Do agroecological farmers need to ‘tech up’ to be more sustainable? That’s one of the questions being asked in an ongoing project looking at agroecological farmers’ relationship with technology.
Prompted by conversations we’ve been having over the last few years about the role of gene editing in agroecology, the Agroecological Intelligence project, brings together UK farmers from across the agroecological spectrum – including as organic, biodynamic, permaculture, food sovereignty, nature friendly, pasture fed and regenerative – with the aim of understanding what they want from technology and how they make choices around it.
The early findings of the project are summed up in our interim report Agroecological Intelligence – Establishing Criteria for Agroecologically Appropriate Technology.
Agroecology represents a radical shift away from an industrialised model of farming, which most agree is well past its sell by date. It is a whole system approach rooted in values such as diversity, resilience, efficiency, systems thinking, knowledge sharing, sovereignty and responsible governance.
In a deeply values-led system such as agroecology, there is a strong need to align the choice and use of things like agricultural inputs and technologies with that core set of values. But most new technology is still designed from the business-as-usual perspective of intensive, industrialised, monoculture farming, the main aim of which is to maximise yields.
Much of this new tech is sold on a narrative of being environmentally friendly, though there is often little concrete evidence of this, and in some instances, such as genetically engineered plants and animals, the technology is simply too new and untested to fully understand its impact on the farm or the wider environment.
To explore these issues, our project held a series of workshops with agroecological farmers and growers around the UK. These early, mostly discursive, sessions revealed some important underpinning values which agroecological farmers have when it comes to choosing technology, including:
Connection Farmers and growers expressed a strong desire to foster connectivity, between the farmer and their land (specifically the natural elements of the land, soil, wildlife, etc.), between the farmer and the wider community and between the community and its food. They were wary of technologies that disrupt or sever these connections.
Learning from experience and experiments For many, learning from the land is a key element of how they farm. This may include learning from their own experience or that of neighbours, friends, other farmers and growers and trusted information sources. Strong themes which emerged included the difficulty of accessing trusted information on non-conventional methods in the conventional system and concerns that amassing data was not the same as learning.
Whole systems Many participants valued agricultural systems that are more than merely systems of production. Within an agroecological system important connections include workers, neighbours, customers and wider society; nutrition and nourishment; fairness in society and particularly in access to good food and nature; dignity and enjoyment in work; self-worth and good mental health; and spirituality. Technology choices needed to fit within this ‘wholistic’ view.
Scale Most farmers and growers expressed contentment with the size of their operations and a desire improve their land and soil and the quality of their food and, therefore, their service to the local community and the environment rather than “feed the world”. Some questioned whether “scaling up” or “losing out” were the only two options open to the development and growth of agroecology. Scaling up does not have to mean increasing farm size or output. It can mean connecting existing practitioners of agroecological farming in a way that extends their reach and normalises the principles, practices and values that underpin them.
Workshop participants also spent time in each group discussing specific technologies, including precision agriculture, robotics, gene editing, digital food hubs and hydroponics. Farmers and growers were open-minded and interested to know about the benefits these technologies could bring. Although none were universally agreed upon, technologies which connect people (e.g. digital food hubs) and help with farm management (e.g. GPS collars on cattle) were the most popular, while hydroponics and gene editing proved the most controversial.
Discussions around specific technologies identified a series of core questions including:
What problem is the tech trying to solve? Many queried whether the technologies under discussion solved a legitimate problem. There was a feeling that ‘problems’ can often end up being defined by companies that have something to sell or by investment companies looking for short-term gains, when time, observation and nature might provide a more helpful, and longer-term, solution.
How does it impact farmer autonomy? There was a reluctance to embrace technologies which further concentrated power in the food system (to the detriment of smaller producers) or left them dependent on external companies for continued support and updates. Concern was also expressed about data collection and ownership, with a marked preference for open-source tech which allows for farmer or community ownership of data.
What kind of farming system does it support? Those technologies perceived as propping up the industrialised farming system were more likely to be rejected. For example, robots in dairies make it easier to continue the practice of separating calves from cows (rather than encouraging calf-at-foot dairies) while gene editing of certain traits and disease resistance in animals allows livestock to be kept intensively. Views on hydroponics and vertical farming were mixed, Most felt that soil was an integral part of an agroecological system and therefore rejected hydroponic technology. Some felt that vertical farming in a properly integrated system may have a place in highly urbanised areas where no other types of growing are possible. Nevertheless, both approaches were considered concessions of last resort and, for some, indicative of a failure of the food supply system.
Pat, Thomas, director of A Bigger Conversation, comments:
“Technology’s place in agroecological systems is a timely and important discussion. Overall, the farmers and growers in our workshops were interested in technology, wanted to know more about different agricultural technologies. But on-farm it was clear the choice of technology should support the values and goals of agroecology. There was clearly scepticism about whether technologies designed for industrialised systems and vast acres of monoculture crops had much to offer the generally smaller, more localised, more diverse nature of agroecological farms. Some of this could be addressed by co-designing technology with agroecological farmers. But equally, it may require a recognition that in some cases more or better or higher technology isn’t what’s needed.”
Thomas adds, “We often talk about technology as a ‘tool in the toolbox’. Maybe it’s time to rethink that metaphor. As the early findings of our project demonstrate, agroecology isn’t just another tool, it is an entirely different toolbox.”
The findings of the interim report are valuable in themselves but, she says, they also raise a raft of important questions. Subsequent workshop sessions will, for example, be looking at differences that arise between different ‘strands’ of agroecology in terms of priorities and technology choice, the trade-offs between values and the realities of day-to-day farming, how notions like food sovereignty, social justice and equity can inform technology design and choice and how government grants, aimed at technological ‘innovation’, influence on-farm technology choices and therefore the transition to agroecology.
A final report on the project is expected early in 2024. We welcome new agroecological farmers based in the UK who wish to join the discussion. For more information contact Pat Thomas firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Notes for editors Agroecological Intelligence is an 18-month project to explore the possibility of creating criteria for the use of technology in agroecological farming in the UK. To date it has conducted a series of virtual workshops with 48 agroecological farmers and growers around the UK representing the diverse ‘strands’ of agroecology such as organic, biodynamic, permaculture, food sovereignty, nature friendly, pasture-fed and regenerative, it has also conducted two open workshops at the Organic Growers Alliance 2022 annual conference (52 attended) and the 2023 Oxford Real Farming Conference (42 attended).