With the help of technology, can agriculture be more responsible?

From towering tractors connected to almost invisible electronic sensors, digital technology is making its way into farms and agriculture more and more, in various forms. It offers different services to improve the efficiency of resource usage. And strengthen the resilience of farms (animal and soil health, protection of biodiversity, collection of information). Its use can also contribute to the creation of knowledge and the collective governance of these resources.

Some farmers, however, take a dim view of this growing digital incursion into their fields. On February 9, 2022, after the publication of the agricultural component of the government’s recovery plan, the Departmental Directorate of the territories of the Drôme was occupied by collectives of farmers. They disputed the 3 axes set out in the plan by the former Minister of Agriculture, Julien Denormandie, for the future of agriculture: digital technology, robotics and genetics.

Agriculture 4.0, to be handled with tweezers

Although it is often presented as a solution to environmental issues – for example to reduce the use of inputs – “agriculture 4.0” could also make the sector just as polluting or even more polluting than before.

To the “classic” pollution generated by industrial agriculture would be added the contamination of digital technology. In other words, if it can contribute to reducing certain agricultural pollution such as that of inputs, the tools used to do so are not without impact.

The most skeptical also perceive the risk of a loss of autonomy for farmers and the disappearance of non-productivist forms of agriculture. In a 2021 report, the Basic consultancy firm concluded that the dominant logic of the digitization of agriculture remained the maximization of yields and the industrialization of the sector.

A third agricultural revolution?

After a first revolution generated by mechanization (in the 1950s) then a second based on the use of chemical inputs (from the 1960s), digital technology seems to embody the third agricultural revolution, largely supported by the public authorities.

The OECD, for example, encourages States to equip themselves with satellite images in order to “reduce the cost of monitoring many agricultural activities. Policy makers could thus opt for more targeted measures under which operators would be granted payments (or would be sanctioned) according to observable environmental results”.

In France, the public sector invested 1.1 billion euros in agricultural research in 2015. And its expenditure increased by 1.2% in volume over one year. No figures break down distinctions between R&D related to digital agriculture and the rest of R&D. But the State is active in the constitution of an ecosystem in favor of “digital agriculture”. Witness the digital farm which submitted an inventory and needs of the ecosystem to the Ministry of Agriculture in February 2022.

The DigitAg Convergence Institute, aimed at bringing together scientific research projects on digital agriculture, has been granted a budget of 9.9 million euros over eight years. Public Sénat’s YouTube channel also relays videos promoting digital technology in agriculture.

Agriculture and digital: technology at the service of farmers (Public Sénat, March 1, 2021).

While associations for the defense of agriculture see their public subsidies conditional on the commitment “not to disturb public order” – subsidies are not renewed in the event of actions on their part considered to undermine the public order – AgTech start-ups thrive on fundraising, before being bought out by large groups or going bankrupt even though public money had been invested in them. Many of those revolving around robotics and artificial intelligence are bought by the American agricultural machinery giant, John Deere. A phenomenon emblematic of the challenges posed by the industrialization and digitization of agriculture.

Autonomy loss

After the opposition of farmers to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, this manufacturer has indeed been the subject of a legislative fight in the United States. This law gives it exclusivity over the repair and modification of the software that the company integrates into the tractors it sells. This forces its customers to go through approved repairers… or to hack the software. In the United States, the issue of the right to compensation is now subject to the legislation in force in each federated state.

This type of barrier restricts farmers’ capacity for resilience and autonomy. They no longer have the official right to adapt or repair these machines, even if they have the skills to do so. The John Deere case is the most decried on this subject. And for good reason: in France, one in 5 tractors would be a John Deere. Some associations, such as the Atelier paysan, are trying to counter this phenomenon, which consists in making the self-repair of agricultural equipment impossible.

Although spare parts and repair services are 3 to 6 times more profitable than sales of original equipment, John Deere affirms that its approach aims above all to secure the users of agricultural machinery. In other words, the attempt to carry out a repair alone would be dangerous for those who are brought to operate the machines later.

Beware of the standardization of life

If the use of digital arouses resistance, it is also because it is often associated with genetic innovations. Particularly in the context of genetic selection practices (plant and/or animal) whose methods are far from reaching consensus.

To be registered in the official catalog, and therefore used and sold legally for commercial and productive purposes, a variety must meet the criteria of “Distinctness, Homogeneity, Stability”. This severely limits genetic diversity and selection by farmers. Several farming communities – at the French level, the Peasant Seed Network or in Latin America, the Via Campesina – remain attached to ancestral practices that they consider more virtuous and respectful of biodiversity.

Digital as a tool for appropriating common natural resources

Some also believe that the use of digital technology for genetic advances is responsible for the industrial appropriation of common natural resources.

The proliferation of sensors and connected objects also questions the capacity of agriculture 4.0 to evolve in diversified cropping systems. The use of peasant seeds, old varieties and varietal mixtures is however recommended by certain associations to better adapt to climate change and local conditions. However, the high heterogeneity of these varieties (sizes, shapes, input requirements, and others) makes them difficult to cultivate on an industrial scale.

On the contrary, genetic advances go in the direction of a logic of standardization of living organisms to facilitate the use of new tools. Just as was the case during agricultural mechanization, by adapting the living to the tools rather than the tools to the living.

In-game data

Another controversial dimension linked to digitization is the collection of data it generates. Thanks to sensors and on-board computers, the software records and transmits a multitude of data. Such as soil moisture, level of nitrogen and other nutrients, placement of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides but also quality and quantity of the harvest.

Several researchers mention the risk of reselling this data to develop new solutions for… the farmers themselves. As early as 2011, John Deere collected and transmitted to other companies in the sector the production data of farmers using its connected tractors, without notifying them.

But some farmers are also willing to share their information with these companies so they can improve the solutions they sell. The 4e Global tractor maker AGCO Corp., which makes Challenger and Massey Ferguson machines, initially refused to release its customers’ production data to a third party. With some farmers asking for more data-related services, this policy has been changed.

On a societal scale, the alliance of agrochemical and digital giants portends the danger of a growing dependence of our food on multinationals. The capture and use of agricultural data makes agriculture more vulnerable. Cyberattacks and harvest predictions by territory pose threats to food security. However, significant weaknesses have been identified in John Deere’s software and New Holland’s CNH Industrial systems.

Digital agriculture, a responsible face?

Agriculture 4.0 in the hands of multinationals poses great risks to the agricultural sector and farmers, but not everything is to be thrown away in digital tools.

Some may have real potential to support the development of resilient and self-sufficient agriculture. Through their immediacy and ease of access, they can increase knowledge sharing and contribute to the conservation of peasant knowledge. Via social networks, farmers exchange advice, feedback, knowledge related to farming practices, etc.

The provision of data through free, transparent and consented processes can lead to the construction of collaborative networks. And improve farmers’ accessibility to technologies. However, these initiatives are limited by the legitimate fears of farmers of seeing their data and knowledge taken away from them.

The creation of knowledge and digital tools by, with and for farmers appears essential. Some initiatives, such as the InPACT cluster, an associative platform resulting from the bringing together of agricultural associative networks, propose the construction of technological sovereignty for farmers. How ? Thanks to the active integration of farmers in innovation and creation processes. The objective is to build tools that are both better adapted, but also intensive in terms of know-how and knowledge. And which do not dispossess farmers of their expertise.

About the authors:
Ysé Commandré. PhD student in management sciences, Institut Convergences Agriculture Numérique, University of Montpellier.
George Aboueldahab. PhD student, University of Montpellier.
Romane Guillot. PhD student, University of Montpellier.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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