TMG Think Tank for Sustainability


Workshop on inclusive digitalisation of agriculture in the EU, Africa and the US - Expert group discussion

Critically assess the appropriateness of the current policy approach to digital agriculture

According to the leading development agencies and policy-making institutions, digitalisation of agriculture is hailed to be a 'game-changer', with highly transformative effects. The use of digital technologies is expected to enhance efficiency of production, processing, and trade, resulting in higher incomes for farmers and more sustainable farming practices. Digital agriculture is perceived as essential in meeting the Sustainable Developments Goals of ending hunger (SDG 2) and poverty (SDG 1). It has found its way into numerous policy agendas and recommendations, including into the UNFCC National Adaption Plans, in which digital agriculture has been attributed the power to 'leapfrog' development pathways of countries in the Global South.  

Concerns, however, have been accompanying this high degree of optimism. As showcased by a publication in Nature Sustainability in 2020, a consensus is now established on the existence of 'digital divide', as one undesired social repercussion of digital agriculture. Other adverse social, economic as well as environmental impacts of digitalisation, however, have not been given the same amount of scrutiny. Nevertheless, voices critical of the existing digitalisation policies that go beyond the problem of the digital divide are emerging across different continents:  

  • In Europe, various grassroots organisations have begun questioning the 'narrow logic' of digital farming, which plays an important role also in the new Common Agriculture Policy (CAP), becoming effective in 2023. For example, a recent report on the future of farming by the Friends of the Earth contends that the approach to digitalisation embedded in CAP 'ignores the wider consequences of the industrial farming system and fails to capture the inherent complexities of food security'. 

  • In the context of African agriculture too, scepticism is arising whether the highly commercially successful digital tools such as Digifarm and Arifu are benefiting their main users, smallholder farmers. Among others, this scepticism has been expressed by the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) who argues that 'digital agriculture, as being proposed by giant agribusiness and data companies', should come with 'a warning for farmers, farm workers and food vendors' on the African continent. One cause for concern has been 'data grabs', through which large companies providing digital technology extract huge amounts of data, resulting in unequally distributed gains between the farmers and corporations.  

  • In the US, these inequalities in data rights have been provoking noteworthy grassroots resistance, by initiatives such as FarmOS, OpenAg Data Alliance, Joindata, FarmLogs, and DJustConnect which collect and use data 'for and by farm owners without ag-input company ownership and under their own sovereignty.' 

In light of these criticisms, the aim of this workshop is to critically assess the appropriateness of the current policy approach to digital agriculture across the three different regions, Africa, the US and Europe. In particular, we are interested in exploring whether e-commerce, advisory services, precision farming applications and other digital tools do serve sustainable development objectives. In turn, we suggest that the majority of these tools should rather be interpreted as an extension of growth-oriented model of development, but under a 'digital disguise'. In short, is digital agriculture a step towards 'Digitalising Food System Transformation' or towards 'Digitising the Status Quo'?  




TMG Research

Workshop on inclusive digitalisation of agriculture in the EU, Africa and the US - Expert group discussion

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