The Tech Policy Debate Needs to Consider AgricultureNicholas Logler, Rian Wanstreet / Oct 28, 2022
Nicholas T. Logler is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington's Information School. He is a contributor to "Ways to Grow: New Directions for Agricultural Technology Policy," a whitepaper published by the UW's Tech Policy Lab. Rian Wanstreet is a contributor to "Ways to Grow," and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington. She is currently working to expand the open agtech ecosystem at OpenTEAM.
Picture a farm. What comes to mind? Rows of healthy green plants. Bleating animals. An old barn and silo.
Did you imagine server racks? Or robotic tractors? The bucolic scene you’re used to is getting a modern makeover: Farming is in the midst of a technological revolution.
Drones, massive sensor networks, satellite imaging, GPS and big data are just some of the technologies employed today on American farms. They exemplify an approach to farming called "precision agriculture," which promises increased productivity, savings and efficiency.
In a world with rising temperatures, limited water and extreme weather, real-time, hyper-localized data about soil health, temperature and moisture will help farmers make better informed choices. The promises of precision agriculture are alluring – and rightfully so. Who wouldn’t want farmers to grow food more efficiently, to strengthen rural communities, and to help mitigate climate change?
If we dig below the surface, though, we’ll find that embracing precision agriculture does more than simply change how farms look and work. The proliferation of smartphones and wired devices has transformed how we think about privacy and safety in our personal lives, introducing new threats and new challenges to existing ways of doing things. Similarly, introducing automation and digital technology to farming (and their accompanying business models) exposes farmers to new vulnerabilities — from unrepairable equipment to cybersecurity concerns.
First, consider data. The apps you use to get around, answer questions, and share your thoughts with the world produce data – a lot of it. This data is collected en masse, aggregated and sold to the highest bidders. The same can be true for precision agriculture. Farmers employing precision agriculture techniques harvest tens of millions of gigabytes of data per year, and the companies that supply the technology provide farmers with stylized dashboards that detail information that goes far beyond the temperature and humidity. Farmers are promised marginal increases in yields, and in return contribute to a massive global database. It’s hard to imagine how an individual farmer could profit from data at this scale, but it’s easy to imagine how other stakeholders– like developers, banks and insurance companies– might. In the United States, there are few protections in place to safeguard this sensitive information.
Second, consider environmental impact. How many smart devices do you own? All those phones, tablets, and speakers are made using plastics, chemicals, minerals, water and other limited resources. The same is true for the sensors, robots and other instruments we use to make agriculture precise. Precision agriculture advocates often promise a greener agriculture with less water use and fewer pesticides, but widespread adoption of precision agriculture means producing and using more plastics, more minerals and more chemicals. It means more batteries and more servers, which means more energy to power and more water to cool the data centers powering precision agriculture tools.
Third, consider security. Have you ever had your email hacked? Or been alerted to a compromised password? It turns out that increased digital and connected tools make farms vulnerable to similar attacks. The Department of Homeland Security has warned that agricultural infrastructure is a target for foreign adversaries and domestic criminals. In 2021, the world’s largest meat supplier had to halt operations after a ransomware attack.
How have we ended up with a new generation of farm tech that exposes farmers to a new set of risks for only marginal rewards? One place to look is at the value at the core of our food system. In the United States, this is maximum production. American agriculture policy incentivizes consolidated, large-scale farming operations, and prioritizes research and innovation funding that focuses on maximizing yields – often at the expense of soil health, the environment and rural communities. Many precision agriculture technologies embody and foreground the value of maximal production above all others.
The march toward this version of precision is not inevitable. We can move toward farm policy and technology rooted in a different value – resilience. A resilient food system is equitable, healthy, robust, and produces enough nutritious food to feed everyone. A resilient food system recognizes the importance that both large and small farms play in growing enough food to feed everyone. But a resilient food system cannot tolerate data concentrated in the hands of a few firms, the continuous use and exhaustion of limited resources, or tools that leave farmers vulnerable to cyberattacks.
Policy plays a critical role in shaping the tools we build to support our systems. A policy landscape that cultivates resilience can help lead us to technologies that help farmers reap the benefits of precision agriculture (e.g., reducing waste and localizing supply chains), while simultaneously supporting a robust, healthy food system. There is no reason tools like this cannot exist – we just have to create conditions to build them.
Technology is critical for farming. That makes agricultural policy technology policy, and vice versa. The policies that shape our food system shape the tools we build to better grow food. Let’s plant the seeds for a resilient food system. We will reap what we sow.