In the spotlight

The digitalization of food

Digital land registries; gene sequencing and editing; sensors in robotized agricultural machines; fruit picking robots; blockchains [For the definition of blockchains and other key terms check the GLOSSARY at page 6 and 7 of the ETC group report , Blocking the Chain, 2018] ensuring traceability in global value chains; 24-hour health control of livestock; intellectual property rights (IPR) protection through digital platforms; AI in plant breeding; satellite-supported location of fish resources and allocation of fishing rights; automated trade and distribution; e-commerce of food products; personalized nutrition and fitness with smartphone apps – the brave new world of digital technology is transforming all aspects of our food systems for better and worse. This incomplete list is a small sample of the range of application of digital technologies. Over the past decade, digitalization has become increasingly visible and influential in food production, processing, storage, packaging, retailing and trading.

Actors, initiatives and narratives

Governments, corporations and policy institutions present digitalization in food and agriculture as a solution to the main problems the world is facing. Corporations and financiers see it as an enormous opportunity to generate profits.

Over the past ten months, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) organized two international events on digitalization and technology [International Symposium on Innovation for Family Farming in November 2018, International Seminar on Digital Agriculture Transformation in May 2019.]. In 2018 “e-agriculture” was on the official agenda of the regional FAO conferences for Europe and Central Asia. The World Bank dedicated special panels on digitalization and blockchain technology for land administration in its annual Land and Poverty Conferences [Pilot experiences are being carried out in Brazil, Georgia, Ukraine, Sweden, India, Australia, Dubai, Honduras, USA and Ghana. See: Graglia,J.M., Mellon, C. “Blockchain and Property in 2018: at the end of the beginning”. Paper presented at the Annual World Bank Conference on Land and Poverty, 2018.]. Megamergers between the world’s largest seed and agrochemical companies (especially the Bayer-Monsanto merger) have raised public awareness about the high level of corporate concentration in the industrial food chain, and the massive investments by agrochemical, farm machinery and food retail companies in big data, and ICT. In several countries, e-commerce giants such as Amazon, Uber, Walmart, Alibaba and GRAB have expanded into online food retail. Corporate competition over food retailing in India [The Changing Face of Food Retail in India in When Food Becomes Immaterial: Confronting the Digital Age.] and the battle for control over 5G technology between China and the USA are indicative of the large amounts of money at stake in digital technologies and infrastructure.

The recent push for digitalization comes from the business-driven Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) aggressively promoted by corporations in the World Economic Forum (WEF), who describe it as a “fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.” While 4IR goes beyond food, it has replaced the paradigm of the ‘Green Revolution,’ which was legitimized by the need to increase agricultural production. Digital technologies and big data are key aspects of the new paradigm, and enable the consolidation of corporate control over the global food system.

Digitalization of food-agriculture ranges from relatively simple applications such as drones for land mapping and direct online marketing to more complex digital agriculture. Digital agriculture refers to the integration of advanced technologies (AI, sensors, robotics, drones, etc.), devices and communications networks into one system, and applying them to production, management, processing and marketing. The narrative of the new paradigm promises greater efficiency in food production and resource and energy use, sustainability, transparency, accuracy and the creation of new markets and economic opportunities. Developing countries, especially in Africa, are lured by promises from donors, international agencies and corporate foundations that digitalization will enable them to “leapfrog” their way to progress with climate friendly pathways. However, the technology and infrastructure for this rosy scenario will come from corporations, who are in it for profits, not public benefit.

Implications for people and the environment

Proponents of digitalization emphasize the supposed benefits for marginalized people and small-scale food producers: digitalized land administration will increase tenure security; satellite-supported allocation of fishing rights will ensure transparency and security for small-scale fishers; blockchains will link producers to consumers directly, eliminating exploitation by intermediaries; digital agriculture will reduce input costs and increase the efficiency of irrigation and production. E-commerce is widely touted as the gateway for creating new markets and ways of marketing agricultural products.

Certainly, small-scale food producers and marginalized groups can benefit tremendously from digital technologies. But we must remember that these technologies are deployed in a context of high national-global inequalities of access to essential goods and services, as well as to information and digital technologies (the digital divide). The World Bank acknowledges that there is a triple divide: rural, gender and digital.]. Unless these inequalities are effectively addressed, new technologies will reproduce and deepen existing patterns of discrimination. Also, the manufacture and use of ICT/AI hardware (e.g, micro-chips, semiconductors, liquid crystal displays, mobile phones, computers, batteries, etc.) have large environmental impacts. These include impacts from mining, emissions of volatile compounds, acid fumes, solvents and metals into the air and water, high energy consumption, waste generation/disposal and greenhouse gas emissions from transportation and storage.

Local communities are also experimenting with new technologies to assert and strengthen their rights. In Brazil, indigenous women are using drones as part of their strategies to map and protect their territories. Other communities are using satellite images to monitor and draw public attention to deforestation by agribusiness companies[When Land become a global financial asset in When Food Becomes Immaterial: Confronting the Digital Age.]. In the USA, small-scale farmers see potential in using sensors, chips (which have become substantially less expensive in the last years) and open-source software to eliminate the scale advantages that industrial agriculture has had over small-scale producers. In some Southeast Asian countries, small-scale producers are selling agroecological produce to consumers through online retail.

The rapid development and application of digital technologies have significant implications for living conditions, work, production, societal interaction, commerce, the environment, public policies and governance. In order to formulate strategies to deal with digitalization, we need to increase our own understanding and engage in critical reflections and debates.

We hope the questions below will boost these processes.
1. Who are the actors developing develop digital technologies and for what purposes?
2. Who has access to and control over digital technologies and for what purposes?
3. Who owns the huge amount of data that is created everyday by all of us, and who has the right to use and draw economic benefit from it?
4. How should the applications and impacts of digital technologies be monitored and assessed? How should these technologies be governed and regulated for the public good?
5. How should the risks deriving from digital technologies be assessed, and their application be monitored?
6. How can we challenge the dominant narrative that equates innovation with technology, to underline and promote peasant and indigenous innovations, practices and knowledge[See Nyéléni Newsletter no 36, Agroecology: real innovation from and for the people]?
7. What are the relationships between peasant and indigenous innovations, practices and knowledge, and digital technologies?
8. How can we use digital technologies to advance food sovereignty and agroecology? What kinds of technologies, under what conditions and how should they be governed?

These are complex questions, and finding answers will require time, energy, critical reflection and creative thinking. However, the time has come to take up this challenge.