Perspective: Digital Agriculture
Mascha Gugganig and Kelly Bronson
Mascha Gugganig is a socio-cultural anthropologist and science and technology studies (STS) scholar who researches knowledge politics that both constitute and trouble ‘expertise’ on (Indigenous) land and environmental issues. Through ethnographic, multimodal research and policy analysis, she researches high- and (s)low-tech discourses and practices of sustainable agriculture. She is currently an Alex Trebek Postdoctoral Fellow in Artificial Intelligence and Environment at the University of Ottawa, and a Research Associate at the Department of Science & Technology Studies, Technical University Munich. .
Kelly Bronson is a Canada Research Chair in Science and Society at the University of Ottawa in Canada. She is a social scientist studying and helping to mitigate science-society tensions that erupt around controversial technologies and their governance—from GMOs to big data. Her research aims to bring community values and non-technical knowledge into conversation with technical in the production of evidence-based decision-making. Kelly is the author of Immaculate Conception of Data: Agribusiness, activists and their shared politics of the future.
After reading and discussing this text, students should be able to:
- Describe the many different elements of digital agriculture, including both hardware and software elements.
- Explain why the digitization of agriculture—and of many different practices and industries—has material effects in the world.
- Articulate some of the broader and potentially problematic effects of the so-called digital revolution in agriculture.
When thinking about food production, you likely imagine a muddy-booted farmer standing in a field using a notebook to log observations about crops. Maybe you can hear the sound of the grain rustling in the wind as you envision the farmer feeling the wheat shaft and plunging her hand into the soil to assess its moisture level.
Yet farming is also envisioned to become ‘digitized’, whereby insights on crop quality and soil moisture are determined using digital devices like sensors on tractors. The virtues of digital agriculture is its (supposed) immateriality, such as the precise (and thus reduced) use of fertilizers through data-driven advice stored in the cloud. Proponents argue that a ‘digital revolution’ will reduce farming’s negative material impacts on the environment and on human health, while opponents raise concerns about digital tools displacing human labourers.
In this chapter we ask: Does the digitalization of agriculture mean that farming will become immaterial, that it will no longer involve people, and that it will no longer generate the material and environmental impacts of the farming practices of yesteryear?
We explore these questions and highlight some of the continued material aspects of digital tools in agriculture. We situate this chapter within ‘new materialist’ social science, which has highlighted the material effects of social processes (e.g., the ubiquitous use of plastic bags as a consumer convenience) that have real material effects on the environment. To date, however, less attention has been given to digital agriculture.
We begin the chapter by outlining common terms connected to digital agriculture, showing how it is often talked about as an escape from materiality. We illustrate the continued materiality of digital agriculture in two forms—as physical matter, and as ideas—and conclude that agriculture still depends on the material world, with significant impacts on people and the environment.
What is digital agriculture?
There are many terms that relate to digital agriculture, and precision agriculture is arguably the most prominent one. With the help of sensors embedded in farm machinery, precision agriculture has for two decades been used to apply resources in a highly controlled and specific way. The farm machinery collects data on local weather or soil conditions, which then drive farm decisions. In recent years, such data have been combined with remote sensing data, including environmental (climate) satellite-collected data. The resulting big datasets can be processed using sophisticated computing to create even more precise insights on farm management decisions, such as when to plant, apply chemicals, irrigate, and so on. The term digital agriculture is often used to refer to the use of big data in food production, combined with the deployment of (IoT), , (AI), machine learning, cloud computing, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and robotics.
Another common term is smart farming. Compared to precision agriculture, scholars argue that smart farming and agriculture 4.0 are wider–reaching terms, as the former includes digitization of whole food systems (beyond farming), while the latter may include pre-production processes, like gene editing of crops. Another umbrella term is the fourth agricultural revolution, yet there is no agreement as to what constitutes its newness, whether it has started, and if it is even desired.
The immaterial ‘smart’ farm of the future
A common way proponents talk about the benefits of digital agriculture is in regard to its decreased material impact on the environment. Indeed, the current systems of intensive, global, capitalist food production—including its heavy reliance on agricultural chemicals—has been the cause of tremendous greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.
Proponents of digital agriculture predict that data-driven insights will lead to a dramatic reduction in chemical use. As Tobias Menne, head of Bayer/Monsanto’s Global Digital Farming Unit explained:
Before, selling more products meant more business for a company like Bayer; whereas in future, the fewer products we sell the better, because we’re selling outcome-based services. With sensor devices, we can learn a lot more about what is and is not helping crops and livestock and create a better way of doing things.
Here, the lead of the largest agribusiness corporation claims that conventional products like pesticides and seeds will no longer drive their business; instead, they will focus on services. One Canadian agricultural economist likewise explained in an interview: “If we are to feed 10 billion people by 2100 while preserving our environment, the next green revolution must incorporate the virtual world.” Scholars often similarly argue that precision agriculture will substitute environmental information and knowledge for physical inputs.
Yet materiality—be it resources for software and machines, the climate, or labour—does not simply disappear. In the next section we explore the material preconditions of digital agriculture, and then look at labour, including how farmers interact with digital artifacts.
The material preconditions of digital agriculture
To consider the materiality of digital artifacts, it is helpful to distinguish two forms: materiality as physical substance (e.g., drones detecting weeds) and materiality as the manifestation of principles or values (e.g., intellectual property rights that allow or restrict the use of farm management tools).
Materiality as physical matter
One key infrastructure supporting digital agriculture is energy, which requires materials like coal, gas, and oil, as well as water, wind, and solar infrastructure. When Monsanto boasts that its “Climate Pro” sensors generate seven gigabytes of data per acre, there are implications for the resources needed to manage that data. Consider this: if the virtual “cloud” (where our data is stored and processed) were a country, it would have the fifth largest electricity demand worldwide. In that context, digital agriculture also requires reliable rural telecommunication infrastructure and broadband access.
Another material dimension concerns the extraction of rare earth minerals to create microelectronics in microchips for computers and platforms, analytic software, and data storage systems. Scholars have explored this material dimension for social media and information and communication technology (ICT). Due to the heavy reliance on ICT and digital platforms, digital agriculture shares many environmental impacts, including water and energy use, e-waste, as well as detrimental labour conditions.
A key material property in digital agriculture is computer infrastructure, especially for scientists and engineers in the public sector. Often, public sector computer scientists are limited by a lack of access to sophisticated computing. Concurrently, spatial datasets compiled by public entities (such as NASA) are used by industry actors to develop products that are subsequently blocked behind paywalls.
Seeing the materiality of digital infrastructures—the microchips, servers, computers, cell towers, or the electricity grid—can be difficult in the farming context, where it seems distant from the immediate context. However, these infrastructures have an immediate effect on those that have to generate such materials. For instance, the demand for cobalt and other minerals has resulted in ongoing violence, slavery and labour exploitation in the Democratic Republic of Congo—the world’s largest producer of cobalt—while businesses in Silicon Valley’s ICT manufacturing industry frequently contaminate the environment and human bodies.
Materiality as instantiated ideas
As mentioned above, materiality is also the result of instantiated principles or values. Governments around the world create policies and invest public money to develop telecommunication infrastructure, yet often for private corporations. Policies reflecting the principle of equal rural access to the internet may therefore result in supporting industry actors who could not profit from selling digital farm tools without this infrastructure. Digital infrastructure expansion and maintenance can also prove controversial (e.g., concerns over 5G technology’s environmental and health effects or cell tower infrastructures intervening with natural heritage protection).
Legal infrastructures, in the form of intellectual property rights, are also principles that are instantiated in material properties; they regulate who can have access to data and machinery for developing and using sensing technologies, file formats, or metadata. Exemplary is the agribusiness corporation John Deere, which applies copyright licenses to protect both data and sensing machines, which in turn limits farmers’ access to their data and machinery—even preventing them from fixing their tractors.
Further, interpreting agricultural data requires digital skills and expertise that many farmers often do not possess, but which would allow them to interpret data and acquire hands-on abilities to tinker, fix, innovate and build tools. Concerns over corporate proprietary rights have spurred such initiatives as the U.S.-based non-profit organization, Ag Data Coalition, which seeks to “give farmers an option for storing all of their data in one secure location” independent of suppliers or manufacturers. State authorities have also worked towards multi-stakeholder engagements in the governance of digital agriculture (e.g., the Swiss Charter on the Digitalisation of Swiss Agriculture and Food Production).
The materialization of values, in the form of private gain, is also visible in the design of digital agricultural technologies. Companies like John Deere develop tools with large commodity crop and capital-intensive farms in mind. Farm technology developers, policymakers, and investors often imagine farmers as being minimally concerned with anything but economic profitability. This results in commercial systems like “FarmCommand” that follow economic logics, and provide an overview that is only useful for large-scale farms. As one Prairie farmer, Dan, explained, precision tractors with GPS auto-steering are only worthwhile for farms like his because of the cumulative efficiency gains: “Say, you’re overlapping by two feet every time, it doesn’t take very long before you start to add up quite a bit of overlap.” As a result, small-scale farmers have had little to gain from the use of (very costly) digital agriculture tools. Most visual AI-driven tools trained to detect crop diseases are also not conducive to polyculture growth settings. Such farming systems are currently not captured by applications trained to collect big data. The value of large-scale farming as business is thus instantiated into the materiality of digital technologies currently on the market.
Implications of digital agriculture
Because there is a bias toward large-scale commodity producers, digital agriculture arguably furthers capital-intensive, industrial agriculture—a system that has known material implications on people and the planet. Digital agriculture extends historic processes of the industrialization of agriculture, potentially leading to a new “digital food regime.” Adding the dimension of energy, extracted resources for developing microchips, digital storehouses, and rural network infrastructures, the environmental and health consequences of a digitized agriculture may in fact undo its own sustainability claims.
Digital tools such as robots may also alter farmers’ identity and relationships to farming practices. Indeed, requiring farmers to use decision support tools can re-write how farmers interact with their land. A farm may turn into a control centre where the farmer becomes an office manager or data labourer. The ‘good’ farmer may be the one who trusts big data to be more objective than their neighbor, their gut intution, or their own tacit knowledge.
Yet for farmers, a digital monitoring system may also free up time for leisure activities, fostering other forms of relationships, caring for animals beyond service exchanges like cattle for milk, or improving communication with their consumers. Indeed, in practice, farmers engage with precision technologies in many ways, sometimes by tinkering and repurposing them, or blending them with analogue tools.
Proponents of digital agriculture claim that digital tools in agriculture will require less chemical input, such as pesticides or fertilizer, as they can now be applied in a more precise way. The digitization of farm management, often imagined as data in the form of a distant ‘cloud,’ is portrayed as immaterial—that is, requiring less machinery, chemical input, and land for food production. Digital agriculture is also imagined to decrease the detrimental impacts on the environment due to decades of high-input industrial agriculture. Yet there are numerous material preconditions for, and consequences of the digitalization of agriculture, that has effects on land and people.
To better understand such claims of immateriality, this chapter approached materiality not merely as physical matter but also as instantiated ideas. This is because the existence (or lack) of policies, intellectual property rights, digital education programs, and the design of tools have material implications regarding who is able to participate in the so-called digital revolution in agriculture. Likewise, the material preconditions of ICT-driven tools are, similarly to other sectors, reliant on the extraction of rare earth minerals, energy resources for high-data drive sensors, or rural telecommunication infrastructures. They exemplify the very real material needs for the digitization of agriculture.
Some questions left to consider are: Does existing policy (like broadband development programs) and existing legislation (like licenses protecting farm data as corporate property) serve the public, industry, or both? Who ought to hold the legal rights to develop, tinker with, and fix digital tools and machineries? What if digital tools were developed such that they reflect a broad array of farm values, like the environmental principles of agroecologists, or the relational knowledge of Indigenous farming? What might the very material dimensions of digital agricultural tools look like if they were developed by farmers and DIY-tool developers, based on their place-based knowledge and expertise, rather than merely industry scientists? As you can see, there is still much research to be done!
- What are the key elements of digital agriculture?
- How have digital technologies changed farming practices? How have digital technologies changed how and what we think about agriculture?
- What are the potential benefits of digital agriculture? What are the potential problems?
- This chapter identifies materiality as an important concept for examining the real-world impacts of digital agriculture. What is materiality and why is it important to identify the often-hidden material effects of digital agriculture?
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- Carolan 2017, 137. ↵
- Rose & Chilvers 2018, 87; Klerkx et al. 2019, 100315; Overall, distinguishing agriculture into successive periods reflects a problematic evolutionary conception of agriculture. ↵
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- IPES Food 2015. ↵
- Quoted in Strubenhoff & Parizat 2004, para 8. ↵
- Delgado 2019, n.p. ↵
- Bongiovanni & Lowenberg-DeBoer 2004. ↵
- Leonardi 2010, n.p. ↵
- Carolan 2017, 139. ↵
- Cook 2012. ↵
- Reading 2014. ↵
- Fitzpatrick et al. 2015. ↵
- Cobby 2020; Chen 2016; Ensmenger 2018; Fuchs 2014. ↵
- Bronson 2018. ↵
- Carolan 2017, 147. ↵
- Fuchs 2014. ↵
- Pellow & Park, 1991. ↵
- https://www.ic.gc.ca/eic/site/139.nsf/eng/h_00006.html ↵
- Kostoff et al. 2020. ↵
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- Bronson & Knezevic 2016. ↵
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- Cobby, 2020; Lajoie-O'Malley et al. 2020, 101183. ↵
- Driessen & Heutinck 2015. Legun & Burch 2021. ↵
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(of abstractions) represented by a concrete instance or example.
a global network of interconnected objects, including sensors, smart devices, and microchips, that are uniquely addressable through standard communication protocols; applications exist in many contexts, from healthcare to agriculture to domestic space.
an unchangeable and distributed digital ledger, in which each transaction or record is stored in a ‘block.’ Information contained in a block is linked to that of previous blocks, forming a chain of transactions. The most well known form of blockchains are cryptocurrencies.
systems that are built from human-defined objectives and that generate outputs that can influence the physical or digital environment with which the systems interact. Overall, what is meant by artificial and intelligent remains contested.