News & Updates

NADAWG Discussion: Technofixes & Toxics
with PANNA and CREPPA  |  1/16/2024

CFS Side Event: Data Governance in The Digitalization of the Food SystemNADAWG  |  12/07/2023

NADAWG Discussion: Autonomy in the Face of AgTechwith ETC group and A Growing Culture  |  11/30/2023


From Lexica AI art search ︎︎︎

↓ Click below to learn what digital
agriculture means for you ↓

Agribusiness claims that digital agriculture can transform industrial agriculture into a climate solution. Supposedly, digital ag platforms will encourage farmers to use sustainable practices, and automated farm tools will help farmers carry out these practices. However these arguments hide that the supply chains fueling digital ag entail massive water use, energy use, land use, and pollution in order to manufacture hardware and use data. Data storage and transmission currently takes up 2-2.7% of all global GHG emissions and is expected to take up 14% by 2040.

The companies designing digital ag technologies are the same companies that created the industrial agriculture system which is a major source of environmental destruction and emissions. That means they encourage the same practices which have been used to greenwash industrial agriculture for decades, like reduced tillage which generally relies on increased pesticide use to kill weeds. As digital agriculture locks in the power of ag-tech companies over farming practices, transitioning land into agroecological, chemical-free, just food production becomes even more difficult.

Earlier this year, years of fighting came to fruition when farmers won the right to repair their John Deere machines. Farmers’ resistance was a product of agricultural tehcnology that increasingly attempts to control farmers, rather than the other way around. Deere is also a leading company in digital ag and farm automation. As the most common tractor and combine manufacturer, Deere is pushing automated machines made to be compatible with automated decision-making software and other farm robots. This growing automation and complexity means that Deere machines become more difficult to repair, which is especially concerning considering that the company’s Right to Repair promise is not signed into law and can be revoked at any time.

If digital technology centers farmers and workers, it certainly has the potential to make farming more sustainable for farmers and the environment. The question is, will these technologies give farmers the benefits they deserve or will they exploit farmers for their data with minimal repayment? The artificial intelligence used by digital ag requires farmers’ data colelcted by Deere machines to learn about farm management, then charges farmers to return this information in the form of recommendations. Yet the success of the Right to Repair movement has already proven that farmers have the power to prevent exploitation and anticompetitive practices from ag tech companies. Learn more about what farmers should know about digital agriculture ︎︎︎

Digital agriculture is branded as exciting technology to make farming more efficient and sustainable, however the most common digital agriculture softwares used by farmers are associated with the largest agrochemical and tech companies (ie Bayer, who has partnered with Microsoft, owns the number one digital ag application - Climate FieldView). In the hands of these monopoly-like companies, digital ag’s algorithmic farm management tools are another way to push the company’s products (toxic pesticides) and deepen corporate control over farming methods. Similar to how tech giants like Amazon are collecting and exploiting huge amounts of consumer data to increase their power over internet and consumer activity, digital ag means the same companies are bringing those strategies to the farm. Learn more about the corporate power driving digital agriculture trends ︎︎︎

Digital agriculture openly claims that it will increase farm profits and efficiency by replacing farmworkers with automation, as farmers deal with a farmlabor shortage caused by COVID-19, poor working conditions, and the contradiction inherent in criminalizing immigration while relying on migrant farmworkers. Instead the money spent on farm labor will be funneled to ag-tech companies, generally far away from rural communities. This is not the first time that automation has replaced farmworkers - tomato picking robots introduced in 1964 reduced tomato harvesting jobs in California by 64%. The supposed increased efficiency of automation didn’t deliver promised price reductions for consumers - the price of canned tomatoes has risen 111 percent since 1964 relative to 76 percent for produce overall, and the tomatoes are lower quality varieties that can withstand machine handling.

Technology certainly has the potential to make farmworkers jobs less dangerous and taxing, but currently most ag-tech is made far away from the farm with little consideration given to farmworkers. Learn more about worker-centric ag-tech ︎︎︎

The most recent Agrifunder report found that, while global investment in AgTech declined last year, investment in digital agriculture continued to skyrocket by 35% relative to 2021, for a total of $1.7B. Although this investment is funding a wave of AgTech startups, within the context of extreme consolidation in agribusiness the most successful startups are accquired by large agrochemicals and tech companies. For investors looking to fund socially repsonsible climate solutions, corporate-led digital ag is not the answer. Claims that digitalization will increase sustainability ignore the massive resource consumption necessary to produce, maintain and discard data-based digital technologies, and sideline agroecological alternatives that already feed communities with minimal resource use.

Although corporate-led digital ag is unlikley to deliver on its promises of increased farm profitability and smaller environmental footprints, it is likely to make a return for investors. Similar to many big tech companies, the profitability in digital ag lies in the extraction of massive amounts of farm data through sensors and automated machinery. However, we have to question what rights farmers and workers will have over their data, and how the data will be used. There are no legal restrictions on farm data use, leading to risks of insurance discrimination, price discrimination, lock-in, and coercing farmers into using specific affiliated products and practices.

Congress has already taken action to advance precision agriculture and numerous precision agriculture bills have been proposed for inclusion in the 2023 Farm Bill. However this comes at a time of peak consolidation in the food system, meaning that powerful digital technologies are posed to increase the monopoly-like power of the largest tech and agrochemical companies. The digital technologies promoted by this legislation rely on farmers' data, and 77% of American farmers polled by the Farm Bureau are concerned or extremely concerned about which entities can access their ag data. Existing anti-trust legislation has failed to slow increasing consolidation in both tech and agribusiness, and there are no regulations to address new antitrust issues posed by data-driven technologies.

Legislation has a necessary role in creating sustainable agricultural technologies that support affordable healthy food instead of a system that serves corporate profits. Learn more about concerns to watch out for with digital agriculture ︎︎︎

Curious about future publications and work? NADAWG is an ongoing innitiative and we are looking for perspectives from workers, farmers, scholars, and communities dealing with the impacts of Digital Agriculture.

You can reach us here ︎