Initial exchanges in the e-conversation on "Digitalization and agroecology: a challenging marriage?" - Join us!

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Initial exchanges in the e-conversation on "Digitalization and agroecology: a challenging marriage?" - Join us!

The e-agriculture team kindly agreed to let us re-post 2- or 3-day threads from the e-conversation that we are conducting on "Digitalization and agroecology: a challenging marriage?".

This e-conversation is hosted by the Digital Agri Hub in partnership with the Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR), the University of British Columbia, and the Agroecology Coalition

Join us or invite your colleagues and peers to join us using this link: https://dgroups.io/g/d4ag/join. (If you are a member of D4Ag already, just follow the conversation here: https://dgroups.io/g/d4ag/topic/100190535 (login required).

Here's how the conversation is going so far:

#Digitalisation and #agroecology a challenging marriage? Series 2, #e-conversation 2| 

Valeria Pesce Jul 17   

Dear members of the D4Ag community, 

The debate on whether digital solutions are compatible with agroecology is quite polarized.  Some people believe that precision farming technologies, which use digital tools to improve agricultural practices, can be beneficial for agroecology: they can help farmers manage soil and crop health, reduce chemical use, optimize resource efficiency and get context-specific information and recommendations. Many also observe that digital communications tools and online platforms improve access to markets, direct producer-consumer linkages, and knowledge exchange.  On the other hand, critics argue that precision technologies prioritize productivity over ecological considerations, leading to monocultures and increased chemical use, and digital technologies in general perpetuate the concentration of power, including data and insights, in the hands of a few big corporate actors. They also highlight the risk of a lock-in effect of precision agriculture, i.e., the need for farmers to conform to pre-built agtech solutions, and subsequent devaluation of farmers’ knowledge.      

Our first question, which we invite you to answer from today, is:  Which aspects of digital agriculture do you see as potentially most incompatible with the agroecological approach? Is it mainly precision farming? Is it the technologies themselves or the business models behind them? 

Let's get this conversation going and encourage a lively dialogue, so we can all learn and grow together. 

Instructions on how the e-conversations work are found here: https://dgroups.io/g/d4ag/wiki/28552.  

Valeria Pesce 
Partnerships’ facilitator 
Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR) 

Giacomo Rambaldi Jul 17   

Thanks Valeria for initiating the conversation. Dear member of the D4Ag dgroup, This e-conversation is hosted by the Digital Agri Hub in partnership with GFAR, the University of British Columbia, and the Agroecology Coalition with an agreement to re-post daily digests on the FAO e-agriculture platform. You are welcome to invite your colleagues and peers to join it using this link: https://dgroups.io/g/d4ag/join 

Best regards 
Giacomo Rambaldi 

Jo Rodgers Jul 17   

One of the main criticisms of digital agriculture has been that for advice the messaging has tended to be “top-down” and only available in major languages.  It has also tended to be “sponsored” by large agro-chemical companies interested in selling products which are often damaging to human health and the environment.  

There are very few examples of participatory approaches, valuing the breadth of indigenous knowledge.There is deep suspicion of the data harvesting carried out by phone companies, tech companies and input suppliers.  Who owns the data? how is it used? and who benefits?  Can use of the data be shown to benefit farmers working to agroecology principles?

Digital normally refers to “online” either by phone or internet connection, but digital need not mean that. Phone and internet connections can be difficult and especially in Africa can be expensive. Working with smallholder farmers, digital can work offline.
At Access Agriculture we believe that a true “service-orientated” approach using tools like the solar-powered smart projector can assist with “peer to peer” learning.  Practical videos in local languages without the need for electricity, internet or mobile signal.  Much of this interaction has been led by teams of “Entrepreneurs for Rural Access” delivering video shows to remote communities using local languages and encouraging them to copy from others.

These videos are compiled to agroecology principles and show solutions based on farmer knowledge and experience. Further information here https://www.accessagriculture.org/video-distribution
Or jo@...

gianluca brunori Jul 17  

In my view, digitalisation of agroecology rests on a different set of design principles, which relate both to the processes and to the decision-making models. 

Precision farming is mainly designed for conventional agriculture, and can hardly be adapted as it is to agroecological practices. In fact, conventional agriculture tends to attribute a negative value to diversity, and precision farming aims at detecting diversity to pursue homogeneity and reduce complexity. Also the decision-making model to which precision farming is inspired tends to provide farmers with technological 'black boxes' that reduce the amount of information that farmers have to process in order to make decisions.  

On the contrary, agroecology considers diversity as a key asset, and one of its main goals is diversification and optimization of the value that diversity can generate. The decision-making model, and the role of farmers, is in this case based on managing diversity and dealing with complexity. This creates a burden on farmers, who have to process a lot of information and develop very complex mental maps.    

These differences should be taken into consideration when designing digital solutions. Rather than proposing solutions generated in other contexts, research should be based on an intense interaction between technology developers and agroecological farmers to study farmers' environment and their decision making process, and to provide solutions that help farmers to map and organize diversity and to predict different outcomes of different combinations. 

Gianluca Brunori   
Professor, Food policyDipartimento di scienze agrarie, alimentari e agro-ambientali
(DISAAA)Via del Borghetto 80, 56124 Pisa

Olufemi Isimikalu Jul 17   

Good day all. In my opinion, the business model behind digital agriculture technologies inform the overall approach of deployment and functioning, and could be seen as potentially the most important factor in engendering an agroecological approach.  

Foremostly, to ensure compatibility between digital agriculture and the agroecological approach, it is important to integrate digital tools within holistic agroecological systems that prioritize ecological sustainability, biodiversity, and socio-economic considerations. There's also the need for knowledge exchange and capacity building between farmers, researchers, and technology developers to ensure that digital tools are developed and utilized in a way that respects and enhances traditional knowledge. This can come in the form of capacity building programs that empower farmers to make informed decisions regarding the adoption and use of digital agriculture tools. 
It is also vital to encourage open data initiatives and interoperability standards to address concerns regarding data ownership and concentration of power in the hands of technology developers. This will facilitate data sharing, transparency, and enable farmers to access and analyze information from various sources to make informed decisions. 

Policy and regulatory frameworks that address the potential negative impacts of digital agriculture on agroecology should also be put in place. This can include measures to safeguard biodiversity, promote sustainable practices, protect farmers' rights, and ensure fair access to digital tools and data. The backdrop is that farmers, local communities, and relevant stakeholders must all be involved in the development, implementation, and evaluation of digital agriculture initiatives. This participatory approach will ensure that digital solutions are context-specific, farmer-centered, and aligned with the goals of agroecology. 

Olufemi Isimikalu
CapitalAcre Nig

Laura Tabet Jul 17   

Dear colleagues,

This debate is unavoidable and 20 years too late. I think that it is hard to image how internet data could look like in an equitable future. While the dreams and hopes in the 90s were of providing free internet and knowledge to all – we now face a different reality. The business model of providing free services for good tech has put at risk our own data, and now data for food producer as more tech developers enter the agricultural field.

Jaron Lanier concept of data dignity & MID (mediators of individual Data) was truly inspiring for me to imagine what would a future data economy could look like – because this affects us all not just our food sovereignty (this short video by New York Times is worth watching for a summary)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Np5ri-KktNs

In the case of the data dignity movement (https://www.radicalxchange.org/concepts/data-dignity/)  and how it related to agriculture – in my personal opinion - it would not be a matter of training farmers and developing their skills or capacities,  as in most of the developing world their lands are too small and farm enterprise unprofitable. Supporting fragmented farmers to work in groups or at a landscape level – would allow for democratic decision making amongst farmers to choose the technology that best suits them. This is also necessary for implementing agroecological approaches so I see both will go hand in hand in the future.

What I really appreciate as being a video production partner in Egypt for Access Agriculture – is one of the their motos – that we cannot teach videographers to have a passion for agriculture – but we can teach people with a passion for agriculture to produce videos, and therefore promote farmers knowledge and exchange beyond barriers of land and sea. With little funding to research and extension – it simply leaves too much of a power vacuum in the long term for advocacy on these issues and including perspective from rural and indigenous communities.

After 10 years I can see the impact of my videos still happening and the network of young entrepreneurs we coach to use the mobile solar powered projectors and mobile app to guide farmers and instigate change in their villages. While we reply on funds to work – I do want to further develop a model where this can be sustained and farmers can choose the videos they want produced and translated. Ultimately digital solutions will be necessary for this mechanism to gain any traction – and we rely on our networks of partners and advocates to bring this conversation to policy makers.

Laura Tabet
Nawaya Egypt & Access Agriculture

ONG AMSD Jul 17   

Bonsoir chers membres du groupe. Je partage avec vous notre initiative au Mali,  Agroécologie webtv qui est une plateforme dédiée pour promouvoir la transition Agroécologique au Mali, mettant en lumière les acteurs du monde agricole. Une initiative de l'ONG AMSD pour la promotion des pratiques agroécologiques au Mali , une initiative financée par le projet EOA , Bio-vision Africa trust. le lien youtube de la plateforme :https://www.youtube.com/@agroecologiewebtv/about , www.ongamsd.org 

Nous serions tres ravis de partager notre contribution au développement et la promotion de l'agroécologie et de l'agriculture biologique. 

HAMIDOU   A DIAWARAPrésident de l'Association Malienne pour la Solidarité et le Développement  (ONG AMSD )

Valeria Pesce Jul 18   

@Gianluca Brunori: very interesting, identifying a source of incompatibility in the difference between diversity as a challenge and diversity as a value, or between diversity > homogeneity and diversity > complexity. 

I have a question for you, to better define the scope of our discussion: in your post, you dive straight into precision agriculture, and I was wondering if the aspects you identified are just relevant for precision agriculture, or do you see risks of incompatibility along similar lines also in other "digital agriculture" applications in food processing, distribution and the “extended value chain” (like e-commerce and digital marketplaces, social media networking, public digital rural advisory services, government open databases, early warning services, fintech etc.)?

I ask this question to you because it was prompted by your message, but of course it's for everybody.

(Below, a nice diagram in a FAO paper illustrating where digitalization happens along the agrifood chain. Source: Gálvez, E. 2022. Scaling up inclusive innovation in agrifood chains in Asia and the Pacific. Bangkok, FAO.)

Sarah-Louise Ruder Jul 19 

Thank you all for getting the conversation started! I am joining from Canada, as an environmental social scientist researching the politics of digital technologies and data in agriculture.

I want to engage with @Jo Rogers and @Olufemi Isimikalu's contributions. It sounds like for both of you the question of whether agroecology and digital agriculture can be compatible depends on the business models that motivate and structure the design of digital tools. I would agree.

In my view, "digitalization" is not inherently supportive of or incompatible with agroecology. It depends on the context – who develops the tool, what ways of thinking it privileges, what is measured and how, the model's assumptions, potential applications, etc. Digitalization in agriculture is not a single or homogeneous phenomenon. Like @Gianluca Brunori suggested, I understand the design of digital tools for "precision agriculture" to intentionally target and support a specific type of farming (e.g., large-scale commodity crops, conventional agriculture). This direction of development makes sense given the global political economic context. Whereas digital tools that could support agroecology must be intentionally designed to reflect the decision-making, ways of knowing, practices, and values of agroecological food systems. – It sounds like many in this thread agree on the point of co-design and community-engagement at early stages and throughout the development of digital technologies for agroecology.

I look forward to more discussion over the next week.

With gratitude,

Sarah-Louise Ruder (she/her)University of British Columbia, Vancouver BC | Unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) TerritoryPhD Candidate | Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES)Public Scholar | UBC Public Scholars InitiativeResearcher | UBC Food Sovereignty Research Group

gianluca brunori Jul 19

@valeria pesce: interesting question!

I think that most digital agri-food application systems reflect business models or agricultural paradigms, and digital innovation for sustainability should depart from a deep critical understanding of embodied paradigms in technologies. Product-based traceability, for example, might encourage specialization rather than diversification. Crop-specific Decision Support Systems lock farmers in a given supply chain and strengthen vertical relations at the expense of horizontal relations. In traceability, we could identify 'brand-led', 'cooperative-led', and farmer-led models, depending on how the data are shared, who has access to them, and how their benefits and costs are distributed along the chain. 

--Gianluca Brunori
Professor, Food policyDipartimento di scienze agrarie, alimentari e agro-ambientali (DISAAA)Via del Borghetto 80, 56124 Pisahttps://page.agr.unipi.it/

Ben Addom Jul 19 

For Valeri & Others, I have been following the exchanges on digitalisation and agroecology so far and wanted to complement some of the views that have been shared by sharing the framework that we have developed to help stakeholders understand how to better design digital agriculture initiatives. You can find the framework in the Introduction Chapter of this report - The State of Digital Agriculture in the Commonwealth.

The problem is not with the digitali technologies & services, the problem is how we design and deploy the tools for any issue within the agricultural innovation system. Just as the FAO diagram below, our framework for digital agriculture is based on the agricultural development challenge. 

--Benjamin K. Addom, PhDhttps://digitalisation4agriculture.wordpress.com/


Hello Everyone, Here is my perspective on this topic.  First and foremost, the concept of digitization emerges from the drive to innovate within industries, "marrying" Agro-ecology in this case. Innovation will typically involve either repurposing existing technologies for new uses or creating novel business models to unlock hidden value. It may also entail introducing products or services to new locations or reaching previously underserved customer segments. 

Agroecology advocates for sustainable farming practices that are deeply rooted in local knowledge and biodiversity conservation. On the other hand, digitalization entails the integration of technology and data-driven solutions across various sectors. While Agroecology places emphasis on traditional and context-specific methods, digitalization tends to favor standardized and data-centric approaches. Striking a harmonious balance between the two becomes the challenge, as it requires preserving and respecting local knowledge and ecological diversity while simultaneously harnessing the potential of digital tools to enhance efficiency and productivity. To overcome this challenge, a thoughtful integration process is necessary, which takes into account socio-cultural factors. It also involves developing digital solutions that align with agroecological principles, ensuring mutual benefits for farmers and the environment alike. 

Thanks and Regards,  
Majid Cofounder Jise.ng

Gram Disha Trust Jul 19

Towards this discussion correlations between Agroecology and Digitalisation are easy to envisage but difficult to deliver.  In an earlier exchange I had given a maxim to analyse this aspect - repeating here -  

There is an important maxim I follow when trying to analyse importance of Digital Technologies for smallholders - 'If the technology decreases the operational (input) cost and complexity of the smallholder - consider it - else send it back to the drawing board

Thus, any technology which increases the cost and complexity, then it is not a solution for smallholders, but is (or soon will be) a burden.  If the key constituent of Agroecological transformation in the Global South (or just Global??) is the smallholder, then any technology which smallholders can easily access - in cost and complexity - should work well.

Take this and apply to any consideration of technology - GIS, Remote Sensing, Market Linkage, Drones, Carbon - and see if the technology is favoring research, capital economics, academia OR smallholder sustainability.   Take the example of precision agriculture - as that appears to be normative in this thread - for agroecology the use of Precision agriculture is presently and systemically - not being designed. The sensors, drum mixers and embedded software are calibrated with Chemicals for supply which are themselves imported to farmsteads. Here is an example from a rather large Apple Orchard in India - https://photos.app.goo.gl/v4oMXrx29GPHtCmm9. This system imports chemical inputs by Corporate Trade all the way from Norway to India, then calibrated in the technology for precision nutrient release to per apple tree. This is at a farmstead of a rather 'large' farm as per Indian standards and the overall installation for 10hectare of Apple Cultivation. The cost of such a system - which is otherwise a small installation for the technological domain/corporate sector - is about INR 30lacs+ (about USD 35000+). Even for a well educated farmer, this system is complex to handle, calibrate and even make cost-effective when calculated for Net-Profit!!

Then again, can this precision agriculture system be used for Agroecological input supply (i.e. non chemical) - well not really, since the 'company' does not provide any calibration measure of the machine for Botanical inputs. No cost-benefit measures are provided by the company on how the farmer may save input cost with Botanicals instead of imported chemicals.  Now applying the maxim above - this technology does not reduce cost or complexity or cost of the smallholder - thus clearly this technology does not work well for smallholder Agroecology as well!!  Not unless there is a full solution in place - which requires tremendous research costs for companies - which 'prove' Agroecology and technology works when market linked for the farmer - either in terms of net savings on inputs and higher production - there is no solution at all!! Thus, there is scope for innovation in this domain, but not many solutions out there.   

Ashish Gupta-jee --https://gramdisha.wordpress.com/


Join the conversation or invite your colleagues and peers to join us using this link: https://dgroups.io/g/d4ag/join. (If you are a member of D4Ag already, just follow the conversation here: https://dgroups.io/g/d4ag/topic/100190535 (login required).


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