“Agricultural technology offers enormous opportunities for sustainability and feeding the world. But it also comes with risks”

New digital technologies in agriculture have massive potential to make agriculture more efficient and more sustainable, enabling it to feed more people. But these digital technologies also carry significant risks. This potential and the accompanying risks are the subject of dr. Oane Visser’s research. He is an Associate Professor in Rural Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague. He conducts research on technology in agriculture and food security at the international level in the Netherlands, Ghana in Africa, and in Eastern European countries such as Russia and Ukraine. For the latter he received an European Research Council (ERC) grant.

What kind of impact will new digital technologies in agriculture have on our food system and food supply in the future?
“There have been increasingly rapid developments in that area over the last few years. The architect and visionary Rem Koolhaas even says that that is where the majority of innovation is happening and where perhaps the solutions for the major problems we are struggling with can also be found there. For example, problems related to our food supply, CO2 capture, and water retention.
You can now see that the agricultural system is stretched to its limits when it comes to nitrogen, pesticide usage, and soil depletion. Major changes need to be made if we want to be able to feed everyone in the future while keeping our planet habitable.

How can digital technology contribute to that?
“Currently, we primarily use the standardised agriculture approach: a single product per field, using the same amount of artificial fertilizer everywhere. A much more efficient approach is precision agriculture, whereby you look at how much water and fertilizer is needed for each square metre of ground and what crop would grow the best there. You usually have different types of soil on a farm. In the past, farmers worked this way, but it was based mostly on intuition. Using computers or drones, you can apply precision agriculture methods, and in theory, you’ll achieve greater results with less input. Another example: pesticides - which we now know are detrimental to the soil and harmful to health - could be replaced by robots that would do the weeding.”

That sounds good, doesn’t it?
“Yes, but using computers also carries risks, for example in the area of privacy. Using this method means not only are more crops are harvested, but also an increasing amount of data. Who manages this data? Who uses it, and for what purpose? You end up with issues that extend far beyond the agricultural economy and have more to do with a digital society. You also end up with exorbitance and concentrations of power, such as Facebook and Google. Even now you can see large pesticide companies abusing the technology, so to speak, to win over farmers in certain African countries: farmers are given free access to agricultural apps if they agree to use the pesticides supplied by that specific company. Do the farmers benefit or are they being exploited even more? A lot of the research on technology in agriculture is technical in nature. In my research I examine the social and political dimensions of this digitisation process. There are enormous opportunities in terms of sustainability and feeding the world, but there are also great risks.”

"Sharing agricultural machinery has a lot of potential, there’s already a company called ‘Hello Tractor’ in Africa. In the United States, there is the emerging ‘right to repair’ movement, with farmers playing a key role"

Could you give an example from a specific study?
“A blind spot in the whole debate on digitisation and automation is consideration for the human factor. In the Netherlands you see more and more technology in greenhouses. While there’s attention for the machinery and how the crop should be picked, we forget about the people using the machines to do the work. They have to labour in conditions with high temperatures, wearing special goggles to shield their eyes from LED light. The assumption is that the entire process can been taken over by computers, but in practice, there are still a lot of people working in the greenhouses. As long as humans have to work alongside digital systems, it has to be ‘doable’ for those people.

Will technology make human intervention unnecessary?
“If something unexpected or bizarre occurs, an algorithm might not be able to resolve the problem, but a farmer who learned about farming from his father might be able to come up with a solution. You can see the same thing now with self-driving cars. The irony of automation is that if there is a high degree of automation, you still need a human being on standby as back-up. The voices of the people who work with the machines also need to be heard and we have to be careful not to disregard the importance of the human factor.”

How can solutions to problems we are struggling with be found in agriculture, such as issues in the area of food supply?
“The conventional soil sciences - knowledge of the soil - have almost been at a standstill for decades. And all the while, more pesticides were introduced, along with more artificial fertilizer. We’ve reached the limits of this approach. In Flevoland, once the most fertile area of the Netherlands, you can now see how farmers have to plough very deep to still be able to find fertile ground. Ploughing to such a depth is a kind of last resort. Major steps have to be taken and research is needed right now. How we can deal with the soil without ruining it even more in the long term? The potential for providing our food lies in a healthy soil quality. Healthy soil quality also means the ground will retain more water.
The potential that technology offers is that cross-pollination is possible between organic farming, ecological farming, and technological agriculture. I believe in out-of-the-box thinking: how can different methods and approaches have a positive effect on each other? Sharing agricultural machinery has a lot of potential. There’s already a company called ‘Hello Tractor’ in Africa, and seeds can be exchanged through the internet as well. In the United States, there is the emerging ‘right to repair’ movement, with farmers playing a key role. This movement works to counter the fact that all kinds of equipment breaks down shortly after the warranty period expires, and can no longer be repaired. What will the social structures related to these agricultural platforms look like in the future? The cooperatives such as those that arose in the Netherlands in the nineteenth century, where the farmers themselves had control, have much in common with the original concept of the sharing economy. There is a long-standing tradition of cooperatives in the agricultural sector. Nowadays you see data corporations emerging. This is also a necessity, given the looming privacy issues for farmers: if all of a company’s combines are hacked, that has far-reaching consequences for the farmer.”

Associate professor