Precision agriculture is part of the broader Climate-Smart Agriculture (CSA) approach to farming that international institutions like the UN are promoting as a way to produce food amid the climate crisis. A recent study illustrated well just how precise precision agriculture can be. Researchers successfully inserted microneedle-based sensors into plants to assess their health without appearing to irreparably damage them.
However, there are many critics of precision agriculture and the CSA umbrella it sits under. These critiques essentially rest on the argument that, when it comes to human ‘progress,’ CSA is taking us in the wrong direction.
Nature through a tech lens
As the Anthropocene has explained, precision agriculture is “a field of research and technological development that aims to gather as much data as possible on the optimal growing conditions for plants.” People can gather this data through drones, sensors in the soil, or, in the case of the researchers from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), inserting minuscule needle sensors into plants. In short, it’s an approach whereby people perceive and deal with nature through a tech-heavy and tech-dependent lens.
In a piece about ‘the future of agriculture’ in 2016, the Economist explained that CSA-style farms are “more like factories.” Unsurprisingly then, a number of industrial agriculture heavyweights have gotten in on the Climate-Smart act. Monsanto, for example, teamed up with a Danish firm in 2014 to “commercialize microbe-based growth enhancement products” for certain crops, according to Chemical & Engineering News. The two companies have since ended their alliance. Monsanto, which Bayer bought in 2018, isn’t alone either. Syngenta is another agrochemical giant that struck up a partnership in 2015 to “develop microbial-based agricultural solutions.”
The microbes in question live in the soil and they’re an essential part of the ecosystems beneath our feet. These ecosystems are incredibly rich. Indeed, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) says that soils contain around a quarter of the world’s biodiversity. Soil communities are in big trouble though. Research suggests that pesticides are heavily damaging soil-dwelling invertebrates. Friends of the Earth (FOE) has also pointed out that “pesticides can reduce the abundance and diversity of soil organisms, damaging and altering important dynamics in the soil community.”
Bayer and Syngenta are pesticide giants. Monsanto, meanwhile, infamously created the herbicide Roundup. Studies show that it also damages soil organisms. So the very companies that make products known for degrading the soil have, as part of the CSA revolution, cashed in on creating other products essentially aimed at improving its health.
The farming-focused organization Grain describes CSA as ” just a rebranding and a continuation of industrial Green Revolution practices which have contributed greatly to the global climate dilemma we are in now.” The US-led Green Revolution emerged after the second world war and it imposed hybrid seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation-heavy practices on much of the world. This way of farming is the basis of the industrialized food system. Grain says this system is responsible for “between 44% and 57% of all GHG emissions” when including all aspects of it, such as deforestation, waste, packaging, and transport.
CSA differs from the Green Revolution in that rather than hybrid seeds, it involves things like genetically modified (GM) crops and synthetic biology. But Grain asserts that while advocates promote these techniques and technologies as “climate change resistant,” they are based on “large-scale mono-cropping, hi-tech investment and a chemical input system, which require big capital and centralised control.” This means that, just as the Green Revolution before it, CSA suits corporate control of agriculture.
It’s not just Big Ag that’s involved in CSA either. It’s big tech too. The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) explains that the “food system is full of things that can be turned into data for data giants to harvest,” such as “DNA in the seeds, water and soil data on farms.” Companies can collect such data via the use and deployment on farms of drones and other technologies.
In an animation called “Big Brother is Coming to the Farm,” the ETC Group warned that this vision of agriculture risks farmers having to “pay for and adapt to complex digital technologies, losing their skills and their privacy and decision-making about what happens on their farm.”
Critics say continued corporate control of agriculture is not what the world needs in order to create a resilient food system amid the climate crisis. They argue that governments and international institutions need to empower small-scale farmers, creating food sovereignty, not dependence on corporations. As grassroots organizations highlighted in the 2007 Nyéléni Forum Declaration, food sovereignty means ensuring “that the rights to use and manage lands, territories, waters, seeds, livestock and biodiversity are in the hands of those of us who produce food.”
Many also advocate agroecology, not techno-solutions, as the way forward. Agroecology is a practice that champions the harnessing and protection of nature within agricultural processes. Rather than relying on artificial inputs to bend nature to peoples’ will, it depends on an intimate knowledge of and cooperation with natural systems. The ecological think tank Health of Mother Earth Foundation explains agroecology thus: an approach that “works with nature instead of against it, ensures quality and quantity food production while contributing significantly to the reduction of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.”
As Grain has pointed out, agroecology is already practiced by small-scale farmers. It says that, across the world, farmers are “continuously adapting their way of living and farming, enabling them to withstand the climate breakdown and minimize GHG emissions” through agroecological practices.
Chukki Nanjundaswamy, the founder of India’s agroecology school Amrita Bhoomi, meanwhile, has said “Today there is absolutely no lack of evidence to prove the positive impacts of agroecology, indigenous seed varieties and agro-diversity in dealing with climate stresses. It is time for governments, international institutions like FAO and agribusiness to realize the major role that peasant agroecology and food sovereignty play in dealing with climate change.” She also urged policymakers to “stop promoting false technologies and false solutions like Climate Smart Agriculture.”
Ultimately, critics of CSA and its components like precision agriculture see it as unprogressive. That’s because it empowers the wrong people and entities. Rather than serving small-scale farmers, who feed the vast majority of people, and the natural world, it risks benefitting the very agricultural and corporate giants that are partly responsible for the climatic and ecological mess the world is currently in.
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