Bringing ‘agroecological intelligence’ to on-farm technology choices

  • 27.09.2023
  • article
  • Labour and Livelihoods
  • People
  • Pat Thomas

A Bigger Conversation’s Director, Pat Thomas, shares insights from the ‘Agroecological Intelligence’ project, which spoke with agroecological farmers and growers to establish a criteria for adopting new technologies.

Imagine this: a field neatly divided into rows of carrots, a drone hovering overhead while weeding robots progress through the rows. An automatic irrigation system follows their path. Some distance away the farmer sits in front of a computer monitoring the data collected by these devices, using this to make decisions about selling their crops and selecting next year’s seeds. It’s a far cry from the idyllic, pastoral imagery often associated with farm life, but it is a picture becoming ever closer to reality.

In contemporary agriculture, a dominant narrative, supported by agribusinesses and governments worldwide, asserts that the answer to society’s sustainability challenges lies in the wholesale adoption of advanced technological innovations. With the correct deployment of technology, we will be able to maintain our business-as-usual focus on increasing production and creating new markets.

But not everyone buys in to this narrative. Advocates of agroecology, including farmers and growers that use organic, regenerative, biodynamic, nature-friendly and pasture-fed practices, argue that a more profound change is needed – that the status quo, with its entrenched interests and problematic power structures, cannot persist. Rooted in principles of ecology, localism, democracy, equity and justice, agroecology offers a compelling alternative to the industrial food system.

Agroecological intelligence 

Agroecological farmers are not immune to either the pressure of, or the attraction to, adopting new technologies. But they do think about it and make choices based on an entirely different set of values.

An increasing awareness of this was the impetus for A Bigger Conversation’s ‘Agroecological Intelligence’ project. Launched in mid-2022, the project has just released an interim report, Agroecological Intelligence – Establishing Criteria for Agroecologically Appropriate Technology, summarising the findings of its first series of workshops with agroecological farmers and growers throughout the UK. These in-depth discussions centred on the role of technology in agroecological farming systems and the main factors and trade-offs at play when making decisions about new tech.

Nearly fifty farmers participated in these workshops, recruited with the support of UK organisations – the Biodynamic Association, the Soil Association, Organic Farmers & Growers, Organic Growers’ Association, the CSA Network, Landworkers’ Alliance, Permaculture Network, Nature Friendly Farmers Network, Pasture-Fed Livestock Association and the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission – representing diverse facets of the agroecological spectrum.

In addition to exploring the priorities and values that underpin different agroecological approaches, the initial workshops explored a range of different new technologies including AI driven machines and robotics for weeding, harvesting and soil analysis, the use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS) for animals, irrigation, disease monitoring and landscape analysis, biological controls and inoculants, precision pesticide application, digital food hubs, hydroponics and vertical farming and genetic engineering of plants and animals.

A diverse landscape

For this project, A Bigger Conversation has used the term ‘agroecology’ to encompass a diverse landscape of different yet related farming approaches. While organic and biodynamic farming methods are formally defined and regulated, terms like agroecological, regenerative, nature-friendly and sustainable remain poorly defined and carry different meanings for different individuals.

The differences and lack of clarity in the definitions, we found, were both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, agroecology is a very inclusive concept which allows farmers to find the system that works for them. On the other, a lack of a clear definition can hinder the development of a strong identity and heighten the risk of being used as ‘greenwashing’.

This complexity makes defining criteria for agroecologically appropriate technologies challenging. Nonetheless, our aim is to facilitate further discussion and debate in this area. At the halfway point of the project, here’s what we’ve learned so far.

Values-led farming

What does draw the diverse strands of agroecology together is a commitment to values-led farming. Thus, despite the variety of views around the concept of agroecology, a number of themes emerged which informed participants’ approaches to farming and, by extension, technology choices:

  • Connection: Farmers and growers expressed a strong desire to foster connectivity – between themselves and their land (particularly the natural elements like soil and wildlife), between the farmer and the broader community and between the community and its food. They were wary of technologies that disrupt or sever these connections.
  • Learning from experience and experiments: Learning from the land was a crucial element of their farming practices. This involved drawing knowledge from their own experiences, as well as those of neighbours, friends, fellow farmers and trusted information sources. Many participants highlighted the difficulty of accessing reliable information on non-conventional methods within the conventional agricultural system and expressed concerns that accumulating data wasn’t equivalent to genuine learning.
  • Whole systems: Many participants valued agricultural systems that transcended mere production. In agroecological systems, significant connections encompass workers, neighbours, customers and society at large; nutrition and nourishment; fairness in society and equitable access to quality food and nature; dignity and enjoyment in work; self-worth, mental well-being and spirituality. Technology choices needed to align with this ‘wholistic’ perspective.
  • Scale: Most farmers and growers were content with the size of their operations. They aimed to improve their land, soil, food quality, their service to the local community and the environment rather than focusing on ‘feeding the world’. Some questioned whether ‘scaling up’ or ‘being left behind’ were the only two options for agroecology’s development. Scaling up didn’t necessarily entail increasing farm size or output; it could involve connecting existing practitioners of agroecological farming to extend their reach and normalise the principles, practices and values they uphold.

Technological choices

Our participants were, for the most part, open-minded and interested to know about the benefits different technologies could bring – even those technologies they might not choose to use themselves. Two technological approaches, however, stood out as being mostly unacceptable.

Hydroponics, which severs the connection between plants and soil, was seen as antithetical to agroecological principles. Some participants acknowledged that in urban settings, hydroponically grown produce might be preferable to processed food. Nevertheless, the limited range of crops that could be grown hydroponically posed issues, as it contributed little to a diverse and nutritious diet.

Gene editing was, by a significant margin, viewed as the most inappropriate technology for agroecological systems. Concerns ranged from the unforeseen consequences of genetic manipulation to adverse effects on diversity within the food and farming system. Many participants questioned whether genetic technologies were truly addressing legitimate problems. The majority agreed that these technologies primarily benefited biotech companies, researchers and scientists, rather than farmers or consumers.

Values alignment

Formulating opinions about the appropriateness of various technologies prompted the same questions across our groups:

  • What problem is the tech trying to solve? Participants frequently questioned whether the discussed technologies were solving genuine problems. There was a perception that ‘problems’ were often defined by companies seeking to sell their products or by investment firms seeking short-term gains, when a more helpful and long-term solution might be found through time, observation and nature. Some participants saw value in weeding robots for addressing labour challenges, while others emphasised the importance in providing employment and fostering dignity in work and a deeper connection to the land.
  • How does it impact farmer autonomy? Farmers and growers generally expressed reluctance toward technologies that further concentrated power within the food system, potentially harming smaller producers, or leaving them dependent on external companies for support and updates. Concerns were raised about data collection and ownership, with a preference for open-source technology that allowed farmers or communities to retain control of their data.
  • What kind of farming system does it support? Technologies that were perceived as perpetuating industrialised farming practices were more likely to be rejected. For instance, robots in dairy farming might make it easier to separate calves from cows (as opposed to promoting calf-at-foot dairies) and gene editing for certain traits and disease resistance in animals could lock farmers into intensive systems.

Real-world considerations

Aside from values alignment, the actual adoption of technologies by agroecological farms is influenced by additional factors. Many participants believed that most technologies were too costly for smaller enterprises, which could further consolidate the dominance of large, high-tech operations, leaving smaller, human-scale farms struggling to compete.

Some participants, particularly those closely tied to local communities, were concerned about the acceptability of technologies among their customers. Additionally, there was a strong sense that technologies needed to be adaptable to their existing farming methods, rather than requiring them to overhaul their approaches. For instance, the ability to repair farm equipment locally or have it serviced by a nearby mechanic was deemed important by several farmers.

Others talked more plainly about externalities such as market pressures or the need to make ends meet as influential both to technology choices and to the trade-offs between values and real-world considerations.

What’s next?

Our participants generously shared their time and insights, although we were aware as the workshops progressed that we were only scratching the surface of some very important issues.

In our next set of workshop sessions, we will delve into differences that emerged among different strands of agroecology regarding priorities and technology choices. We will explore the trade-offs between values and the realities of day-to-day farming, examine how concepts like food sovereignty, social justice and equity can inform technology design and selection, and assess how government grants aimed at technological ‘innovation’ influence on-farm technology choices and the transition to agroecology.

A final report on the project is expected early in 2024.

If you are a UK farmer or grower and would like to join the next round of in-person workshops in October in Exeter, Manchester or Oxford please email Ayms Mason or Pat Thomas for details.

We will also be holding a workshop at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference, November 1-2.

Pat Thomas is a director of ‘A Bigger Conversation’.

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