to the agritech hard-sell based on deeply held values and an interest in technology that serves those values, but little to no interest in technology that does not.

The farmers and growers we spoke to emphasised the importance of a more critical and context-specific approach to technological innovation, one that involved creating and evaluating technology based on its compatibility with agroecological principles and practices.

The question of criteria within a values-based system of farming opened up other exchanges about the nature of agroecology in the UK and how participants saw themselves in relation to the wider movement, and how this influenced their approaches to technology.

In considering their criteria for appropriate technology, they also questioned the potential impacts on environmental sustainability, social equity and food sovereignty. Some went further suggesting that the assumption that technology is values neutral can marginalise and devalue traditional and indigenous knowledge systems.

All of these things were explored via a series of virtual and in-person workshops with a core group of 48 farmers and growers around the UK drawn from the various ‘strands’. We also conducted three open workshops – at the Organic Growers Alliance Organic Matters Conference 2022, Oxford Real Farming Conference 2023 and the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference 2023.

A wider discussion of agritech’s place in the future of agroecology (especially one led by farmers) has been slow to get started, but is now emerging.

The discussions and the opinions expressed by the participants during the workshops form the bedrock of the Agroecological Intelligence report and informed our ‘agroecological’ criteria for technology choice as well as recommendations for the agroecological movement and sector, for government and for agritech developers to ensure the needs of agroecological farmers are met.

Read the Final Report, Agroecological Intelligence – Establishing Criteria for Agroecologically Appropriate Technology

Read the Executive Summary

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