Alternative pathways to just and sustainable agricultural futures


This article outlines an alternative trajectory for farm technology by drawing attention to ongoing grassroots agricultural innovation worldwide. Addressing the converging environmental, social, and economic crisis will require new technologies. But rather than waiting on industry we must shift focus to emerging forms of technological innovation rooted in democratic processes and ongoing food sovereignty movements.  

Beyond the critique of digital agriculture

It is clear that digital agriculture carries on the legacy of conventional industrial farming. The emphasis on the disruptive nature of these emerging technologies and the imperative for farmers and communities to adapt to this reality plays into the longstanding narrative of technology driving social change. These narratives reinforce deterministic views of technology while obscuring the motives of those behind its development. While big promises have been made for digitalization, its capacity to advance social equity, holistic sustainability, and economic well-being are questionable. As has been highlighted in the Critical Primer︎︎︎ series , this approach to developing digital technology and, indeed the motives behind it, are a continuation of the industrial and market process where profit, increased scale, and centralization are the driving forces.

So where does this leave small-scale producers, workers, and agricultural communities that stand to be negatively impacted by digitalization? In this last section of the report, we focus on a growing movement of grassroots agricultural innovation - where farmers and communities develop and produce their own tools and technology. Rather than accepting the inevitability of digital agriculture, we propose that this emerging movement offers an alternative trajectory agricultural technology and the future of farming. 

Shifting focus from technology to innovation

Activists and food movement organizers opposed to disruptive technologies are caught in a complex position between their effort to reduce harm while not being seen as anti-technology. While oversight and technological assessment are valuable tools for anticipating and mitigating the negative impacts of technology, they can also perpetuate the antagonistic relationship between those who produce technology and those who are impacted by it. So how might communities move beyond mitigation strategies to engaging directly in the process of technological development?

Shifting our focus from technology to the process behind it offers us an opportunity to reconsider how technologies can be developed to support just futures. This is a shift from technological artifacts to technological innovation.

Far from straightforward or predictable, innovation is a messy, complex process laden with values, biases, hopes, and objectives of the people behind the technologies. Looking into the innovation process means opening the black box of technology, allowing us to reveal the objectives and values of those shaping the tools that are transforming agricultural and food systems today. If conventional approaches to innovation reproduce industrial farming models, how might alternative innovation processes contribute to a more equitable and sustainable future for agriculture?     

Grassroots innovation as a democratic technological innovation process

Across the world, there is a long history of organizing in support of alternative technology. The movements for Appropriate Technology and Tools for Conviviality are strong examples of communities, researchers, and activists challenging the logic behind dominant technological innovation models. More recently, scholars have highlighted how these democratic approaches to technological innovation can be understood as precursors of contemporary grassroots innovation movements. In contrast to conventional top-down processes, where expert-led, private industry develops and brings technologies to market, grassroots innovation is the process where communities themselves identify challenges and come up with their own solutions.

While the approaches taken by grassroots innovation movements varies across regions and specific contexts, they share commonalities. In many cases, grassroots innovation emerges in contexts where markets and conventional industry have overlooked or marginalized segments of the population, leaving these groups with unmet needs. 

The emergence of grassroots agricultural innovation networks

Just as digital agriculture threatens to upend farming today, industrialization and the rise of agribusiness over one hundred and fifty years have had a dramatic impact on rural landscapes and food systems. Over this period, as both farms and technologies have increased in scale, fewer manufacturers have been developing and producing tools adapted for small-scale agriculture. This has led to a shortage of affordable and appropriate technologies.

In response to this, there is a growing movement of farmers who are collaborating together to design and manufacture their own technologies and tools adapted for small-scale sustainable agriculture.              

The tradition of modifying, tinkering, and building custom tools in farming communities is not new. Along with this practice of bricolage, there is a history of cooperation and mutualization in many rural regions. With the advent of information and communication technologies, we are now seeing how these longstanding practices are being adapted by communities and networks that are cooperating together to address shared challenges.  

These grassroots agricultural innovation networks are developing hybrid models of technological innovation, straddling both offline and online spaces in an effort to facilitate knowledge and technology exchange between otherwise remote or isolated regions.

While scholars of appropriate technology have highlighted innovation related to farming in the past, over the last decade, there has been an uptick in scholarly research focusing specifically on emerging grassroots agricultural innovation networks. By understanding the diversity of approaches coming from these networks, we can begin to see how the movement is collectively articulating radical alternatives for both technology and the future of agriculture. In the following section, we introduce several of these networks, along with innovative practices that distinguish them.   

Connecting grassroots agricultural networks to sustainable farming and food sovereignty movements

We can see the antecedents of grassroots agricultural innovation networks in the historic appropriate technology movements and the instinct to hack, share and cooperate within rural farming communities. But to fully appreciate how the technologies and innovative practices coming from these groups differ from dominant agricultural innovation, we need to understand how these networks are rooted in sustainable agriculture and food sovereignty organizing.

Contemporary sustainable agriculture movements emerged as alternatives to industrial farming methods that were dramatically altering rural landscapes. From organic farming and permaculture, to the revalorization of traditional low-impact approaches, these sustainable practices prioritized soil health and natural ecology. Indeed the novel cultural practices and interventions, like agroforestry, silvopasture, and rotational grazing that emerged from these movements, might be seen as forms of grassroots innovation.

Over the last fifty years, sustainable agriculture and organic farming groups have cropped up across the world, evolving into diverse, regionally-based education, training, and knowledge sharing networks.   
While environmental sustainability has certainly been a driver of these movements, the concept of sustainability has broadened to include questions of social and economic well-being.

Grounded in a human rights framework, food sovereignty movements have articulated a vision of agroecology that sustains people, environments, communities, and regions. Furthermore, food sovereignty draws attention to traditional agricultural practices of indigenous and peasant communies that are intimately linked to culture and ecology, underlining the rights of people to practice and define their own food systems.

Understanding how grassroots innovation networks stem from existing traditions and approaches can support us in seeing their capacity to shift the way we think about innovation for agriculture. Grassroots agricultural innovation networks are not simply doing technology differently - by working within the frameworks of food sovereignty and agroecology, these networks are developing technologies and innovative social practices that advance these critical movements.

Several grassroots agricultural innovation networks

l’Atelier Paysan︎︎︎

In France, l’Atelier Paysan works with farmers to build custom tools and infrastructure adapted to the needs of small-scale farms. The organization hosts collaborative fabrication and training events where farmers gather to produce their own equipment. The plans for the technology are shared under creative commons licenses and hosted online. L'atelier Paysan has developed a novel method of accompaniment, bringing mobile ateliers with essential tools and equipment to regions across France to support farmers in learning to fabricate tools and technology.  

HoneyBee Network︎︎︎

In India, the HoneyBee Network has documented over 100,000 examples of grassroots innovations over the last 30 years (Honeybee Network, 2015). While not focusing exclusively on farming, the HoneyBee Network has nonetheless played an integral role in advancing grassroots agricultural innovations. The organization conducts an annual Shodhyatra, a rural innovation scouting walk where participants travel by foot across the country collecting and documenting peasant-developed innovations and traditional knowledge. These findings are shared through an online database and print publications that are produced in local dialects. In addition, the Honeybee Network has developed sister organizations to help grassroots innovators refine their prototypes to share with broader user groups. 


The U.S.-based organization Farmhack serves as an open-source repository for farmer-developed tools. The organization has facilitated several hackathons and multi-day design and prototyping events where farmers, engineers, and designers come together to solve technical challenges. The Farmhack website functions as a wiki, allowing anyone to add, modify, or contribute to the growing database of open-source tools and technology.   

La CAPÉ︎︎︎

In Canada, la Coopérative pour l'Agriculture de Proximité Écologique (CAPÉ), a cooperative of over 200 farms, works collaboratively to design and develop small-scale farm technology. From tractor implements to greenhouse automation tools, this group has been developing small scale technologies adapted to their needs. Ideas and challenges are proposed by members through in-person and online events and discussion groups. After researching, developing, and testing prototypes, the network organizes large multi-day fabrication workshops to produce small batches of the tools. The CAPÉ has formed strong partnerships with regional technical schools and institutions who provide resources and shop space to facilitate these fabrication events.

Maya Pedal ︎︎︎and Bicitech

Based in Guatemala, Maya Pedal and its sister organization Bicitech support rural communities by developing appropriate technology through repurposing old bicycles. From pedal-powered water pumps to corn-flour mills, Maya Pedal has developed a set of low-cost tools, the designs and plans of which, are freely available through online and print manuals. Founded by a farmer, Bicitech works with farmers to manufacture and develop bicycle-powered technologies based on Maya Pedal designs.


Tzoumakers is a maker space located in the mountainous region of Epirus, Greece. Through a unique partnership between rural farmers and the P2P Lab, the space serves as a site for farmers and researchers to co-develop and test tools and technologies that are responsive to the needs of farmers in the region. The designs are made available through open-source plans and workshops. Through this unique arrangement, the P2P lab is able to leverage institutional resources in support of grassroots innovation, and in turn, their action research is bringing to light the novel approaches emerging within this ecosystem.  

Democratic processes in technological design

The technologies and tools that these organizations are developing have seen rapid adoption within their respective networks. But this form of innovation goes beyond technology. In responding to a lack of appropriate tools, these networks are simultaneously developing novel forms of organization, production, and knowledge exchange that trouble profit-motivated, competitive models of innovation. Below we highlight some distinguishing features of this innovation method:

  • Open-source and Creative commons - Networks operate in an open-source and commons-based intellectual property (IP) frameworks. This approach to IP stands in contrast to the traditional model of ownership and proprietary technological development, which seek to enclose innovation. The plans and designs for tools developed by grassroots innovation networks are made available under creative commons licenses and are open to others to access, modify, and improve.
  • Co-design methods - At the heart of these grassroots innovation networks are the users who identify their needs and work collaboratively to solve complex challenges . In contrast to top-down, expert-driven R&D models, this approach ensures that the technology is aligned with the needs of the community.
  • Distributed and decentralized - Many grassroots agriculture innovations networks are working within a distributed and decentralized model of production, where manufacturing is localized, and supplies are sourced from regionally available material when possible.
  • Peer production - Another feature of some of these networks is direct user participation in the manufacturing process. This has the dual impact, where supporting farmers in gaining new competencies also improves the capacity of the network to take on increasingly complex technological challenges.
  • Partnerships - networks have also built sustained partnerships with institutions, using public and institutional resources and infrastructure.

Assessing the strengths and challenges of these networks

Despite being part of the broader food sovereignty movement, many grassroots agricultural innovation networks remain regionally based, focussing on organizing within their specific communities. Thus, each of these networks is developing and refining technologies and socially innovative practices that are responsive to their environments and the challenges in their own contexts. Taken as a whole, this decentralized patchwork of networks represents a vast wealth of knowledge, innovation, and technology.

The decentralized nature of grassroots agricultural innovation presents both opportunities and challenges for networks. Some challenges include: 

  • Access to resources to support research and development of grassroots innovations is an ongoing struggle. 
  • Many networks are run by volunteers working full-time on farms, thus there is often a lack of time and resources to complete the documentation of designs and protocols. 
  • Given that networks emerge within regional and cultural contexts, they may be more internally focused and less aware of parallel movements working on similar challenges. 
  • Language difference, cultural norms, and agricultural practices can also create further barriers to collaboration, diffusion, and knowledge / technological transfer between networks.  

While these challenges present obstacles to furthering collaboration between networks, the diversity inherent in decentralization also presents unique opportunities.

Although the technologies these groups develop do not always transfer easily between regions, through tackling local problems each network has been prototyping their own innovative social and organizational practices. These higher-level, innovative processes might be adopted and adapted to the specific contexts of different networks. Some examples of these socially innovative processes:

  • In Quebec, the CAPÉ's partnership with a technical school and a sustainable farming research institution has supported the organization in R&D as well as access to industrial facilities for fabrication. 
  • In India, the HoneyBee network rural innovation scouting walks and local newsletters have been important in surfacing otherwise unknown innovations. 
  • To address the lack of resources to refine and document tools, in France L'Atelier Paysan has developed an educational outreach model that allows the organization to raise funds through skill-building workshops.               

Beyond the more obvious benefits of sharing innovative technologies and sustainable farming practices, deepening collaboration between networks might offer new insights and approaches to addressing systemic challenges facing agriculture today.    

By exploring both the socially innovative practices and novel technologies emerging within grassroots agricultural innovation networks, this article contends that the futures put forward by proponents of digital agriculture are far from inevitable. Farmers, food producers, and workers have a long tradition of developing their own tools and technology. Today these actors are participating in networks that have been cooperating at regional scales and are now becoming increasingly aware of sister organizations and networks working on similar challenges worldwide. Through practice and practical action, grassroots innovation networks are collectively articulating pathways towards just and sustainable agricultural futures.


More on Samuel’s work here ︎︎︎