Agriculture Drone

The controversial role of technology in agroecology principles and practices 

So far, attempts to design and implement technological solutions, such as precision and climate-smart agriculture, in agroecological systems have been limited to small-scale projects, for example in urban/vertical agricultural systems, agroecological farms, and bio-based industrial symbioses (e.g. RegenFarm, 2021). What seems to be missing is co-design and experimentation of systematic approaches to analyse and evaluate conditions to the adoption and diffusion of technological solutions in agroecological systems to move beyond small-scale projects. For example, agroecological and technological solutions co-designed with end-users and practitioners are not widely experimented nor tested.  

Existing knowledge seems to have been developed in ‘silos’, such to separate technological considerations from cultural, organisational, entrepreneurial and socio-economic ones. For example, while industrial symbiosis, vertical and precision farming, and bio-based processes like anaerobic digestions, have often been studied from a bioengineering or industrialist perspective, community-based platforms and agroecological communities have often been solely seen from socio-economic or ecological perspectives. Recently, we have observed three distinct trends in the convergence of technological development and the adoption and diffusion of agroecological practices, namely: 

  • Rapid diffusion of corporate-driven strategies to scale-up agroecological practices through big data, farm system design, retrofitting equipment and wide application of robotics and drones, and particularly for soil tillage, bio-based soil fertilization, pollination and pest control.  

  • Small-scale innovations led by farmers and agriculturalists, to adapt existing technologies to agroecological practices, based on specific farm needs. 

  • Diffusion of technology-oriented (learning) platforms to offer services and investments to farmers interested in adopting high-tech solutions.  

These trends highlight the lack of a holistic approach, which is central to agroecological practices, and also a lack of an interdisciplinary and multi-actor governance perspective of the innovation process. Evidence suggests that small-scale and community-based agroecological initiatives may find it challenging to engage with technological solutions, and to scale-up or out these solutions, while the technology and corporate-driven initiatives may run the risk of losing or misrepresenting the key values of agroecological practices in their attempt to scale. Anecdotal evidence suggests that developers, farmers and agribusiness companies are sometimes reluctant to collaborate. Particularly the following factors seem to create bottlenecks and lock-in effects: 

  • Institutional and governance barriers (e.g. lack of definition of property rights; tensions between competitive, collaborative), 

  • Behavioural barriers (e.g.  resistance/reluctance to change, unclear risk management of the innovation process), and 

  • Technological barriers (e.g. lack of IPR management, limited use big data, Internet of Things applications, lack of knowledge about how to integrate precision agriculture principles with agroecology and regenerative agriculture).