Part 2 of exchanges in the e-conversation on "Digitalization and agroecology: a challenging marriage?" - Join us!

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Part 2 of 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).

We posted the conversation of the first 3 days here: 


Below is the second part that closes the first week and introduces the second question. 

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

Ronald Kondwani Udedi Jul 19

Malawi started with a coercive agricultural extension system in the colonial period that was enforced through a Natural Resources Ordinance enacted in 1946 which legalized the use of force in order to compel smallholder African farmers to follow certain prescribed farming practices.... we lost our ways of farming organically... 76 years later we are blamed for being obsessed maize and fertiliser ....


I come from there's a saying "When selfish people get to the top they remove ladders". Digitalisation is a good thing just as agroecology and there should not be any attempt to tilt Digitalisation to bias agroecology. Any attempt to do this is injustice for smallholder farmers who are food insufficient and also who are being conned by middle men because of lack of better markets.

Atif KHAN Jul 19      

Nice explanation Ashish.

I am taking the liberty to add a phrase in your maxim.

'If the technology decreases the operational (input) cost or increases the revenue or decreases complexity of the smallholder - consider it - else send it back to the drawing board'


Valeria Pesce Jul 19

Thanks for the many insightful contributions! 

Some of your posts highlight the importance of context-specificity and diversity for the agroecological approach vs. standardization and homogeneity in digital solutions (or at least in mainstream digital solutions for industrial agriculture). 
To provoke a little, I wanted to share a few sentences from an article (citation below) that actually maintains that Precision Agriculture can support diversity and specificity: in particular, that it "offers the local information required to make field-specific agroecological recommendations", that PA in the context of On-Farm-Experimentation trials "places agriculture in an ecological context that is site, history, and time specific" and that "we can now see a future where technology can reintroduce a farmer to the complexity of the ecological interactions on their land".
(Duff, H.; Hegedus, P.B.; Loewen, S.; Bass, T.; Maxwell, B.D. Precision Agroecology. Sustainability 2022, 14, 106. https://doi.org/10.3390/su14010106

What do you think? It seems that this is mostly about data, which is indeed local and specific, but what about the decision-making algorithms?

Gram Disha Trust Jul 20

Hello Atif,

Appreciate your reply. However replacing the 'and' with an 'or' dilutes the very purpose of the Maxim. I would continue to hold it in strict abeyance to ensure that the cross between science and economics in rolling out 'solutions' for sustainability need necessarily be thought through hard and deep before proposing it as solutions at all. All technology comes at a cost, which is directly or indirectly borne out by the farmers at their own expense. 

Consider another technology example - Blockchain. The very purpose of Blockchain to exist is based on the understanding that there is 'NO' systemic trust between parties. Whereas even without blockchain, there are technical methods to enhance trust between parties instead of assuming there will continue to be none. The implementation of a system based on Blockchain, again comes at a cost. If one were to change the 'and' to 'or' in the Maxim - then it is very easy for technology implementers to declare that blockchain 'increases' revenue through enhanced transaction value through better quality per transaction. Since the other aspects are forgone (i.e. Cost and complexity) - just this 'or' will satisfy the veracity of Blockchain in a system even if it increases cost and complexity. Both cost and complexity are necessary in conjunction within the Maxim rather than disjunction. 

I could also apply the same to other aspects of technology - Drones e.g. - In India we are seeing that most advents of technology - given their own questionable sustainability e.g. End of Life of Solar Panels or lack or recycling of Battery Banks or Plastics of Drones etc - result in repair and refuse at the rural level. We have a developing term for it in India which may as well resonate in Pakistan 'Mehengaa Khilona' or 'Expensive Toy'!! Eventually when these technologies wear out at their extremities, village kids end up playing with the otherwise plastic waste. We are seeing these aspects now with the way IoT sensors are being deployed in Farmers Fields based on - Temperature, Soil, Luminosity, Moisture - to form Cloud Based correlations to generate specific (and biased) advisories to farmers to nudge them to 'Buy' products by companies which offer better margins to the technology providers. The farmer ends up paying upto INR 50000 (about USD 600) upfront for the hardware costs, in cases also yearly license of Cloud Access - only to be given biased advisory profiteering Corporates themselves. Companies then go on a Publicity Blitz that the Farmers Yield 'Increased' due to the technology - whereas no proof is offered for the same (satisfying the 'OR' in the maxim), just an advertised declaration (to gain even more farmers as customers), cost is borne by the farmer and locked in for a few years with the company. By the time the farmer realises, if at all this investment yielded Net-Profit - the company has already earned in valuations and perhaps even exited, having sold the company to other investors!! This is the story of Agritech unfolding at least in India. So one realises that the Product is not the IoT or advisory inputs, but the company itself is the product. The farmer is simply incidental in accruing value for the Company (Product) in increasing its valuation and thus 'Used' at the end of the day. This aspect is the result of placing the 'or' instead of the 'and' in the Maxim. 

Deeper aspects of such cross sections between 'science' and 'corporate economics' are unfolding and creeping into Agroecology too, all right in front of our eyes. Perhaps, discussions for another email thread.

Ashish Gupta-jee  

Ken (FAORAF) Jul 21      

Dear all:

Interesting elaborations. I can understand explanations provided by some colleagues regarding the lack of diversity or the increase in cost and complexity for smallholder farmers that the use of some digital technologies may generate. Maybe some precision agriculture uses and technologies are those which pose the greatest challenges to agroecology (though Ashish also mentioned blockchain for example).

But my feeling is that when a farmer uses a feature or even a smartphone to receive advisory information, this is or can be fully compatible with agroecology. Same thing when a farmer uses WhatsApp to interact with a client and sell her bag of maize. Or when a drone operator helps to map the farms of a cooperative practicing agroecology to help them illustrate alternative collaterals and get loans. I also think precision agriculture may support diversity as illustrated by the quote shared by Valeria from the Precision Agroecology article.

So yes, digital agriculture and agroecology may illustrate a challenging marriage in some cases, but it’s not by default considering the wide scope of digital agriculture ; it also depends on practices and design choices in specific situations.

By the way, I am happy with the two maxims below, the original and amended one :-), let’s just keep the spirit of it.

Ken Lohento
Digital Agriculture Specialist
Regional Office for Africa

om goeckermann Jul 21      

IMO one aspect of blockchain technology that is not discussed often enough is exactly countering the corporate profit model. Namely, personal sovereignty. Being ‘verifiably unique’ opens up an entire ecosystem of being paid for data, to contribute to resource mapping, and to qualify one’s voice when interacting with aid and governance.

It is a tragedy that the only ones who seem to be able to afford access to rural India are the corporate entities preying on a specific ignorance of an otherwise ingenious people. 

gianluca brunori Jul 21     

Dear all,

I do agree with @Ken that digital tools, if taken separately, can be fully compatible with agroecology. What I would like to point out is that depending on how digital tools are assembled together (also considering the social component, eg advisory networks), they can be enablers or obstacles to agroecology.

For example, if assemblages are crop-specific, farmers might tend to prefer the crops for which the application exists and disregard the others. For this reason, digitalization for agroecology should be strongly problem-centered and should address the digital ecosystem of which the farmers are part.

As for simplification/complexity, many precision farming solutions tend to simplify the work of farmers by embodying complex decision-making into digital tools. This might alter the labor/capital ratio, and create dependency of farmers on costly capital. As we know that agroecology is knowledge-intensive and is strongly based on context-spcific knowledge, it would need tools that help farmers to make sense of the complexity, in other words to boost local knowledge and as a consequence to empower them.

Best regards,
Gianluca Brunori
Professor, Food policyDipartimento di scienze agrarie, alimentari e agro-ambientali (DISAAA)
book: Innovation for Sustainability

Valeria Pesce Jul 21

Dear all, 

Before moving to question 2, let me try to give a short recap of this first week of discussions. 

It seems that there is a consensus on the fact that it's not that "digital" is per se incompatible with an agroecological approach: in your words, it depends on "how we design and deploy the tools", "practices and design choices in specific situations", "who develops the tool, what ways of thinking it privileges, what is measured and how, the model's assumptions, potential applications" and also "how the data are shared, who has access to them, and how their benefits and costs are distributed along the chain". 

More in particular, you have given examples of how such compatibility can depend on the values behind the technologies (e.g. diversity as a challenge vs. diversity as a value; productivity vs. sustainability and holistic approach)the business models (corporate profit model, lock-in and data concentration vs. cooperative- or farmer-led models and data sovereignty; low/high operational (input) cost), design/delivery approaches (e.g. top-down and prescriptive vs. peer-to-peer and co-design), design choices (e.g. opaque standardized algorithms vs. transparent context-specific and farmer-centered algorithms), and ultimately the power dynamics that are triggered and favored (e.g. concentration of power in the hands of technology developers vs. empowerment of farmers through self-aggregation). 

We are also aware that while not intrinsically incompatible with agroecology, the majority of mainstream digital technologies, in particular Precision Agriculture solutions, seem to "intentionally target and support a specific type of farming (e.g., large-scale commodity crops, conventional agriculture)".
So, it doesn't have to be like this, it should not be like this, but we observe that at the moment in most cases it is like this. 

This brings us to our second question, which I will send shortly, and is about HOW digital technologies can become more supportive of agroecology and whether you have experience or knowledge of uses of digital technologies in line with the agroecological approach.

Thank you,

Valeria Pesce Jul 22

Question 2

From our first week of discussions, it appears that depending on business models, values, and design/delivery approaches, digital technologies could support an agroecological approach.

So, with our second question now we want to try to understand how

a) How can digital technologies be more supportive of agroecology? For instance, which could be appropriate business models? What about experimenting with alternative providers, different forms of governance, collective ownership? Should we consider what is valued/measured and how? The degree of participatory design?

b) What examples if any have you come across in your communities? Please share if you have experience or knowledge of uses of digital technologies in line with the agroecological approach.

Thank you,
Valeria Pesce
Partnerships facilitator
Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR)

Caroline Figueres Jul 22

Thanks Valeria for your excellent recap. I like very much:

So, it doesn't have to be like this, it should not be like this, but we observe that at the moment in most cases it is like this.

Unfortunately I have no practical experience of uses of digital technologies in line with the agroecological approach to share with you.  And I hope this conversation will allow me to be exposed to relevant cases.



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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