Can’t Cleantech Rescue Digital Farm Tech From Corporations?

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We want high tech agriculture to be the solution to world hunger and large scale agricultural emissions, right? After all, hasn’t tech revolutionized clean energy options with solar and wind? Aren’t EVs safer, more efficient, and reliable? So why not digital farm tech? Cleantech needs to wrestle digital farm tech initiatives away from corporate control — with its focus on power and profit — and transform it authentically to enhance human rights and to promote agroecology.

Corporate control of digital farming initiatives has two Big Problems.

  • It creates new poverty traps for small food producers.
  • It promotes environmentally destructive intensive agricultural practices.

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With noble goals to deliver progress on all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) tries to “awaken the world to the fact that we all must work together to transform the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food.” The Summit’s central theme focuses on how each SDG relies to some degree on healthier, more sustainable, and equitable food systems.

However, they take a multiple stakeholder approach to governance, which includes the voices of corporations, corporate platforms, business associations, donors, academics, and civil society actors. Sounds good, right? A cross section of society’s thinkers and shakers? In theory, yes, but the practical application is plain wrong.

This input to formulate and implement responses to jointly perceived problems is disproportionately led by for-profit businesses and corporations. Their interests are rooted in neoliberalism and capitalism, prioritizing market interests over human rights. Alliance for a Green Revolution (AGRA), Microsoft, Bayer, and other corporate partners participated in past UNFSSs as a way to influence governments about their technology-based propositions for a sustainable food systems transformation. They use buzzwords like “nature-positive production” and “climate-smart agriculture” to showcase corporate-shaped digital farm tech solutions.

That’s the problem, according to Food Systems 4 People, which, in its 2021 report, says that “piecemeal approach to solutions, lack of transparency, lack of rigor of analysis and complete disregard for crucial aspects of food systems transformations such as agency, power, market concentration, and systemic inequalities.”

digital farm tech
Infographic provided by Food Systems 4 People

550 civil society organizations have criticized UNFSS for its corporate, big data, and big finance influence, including the involvement of the World Economic Forum, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and agrochemical & large agriculture corporations. With a push to food systems led by technology and agribusiness giants, and policies that support corporate agritech and the private sector rather than focusing on those people most affected by food insecurity, the UNFSS is undermining existing multilateral and rights based food governance spaces such as the United Nations Committee on World Food Security (CFS).

A recent report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Michael Fakhri, urges the UN and its member states to adopt binding rules to bridle rising corporate power.

Can’t Cleantech Help with Digital Farm Tech?

Pastoralists, peasants, indigenous peoples, women, youth, workers, fishers, consumers, landless people, and peoples affected by food insecurity in cities are at real risk when agritech makes global decisions about how food is produced. These corporate interests equip farmers with hardware technology — chemical inputs, tractors, and drones. Corporate tech firms provide the compatible software applications and control the agricultural and climate data flows.

Astrud Lea Beringer, an advocacy expert in food sovereignty, peasants’ rights and environmental justice, offers the example of how AGRA’s local networks help Microsoft to boost its digital platform and “chatbot” app Kuzabot. Microsoft then sells the aggregated data to pesticide and insurance companies. The goal is hardly altruistic.

The interests of these and other corporate constituents are self- serving and attempt to:

  • boost productivity of intensive industrial farming and its large-scale monocultures
  • rely on heavy use of chemical inputs — fertilizers, herbicides and seeds
  • use fossil fuel-powered machinery, which is a major cause of the global food and climate crisis
  • disenfranchise small farmers who lack access to a decent internet infrastructure and digital technology devices
  • lock up small farmers in another dependency cycle, pushing them into more poverty traps

Cleantech can be defined as the investment asset class, technology, and business sectors which include clean energy, environmental, and sustainable or green, products, and services. CNET reminds us that its origins lie in the venture capital investment community, and cleantech has grown to define a business sector that includes significant and high growth industries such as solar, wind, water purification, and biofuels. Clean technologies have great potential and can improve the way food systems are designed and implemented.

Agroecology models a future where farming responds to the climate crisis by phasing out pesticides and maintaining vital biodiversity. It is the integration of ecology in agriculture and agri-food systems, encompassing ecological, economic, and social dimensions. It provides sufficient and healthy diets for a growing population without chemical inputs and with — and not against — nature. The transition to agroecology implies development and use of innovations to allow responding to real user needs via new technologies.

The purpose of agroecology is to ensure harmony with ecological processes, proper use of biodiversity, low external inputs, and fostering of agricultural knowledge.

There is already a lot happening in cleantech to support agroecology.

  • An example of successful digital farm tech outside corporate influences is the farmer-to-farmer network, FarmHack, which is a worldwide community of farmers that builds and modifies their own tools. They share their hacks online and at meet ups as part of collaborative efforts to restore broken ecological and food systems.
  • Precision farming can combine information science with agricultural engineering, harvesting massive amounts of data from the farming process. Utilizing technological advances like advanced sensors, machine learning, and artificial intelligence for data processing, precision farming helps monitor big picture environmental factors like weather patterns, water distribution, and soil chemistry, as well as tiny measurements like nutrient deficiencies in individual plants.
  • A move toward electric tractors reduces the immense amount of infrastructure required for solar energy and electric cars. A solar array on an electric tractor can powers the tractor and eliminate maintenance that would have been necessary with the moving parts in a diesel engine. Switching to electric eliminates noise pollution, immediate exhaust emissions, and particulate matter that comes from diesel emissions.
  • IN2 — aka the Wells Fargo Innovation Incubator that is administered by the Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, has startups working to transforming crop protection; to industrialize plant cell cultures as a production platform; to employ machine learning and robotics in the field to increase yield, eliminate resistant superweeds, and accelerate crop improvement; and so much more…

Innovation in finance, institutional design, novel partnerships, philanthropy, and international cooperation can assist with agricultural climate mitigation and adaptation strategies. And, yes, it’s likely that agroecology will need to be supported in the short term by industrial agriculture via taxation that pays for the damage, like pollution, induced by the latter.

If you know of other, promising cleantech companies that are working with an agroecology focus, write a comment and celebrate their vision and achievements.

Infographic provided by Food Systems 4 People

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack:

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