Will integrating digital technologies into the food system work?

It is possible to get the impression from media sources that a new wave of digital technology is sweeping through the agricultural world, bringing farmers around the world incredible new devices and services that will inevitably boost food production and make everything on the planet so much better. There are, apparently, drones that spray chemicals only where needed, self-guided tractors and harvesters that plow perfectly, and even robots that lend a hand at harvest time. Also in the background, one would think that there are, or will soon be, seamless digital processes informing farmers, assisting them impartially with the help of artificial intelligence, and then ensuring that the products are efficiently moved along a “smart” and eventually self-sustaining food chain. . A future of sensor-rich “precision agriculture” or “smart agriculture” is supposed to be upon us.

Likewise, beyond the farm, there are stories suggesting that robots will soon be flipping burgers or waiting tables; that drones will deliver our groceries; or that an Amazon or Alphabet will soon give us personalized dietary advice or even order food on our behalf based on an analysis of our eating habits or gut health. We also hear about efforts – called “innovations” – further down the farm to convert food consumption data into information about new line extensions to be launched. The integration of digital technologies into the food system should allow food companies to calculate new ways to occupy our stomachs, even if this includes food products that most of us could do without, especially in the context of the climate. rising rates of obesity and obscene levels of food waste. (appallingly, at a time when rates of undernourishment and malnutrition are rising).

Governments, corporations and start-ups are all contributing to this story of boundless technological progress via short, eye-catching videos posted on social media or by generating easy-to-edit material for “clickbait” articles in online publications. , including newspapers that should know better. And it’s not all hype. “Big tech” companies such as Amazon, Alphabet and Microsoft do know that the food and agriculture sectors offer ripe harvests to generate future profits. Small enterprises are emerge to offer new products that could generate new efficiencies. Governments certainly want their agricultural sectors to operate more efficiently. And farmers and other food producers around the world, including many of the world’s poorest peasants, are already using some facet of contemporary digital technology. We box discern an agricultural “digital shift” underway, which corresponds to broader developments in social life as many actions move online. From “seed to shit” – or, more politely, “farm to fork” – new digital technologies are in play.

But exactly where all this action will lead remains unknown. A digital agricultural paradise, according to the scenarios painted in stories of robots picking apples or autonomous drones eradicating pests, seems far-fetched to say the least. A much more likely scenario is that digital technologies will be integrated into agricultural practices and the wider food system in problematic ways. So what kind of issues matter?

On the one hand, there are fears that the rush to integrate digital technology into the food system is linked to “data capture”. The data at issue is not only generated when farmers or their workers plant seeds or spray chemicals. Data is also produced when traders move food shipments; when food manufacturers promote new product lines; when retailers make sales; and when consumers mention products they like or dislike on social media. The data provides information and possible knowledge about what to produce in the future and how and where to produce it. It makes sense to ask what agri-tech companies or food companies in general might gain when they dream up and pursue business models based on the notion that data is a new “cash crop” that needs to be harvested, analyzed and then used to develop new intellectual property.

On the other hand, data capture risks are complicated by the efforts of some companies to “black box” software and hardware, so that only vendors or authorized technicians can repair tractors, for example, or analyze the digital services in place. at. Companies use their powers to shape how technologies are deployed and try (not always successfully) to dominate smaller players. A lesson: what agritech companies are trying at home today indicates what they’ll be looking to do in emerging markets in the future (and should sound the alarm about what start-ups are learning they or they should consider doing with new products).

For some participants, concerns about data capture or the domination of farmers by big corporations might just be noise. But the worry for others is that going digital in the food system is amplifying the power of data analysts and computer scientists working for the companies with the most computing power and accelerating the transition to a food system driven around it. It’s a process that should make us all wonder, “What kind of food system are the Amazons and Alphabets going to produce?” And if they become the big winners of this change, what will happen to those who will be losers? »

Tied to that, then, is the fact that the digital shift of the food system is happening at a time when another grab, the land grab, is taking place. Growing inequality within countries, between countries, and between the world’s richest few people and its poorer masses has led to land grabbing, often with decisions being made “above the heads of the people”. local people”. Such processes must be understood alongside the growing sense, encouraged by World Bank economists, that land in many parts of the world is simply not generating sufficient returns. The underlying argument is that a farmer in Zambia or Thailand either needs urgent (perhaps now, digital) help to bring his yields closer to those obtained by capital-intensive agriculture in the states US or Western Europe either should be encouraged (by the market or other forces) to sell to someone else who can. Yet, as Samir Amin asked nearly twenty years ago, if hundreds of millions more peasants are forced off their land, what will become of them? Where, exactly, are they supposed to go?

What emerges from all this is that, if the integration of digital in the food system is linked to data grabbing, which encourages new land grabs, and if the food system is transformed according to computer models developed to maximize the profits of “big food -tech”, it is necessary to critically examine what is happening and consider what the consequences will be. In this regard, a likely consequence is that the same measures to satisfy investors eager to see food companies adopt digital technology and exploit data will also take us further away from the type of food system we really need to develop. It is worth emphasizing here the arguments about the possibility – even the necessity – of creating an alternative food system that ensures sustainable food production, while remaining conscious, as Judith Butler argues in her ‘The power of nonviolence‘, threats ‘to the environment, the problem of the global slum, systemic racism, the condition of stateless people whose migration is a common global responsibility, even the further overcoming of colonial modes of power’. Integrate digital technology into this Some sort of food system could still be an option if the digital shift can be hijacked to stimulate the building of food sovereignty. Until then, the rush to integrate digital technologies into the food system appears to be just another component of data colonialism.

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