Will the integration of digital technologies into the food system work?

One can get the impression from the media that a new wave of digital technology is sweeping the farming world, bringing incredible new devices and services to farmers everywhere that will inevitably boost food production and just make everything on the planet so much better. There appear to be drones that only spray chemicals where they’re needed, self-driving tractors and harvesters that plow perfectly, and even robots that help with harvesting. Even behind the scenes, one might think that there are, or soon will be, frictionless digital processes that inform farmers, help them unbiasedly with artificial intelligence, and then ensure that produce moves efficiently along an “intelligent” and potentially autonomous food chain. A future of “precision agriculture” or sensor-rich “smart farming” is supposed to be upon us.

Likewise, beyond the farm, there are stories that suggest robots will soon be flipping burgers or serving tables; that drones deliver our groceries; or that an Amazon or an Alphabet will soon be giving us personalized nutritional advice or even ordering groceries on our behalf based on analysis of our eating habits or gut health. We’re also hearing about efforts — so-called “innovations” — further downstream from operations to convert food consumption data into insights into what new product line extensions to bring to market. The integration of digital technologies into the food system should allow food companies to calculate new ways to occupy our stomachs, even when dealing with foods that most of us could do without, not least in the context of rising rates of obesity and obscene levels of food waste (appallingly at a time of rising malnutrition and malnutrition).

Governments, corporations and startups are all contributing to this story of limitless technological advancement by posting snazzy short videos on social media channels or creating easy-to-edit footage for click-bait articles in online publications, including newspapers who do this should know better. And it’s not all hype. “Big Tech” companies like Amazon, Alphabet and Microsoft do know that the food and agricultural sectors offer ripe harvests to secure future profits. smaller companies are emerge to offer new products that could generate new efficiencies. Governments certainly want their agricultural sectors to work more efficiently. And farmers and other food producers around the world, including many of the world’s poorest farmers, are already embracing some facets of modern digital technology. we can Recognize that an agricultural “digital shift” is taking place, which is mapping to broader developments in social life as so much action is taking place online. From “seed to shit” – or, to put it more gently, “farm to fork” – new digital technologies are at play.

But where exactly all these measures will lead remains unknown. An agricultural digital paradise along the lines of the scenarios painted in stories about robots picking apples or autonomous drones exterminating pests seems far-fetched, to say the least. A much more likely scenario is that digital technologies will be integrated into farming practices and the broader food system in problematic ways. So what kind of problems are important?

For one, there is a concern that the rush to integrate digital technology into the food system comes with “data theft”. The data in question is not only generated when farmers or their workers plant seeds or spray chemicals. Data is also produced when merchants move food shipments; when food manufacturers promote new product lines; when retailers make sales; and when consumers mention products, likes, or dislikes on social media channels. Data provides information and possible knowledge about what is to be produced, how and where in the future. It makes sense to question what ag-tech companies, or food companies in general, might gain by imagining and pursuing business models based on the notion that data is a new “money plant” to be harvested, analyzed, and then put to use must develop new intellectual property.

Second, the risks of data theft are complicated by efforts by some companies to “blackbox” software and hardware so that only approved suppliers or technicians can, for example, repair tractors or analyze which digital services are available. Companies use their powers to define how technology is adopted and seek (not always successfully) to dominate smaller players. One lesson: what ag-tech firms are trying at home today signals what they will be doing in emerging markets in the future (and should ring alarm bells about what startups are learning you should consider doing this with new products).

For some participants, concerns about data theft or big corporations dominating farmers might just be noise. Others, however, fear that the digital transformation of the food system will increase the power of data analysts and computer scientists who work for the companies with the most computing power – and accelerate the transition to a food system that aligns with it. It’s a process that should make us all ask ourselves, “What kind of food system will the Amazons and alphabets produce?” And if they become the big winners of this shift, what happens to those who lose?’

Linked to this, then, is the fact that the digital transformation of the food system is occurring at a time when another robbery, a land grab, is unfolding. Rising inequality within countries, between countries and between the world’s richest few and poorest masses has led to land grabs, with decisions often being made “over the heads of local people”. Such processes must be understood alongside a growing awareness, promoted by World Bank economists, that land in many parts of the world simply does not yield enough returns. The underlying argument is that a farmer in Zambia or Thailand either needs urgent (possibly now digital) help to bring his yields closer to those of capital-intensive agriculture in the US or Western Europe, or should be encouraged (by market or other forces). ) to sell to someone else who can. But as Samir Amin asked nearly twenty years ago, if hundreds of millions more farmers are forced off their land, what will happen to them? Where exactly are they supposed to go?

The bottom line from all of this is that if the integration of digital technology into the food system involves data theft that encourages further land grabs, and if the food system is transformed according to computer models developed to predict the profits of “big food”. maximize -tech” requires a critical questioning of what is happening and an examination of the consequences. In that regard, a likely corollary is that the same moves to satisfy investors interested in food companies adopting digital technologies and leveraging data will also move us further away from the kind of food system we actually need to develop. It is worth noting here arguments about the possibility – even the necessity – of creating an alternative food system that ensures sustainable food production and remains aware of it, as Judith Butler writes in her “The Power of Nonviolence“Environmental threats, the global slum problem, systemic racism, the stateless state whose migration is a shared global responsibility, even the more thorough overthrow of colonial modes of power”. Integration of digital technology in the Some kind of food system could still be an option if the digital transformation can be flipped to encourage the construction of food sovereignty. Until then, the rush to integrate digital technologies into the food system appears to be just another component of data colonialism.

Further reading on E-International Relations

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