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Accueil > Newsletters Nyéléni in English > Newsletter no 37 - The digitalization of the food system > Voices from the field

Newsletter no 37 - The digitalization of the food system

Voices from the field

dimanche 15 septembre 2019, par Manu

Voice from the field 1 - Dematerialization of seeds

Alimata Traoré, President of the Convergence of Rural Women for Food Sovereignty (COFERSA), Mali

"What if there were a power cut after putting all our seeds into a computer, what then ?" This is how the women of my organization, COFERSA, reacted when I explained to them what governments discussed at the seventh session of the Governing Body of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) in Kigali in October 2017.

We, the peasant communities, work with living beings in our fields. This is how we preserve biodiversity. My community has selected a variety of sorghum that is drought resistant if grown using a farming technique called zaï [1]. And now, a company would become its owner because it masters IT ? Until recently, researchers or companies had to come to our villages to ask us for seeds, in order to further develop them and then sell them. Recent developments in biotechnology and genetic sequencing have changed this : breeders in the industry no longer need access to material seeds. They now analyze the digitized representation of genetic sequences on their computer screens.

When we talk about the "dematerialization" of genetic resources, we refer to the sequencing of the genome of living organisms, the massive gathering of peasant knowledge about the characteristics of these organisms, and then the digitizing and storing of this information in huge electronic databases. Companies then file patents on these genetic sequences, which allow them to force us to pay licensing fees if the same sequence is found in our seeds. “Dematerialization" is therefore the new way of capturing the wealth that has been created by peasant communities over the centuries, bypassing international texts that recognize our rights.

We the peasants of Africa are not backward, nor against technology. We use it when it serves to strengthen our struggles, but we demand that our rights be respected and protected. Those who can use all these computer technologies and databases are large multinational companies. It’s not for us. Because of this, we oppose patents on genetic information. And we fight for the protection of our peasant seed systems, which allow us to play our role as guardians and guarantors of the biodiversity and life. No machine or software can ever replace our peasant knowledge.

Voice from the field 2 - I Campesino : Digital, rural, self-determined

FarmHack.org community reflections on digitization in the USA alternative agriculture movement

Even in this hyper connected world, we, young and youngish farmers in the US agroecology scene, spend most of our time outside, connected more of the time to the ecosystem than to the internet. It is a straddle, between subsistence and the marketplace, between the wild, feral and domesticated ecologies, sometimes farming or caring for children or running equipment while holding the smart phone in our teeth ! Many farms in the USA rely on smartphones for record keeping, for marketing, for managing orders and customers, as web-shops and market portals – to stay in daily touch with our networks of collaborators and a customer base increasingly accustomed to direct relationships with their growers.

In the US, we have some convergent social movements, which have shaped the culture and practices of our open source agricultural tools ecosystem. These include a co-incidence with a boom in open internet infrastructure, including Wikipedia, Creative Commons, Craiglist, Napster, Tor-Drupal and more. As a generation brought up since grade school with computers, we are quite adept at finding information with keywords online, from videos on Google’s YouTube to historical documents protected in the commons at www.archive.org.

We are also quite adept at building our own infrastructure where there is none, of which FarmHack.org is a prime example. FarmHack.org was born in 2008 from a community of farmers that convened at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and worked together to build a platform to host a farm tool sharing service, through a very simple website, in-person meet-ups, and a diffuse international community of practitioners working together online. FarmHack.org has sought to become the open-source platform through which farmers can share their innovative approaches to addressing existing equipment gaps [2] with their fellow smallholder farmers [3]. Today, the young farmers’ movement, the open source software movement, and the “right to repair” movements [4] converge in FarmHack and Gathering for Open Ag Tech (GOAT) communities. This is not only happening in the US, in Quebecois Canada there are strong collaborations going on as well.

Agribusiness’ vision of agriculture without farmers is “precision agriculture.” Both the agro-input companies and the farm machinery corporations (e.g. John Deere) have been investing massively in big data and information and communication technology in recent years. “Precision agriculture” entails a model of extreme mechanization in agricultural production, enabled by the convergence of powerful new digital technologies and algorithmic processing of big data. In this “vision,” technology and data are used to further consolidate corporate control over the food system, and monopolies. Farm machinery companies – just as agricultural input companies – are nowadays big data companies. They equip their machines with sensors and chips that collect and analyze all kinds of data, all the time – weather records, soil moisture, pests, crop history etc. These are turned into big datasets that are run through machine-learning algorithms that then inform automated farming machineries.

In reply, we propose a strong community vision for "decision agriculture,” which puts forward our autonomy and rights. In addition to building our own tools/hardware, which we can control (e.g. bike-based farm equipment, do-it-yourself tractor mounted equipment “à la Atelier” etc.), we develop our own open source software and apps (e.g. an adaptive management software called “farmOS”). We have also started to use drones, sensors (e.g. for monitoring greenhouses, fencing, etc.), big data and tech-enabled observation to improve our farming systems and adapt them to local conditions and changing climate. Many of these practices share thinking and approaches with Citizen Science communities such as Publiclab.org, and work helping communities hold their elected officials accountable to environmental justice using low cost monitoring tools. Publiclab has emphasis areas in do-it-yourself soil testing (for contamination) and carbon monitoring (using spectrometry). Our strategies focus on communicating and sharing locally relevant agricultural knowledge across cultural, geographic and language boundaries.

We are at an interesting crossroads where the cost and accessibility of digital tools is being turned on its head. The next generation of open source micro-controllers and internet connected devices and associated batteries and motors is far lower cost and more accessible and scalable for small-scale producers, and may even already have economic advantages over large-scale proprietary systems. Low cost climate control, simple automation, animal monitoring, and on-farm value added processes are but some sample use cases with interesting potential for small-scale farmers.

Low cost communications tools are also crucial for sharing and improving practical knowledge related to the complexities of regenerative agriculture, and form the foundation for valuing ecosystem functions. Even simple hardware designs and on-farm and local manufacturing of hardware are made more effective with peer to peer communications tools to exchange and adapt designs for local conditions. We are even exploring peer to peer networks that can create functional farmer communications networks external to the internet.


[1Zaï is a West African traditional farming technique whereby pits are dug into micro-basins using a pick-axe with a small handle (known as daba), and then the seeds are sown. This particular type of cultivating allows for the concentration of water and manure in arid and semi-arid zones.

[2Small and medium scale vegetable growers in particular find that there are ‘equipment gaps’ as we work to re-build diversity in cropping systems and regions which had become concentrated and simplified.

[3See article on FarmHack and Atelier Paysan in Nyéléni Newsletter no 36, Agroecology : real innovation from and for the people - http://www.nyeleni.org/ccount/click.php?id=133

[4Farmers who buy tractors from the big agricultural machinery companies are often not allowed to repair them. A clause in the purchasing contract requires that only accredited mechanics … are allowed to repair the machines. The “right to repair” movement challenges that, and asserts farmers’ rights to repair their own machinery.