Questions were led by Food Agility Strategic Lead Mara Bun:
Q. The digital turn is well underway in agriculture and food, but there is a long way to go in up-scaling it in Australia. As a social researcher, what are some of the barriers and enablers you see facing the rolling out of “smart farming”?
One of the first barriers “smart farming” faces is that many Australian farmers are likely to question the insinuation that existing farming is not smart! So ‘digital agriculture’ is certainly a more appropriate term in this context. Originally, and still in the Food Agility CRC, SMART farming referred to Sustainable, Manageable and Accessible Rural Technologies, but acronyms have a habit of taking on a life of their own, and ‘smart’ remains a tricky term.
More concretely, there are some key barriers that decades of social research on technology adoption in agriculture point to, including the fact that inflexible, complex and un-trialable technologies tend to put farmers off. It is crucial that the Food Agility CRC is true to its name and helps ensure that both the technologies and their implementation pathways are agile. We have to enable farmers to readily adapt any digital innovation to their unique and ever-changing, even spatially shifting, farm environment. Ironically, a lot of effort around innovation adoption follows a staid, formulaic approach involving a bit of “co-design” with a few farmers before locking into a very inflexible dissemination model. Hopefully Food Agility can help inject innovation into the implementation and ongoing use of digital technologies. The whole turn to digital agriculture is a shared experiment really and we have to seize the opportunity to learn along the way as it shifts how we see, imagine and engage with the land and farming.
One of the main enablers of digital agriculture is going to be the capacity to think beyond the conventional model of the individual farmer and property owner too. How can groups of farmers cooperatively engage with digital agriculture, whether neighbours or linked through supply chains? A lot of the infrastructure and hardware involved is going to be best tackled at the collective level and many of the desired changes that digital agriculture is designed to foster – such as improving natural capital, better management of climatic changes, or enhancing the visibility of a farm’s locality to consumers - require looking beyond farm fences. Most digital agriculture discussions are still fixated on individual business owners. That focus on owners is also limiting. Today’s increasingly volatile environment means that leasing rather than buying is increasingly favoured as a more flexible option. How can we make digital technologies appropriate for those leasing land, or those who want to rent not buy a given piece of equipment? Someone agisting stock in another less drought-affected region, for example, would greatly benefit from the capacity to monitor from a distance how those animals and paddocks are going. There are clear opportunities here to tie environmental monitoring capacities into existing moves to identify stock electronically.
Q. On the topic of drought, how do you see digital agriculture potentially affecting the relationship between natural and financial capital?
Often natural and financial capital are discussed in terms of a trade off, and there are situations where this makes sense. Often farmers take steps to preserve, or at least limit the depletion of, natural capital, during a drought. The steps involved, such as destocking, can reduce their cash flow in the short term, although as they recognise, holding onto stock is not a cost-free option either. This focus on natural capital is useful to a degree and certainly better than ignoring it. But the significance of pro-natural capital farming is evident when it is used as a drought preparedness measure and general modus operandi rather than an exceptional drought response option.
If done well, building natural capital can greatly reduce a farm’s sensitivity to drought in multiple ways. One is via the provision of income diversification such as natural resource-based income streams (e.g. carbon payments). More importantly, a natural capital approach provides yet another positive signal that encouraging land management practices that retain ground cover, soil moisture and overall health underpin faster crop or pasture recovery. This means more robust production systems, not to mention people. All of this makes natural capital a source of financial capital during drought and beyond, not a competitor with it.
The win-win effects are even greater when institutional signals such as credit lending criteria are aligned with such practices so that this forward-thinking approach is appropriately rewarded. Digital agriculture can help link natural and financial capital in this way, enabling on-ground conditions and related financial outcomes to be tracked. It can potentially open up opportunities for premium prices as well by fostering transparency in the supply chain right through to the many consumers who are keen to know that the Australian landscape is being managed well.
Q. In previous major shifts in agriculture, social research has been invaluable in identifying often unforeseen risks and costs. What are some of the issues your research suggests that we must negotiate?
Like any major intervention, there will be unexpected outcomes. Perhaps the greatest risk is that we do not look for these and so miss both emerging problems and opportunities. Taking seriously issues of uneven access to digital agriculture is going to be crucial, for example. Areas that are already disadvantaged because of, for instance, a lack of access to functional, affordable internet and mobile services, could become more disadvantaged.
There are also well-known risks about the potential misuse and abuse of the data collected, and a danger of devaluing embodied farmer knowledge and expertise. As experiences with Decision Support Systems have shown, actual farmers are not the figure that tech designers always imagine! A lot of the time they are three steps ahead. We need to ensure farmers are put in control of the data and not the other way around.
The issue of control highlights another key risk which is that incentive structures do not keep pace with the positive practice changes enabled by digital agriculture. On the one hand, digital agriculture is being used to identify further efficiencies and push production higher, which clearly is valuable in some situations. On the other hand, though, digital agriculture’s monitoring capacities are revealing the limitations of chasing short-term production gains. They can instead enable a more sustainable, ultimately profitable and secure, way of farming. If farmers seek to use digital agriculture in this way - as increasingly they will need to as they adapt to climate change - are they going to be rewarded by those around them, including banks and policy makers, or are the latter still stuck promoting perverse incentive, pushing farmers in a direction that tries to contradict the information the farmers have at hand about their land condition? This is the challenge that the National Australia Bank, to their credit, is taking on: the need for internal industry change within agricultural services to enable farmers to use digital agriculture in a way that actually achieves sustained on-ground improvements and sustains valuable assets.
Q. More broadly, are there other social research questions that you are keen to explore around digital agriculture?
Social research is all about understanding relationships, and digital agriculture poses a whole lot of those! So, there is an abundance of important social research to be done in this space. I’ll mention three of them.
First, there is the question of how digital agriculture intersects with other change processes underway in agriculture, within Australia and more broadly. The transformations that are emerging as a result of the direct and indirect effects of climate change – including changes to rural communities, consumer demands, agricultural policy and competing land uses – are key here. This is not just about understanding how digital agriculture does or does not enable individual farmers to adapt to and mitigate climate change, but understanding how the move to working digitally in agriculture relates to larger interconnected shifts, such as the emergence of more self-sufficient, efficient and renewable energy sources for example, where smart tech also has a key role.
Second, digital agriculture’s role in a broader digitization of the food system is well known, but what of the other systems that agriculture is simultaneously a part of, whether upstream supply chains or in their spatial and social context? How does digital agriculture relate to efforts to establish local or on-site circular economies of waste management, for example, or to water catchment restoration or pollution control initiatives? Farming is an extremely multifaceted activity and the digital agriculture turn is yet to engage with many of its non-commodity-based functions and effects.
Third, how is digital agriculture altering farmer practices, ambitions, time management, and relationships within farm households, extended families, businesses, local communities, farmer peer groups etc? In what ways is engagement with digital agriculture alleviating or adding to existing stressors? At the end of the day, it is these sorts of considerations that will determine whether digital agriculture does “roll out” throughout the Australian farming community and, if it does, whether it has the intended effects.
Dr Lauren Rickards is as Associate Professor at the Department of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University. You can find out more about her via this link, or connect with her on twitter via @LaurenARickards.