“Digital agriculture” and “big data”

The Australian Farm Institute’s 2016 publication on Digital Agriculture and Big Data offers recommendations which would increase our reliance on technological instruments to measure biotic characteristics and tailor the application of chemicals to specific areas of a field (p9). Their recommendations would see public funds devoted towards soil and climate mapping, data accumulation, wireless networks, and support for private sector software (p54-63).

The authors describe robotic technology as a “closed-loop system” (p2). Yet their scope of enquiry appears to stop at the farm gate; they neither understand nor care about the external costs of mining, finance, transport, or the safe disposal of waste. While digital agriculture has been shown to increase yields by 10-15 percent (AFI 2016, p iv), the increase comes only by externalizing costs. The quantitative analysis by Malik et al. (2016) has shown that technological innovation alone is not sufficient to reduce carbon emissions, since the external costs of consumption outweigh their benefit. Only by limiting the scope of scientific enquiry can technological solutions appear successful. On the other hand, the essence of nexus thinking is to consider the relations between resources, and to examine the broad view of things (Leck et al. 2015). A nexus approach to digital agriculture, considering its global impacts on water, energy and food reveals its failure.

Mining the raw materials of techno-gadgetry results in toxic water and depleted environments that are devoid of topsoil, food-bearing vegetation or human habitat (Ohio State University 2016, Kang et al 2013). Mining and manufacture of technological instruments results immediately and directly in negative health and environmental consequences, as well as social inequity between the benefactors and producers of technology (Amnesty 2016, Blanding and White 2015). Safe disposal of waste presents yet another domain of ecological pandemonium (Le Tourneau 2017). Furthermore, the application of harmful chemicals—even “precisely”—destroys the land’s capacity to store water, accommodate microbiology, or deliver appropriate nutrients to plants (Jacobsen et al 2013, Ohlson 2014 p84, Barber 2014 p95, Heinemann et al 2014, Sanderman et al 2017, Benbrook 2012, Andrews 2008 pXX). As Shiva et al. (2017) write, “The ‘precision’ of killing does not give birth to life. It results in killing”.

It is tempting and perhaps comforting to believe that technology, like deus ex machina, will descend from the clouds to save our civilization, but it is scientifically wrong. The externalities of techno-fixes are unavoidable. Their manufacture always causes harm; their use is never more efficient than natural solutions.

“Techno-fixes present an attractive “silver-bullet” solution, but will only increase vulnerability while simultaneously undermining nature’s and farmers’ safeguards against climate chaos … The alternative, a biodiversity intensive, ecology intensive, localised food system, rejuvenates the health of the planet, and our health.” (Shiva et al. 2017 p2) As a rule of thumb, we can observe the findings of Malik et al. (2016), that technological improvements are not sufficient to reduce emissions as their benefit is outstripped by increased consumption. Instead, we should focus on reducing consumption through natural, regenerative techniques.

Amnesty 2016, Exposed: Child labour behind smart phone and electric car batteries, viewed 9-9-17, www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2016/01/Child-labour-behind-smart-phone-and-electric-car-batteries/

Australian Farm Institute 2016, The Implications of Digital Agriculture and Big Data for Australian Agriculture, Australian Farm Institute, Sydney.

Barber, D 2014, The Third Plate: Field notes on the future of food, The Penguin Press, New York.

Benbrook, CM 2012, ‘Impacts of genetically engineered crops on pesticide use in the U.S. – the first sixteen years’, Environmental Sciences Europe, vol. December 2012.

Blanding, M & White, H 2015, How China is Screwing Over its Poisoned Factory Workers, viewed 9-9-17, www.wired.com/2015/04/inside-chinese-factories/

Heinemann, JA, Massaro, M, Coray, DS, Agapito-Tenfen, SZ & Wene, JD 2014, ‘Sustainability and innovation in staple crop production in the US Midwest’, International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability,, vol. 12, no. 1, pp. 71-88.

Jacobsen, S-E, Sørensen, M, Pedersen, SM & Weiner, J 2013, ‘Feeding the world: genetically modified crops versus agricultural biodiversity’, Agronomy for Sustainable Development, vol. 33, no. 4, pp. 651-662.

Kang, DHP, Chen, M & Ogunseitan, OA 2013, ‘Potential Environmental and Human Health Impacts of Rechargeable Lithium Batteries in Electronic Waste’, Environmental Science and Technology, vol. 47, no. 10, pp. 5495–5503.

Le Tourneau, R 2017, Australian e-waste ending up in toxic African dump, torn apart by children, viewed 9-9-17, www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-10/australian-e-waste-ending-up-in-toxic-african-dump/8339760

Leck, H, Conway, D, Bradshaw, M & Rees, J 2015, ‘Tracing the Water-Energy-Food Nexus: Description, Theory and Practice’, Geography Compass, vol. 9, no. 8, pp. 445-460.

Malik, A, Lan, J & Lenzen, M 2016, ‘Trends in Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions from 1990 to 2010’, Environmental Science and Technology, vol. 50, no. 9, pp. 4722-4730.

Ohio State University 2016, Effects of Mining Lithium, viewed 9-9-17, u.osu.edu/2367group3/environmental-concerns/effects-of-mining-lithium/

Ohlson, K 2014, The Soil Will Save Us, Rodale, New York.

Sanderman, J, Hengl, T & Fiske, G 2017, ‘Soil carbon debt of 12,000 years of human land use’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Shiva, V, Bhatt, V, Panigrahi, A, Mishra, K, Tarafdar & Singh, V 2017, Seeds of hope, seeds of resilience, Navdanya, New Delhi.