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2017 研究助成プログラム Research Grant Program   [ (A)共同研究助成  (A) Joint Research Grants ]

The Rise of Digital Farming: Investigating the role of social interaction and values in the "new agricultural revolution"


Abstract of Project Proposal

 Digitalisation disrupts society - reshaping our social interaction and values connected to ownership and privacy - but digitalization is also affected by our values. The recent shift towards "digital farming" - including the application of big data – is expected to bring about a new "agricultural revolution" able to address the challenge of feeding the world in an era of climate change and shrinking natural resources. Rather than technological problems, social interactions and values seem to impede digital farming. Hence, this project asks; what underlying values are driving the digital revolution in farming, how do they shape social interaction in this sphere of digital farming innovation, and consequently the future of agriculture? At this early stage of digital farming development, socio-technological structures have not yet crystallised. Consequently, this research can provide much needed input into current policy discussions, particularly concerning an "open" versus "closed" model of digitalization. The first model features open source digital platforms, associated with values such as cooperation and empowerment. In the closed model, company interests associated with winner-takes-all behavior, and risks of weak cooperation and disempowerment prevail. A comparative, qualitative methodology is employed with field research in two major actors in digital farming; Australia and the EU.


Describe the implemented project and the method used

<<Final Report>>http://toyotafound.or.jp/research/2017/data/Oane_Visser_Final_Report_D17-R-0535.pdf

GPS steered combines, milk robots, drones making field scans, agronomic advice via smart phones and big data of farming; these are some examples of the rise of what is alternatively called digital farming, smart agriculture, or precision agriculture. This project investigated what underlying values and interests drive the recent digital revolution in farming, how they shape socio-economic interaction in the sphere of digital farming, and consequently the future of agriculture.

Research (online and offline) was conducted predominantly two major actors in agricultural and digital farming: the EU (especially the Netherlands & France) and Australia, with in addition some data garnered on the US (as the birthplace of digital agriculture) and Russia (representing an emerging economy). The research was conducted together with Dr. Sarah Sippel (University of Leipzig) and PhD student Louis Thiemann (ISS).

The project examined: 1) how the AgTech firms and outside investors drive digitalization (based on what interests and values) and 2) the impacts of digitalization on both farmers and - the often invisible - migrant farm workers. Finally, we also investigated 3) the politics of digital agriculture, looking at how farmers (attempt to) confront incarnations of digital agriculture, that disempower them.

Throughout the funding period Dr Sippel and Dr Visser have closely collaborated on joint publications, organizations of events, and applications for additional research funding. They have also exchanged about field work plans, desk top research, and literature review.

Dr Visser has conducted research on digital agriculture in the EU (especially the Netherlands), and to some extent on Russia. He carried out the main part of the research for the joint article entitled ‘imprecision farming’? based on farm visits and observation and conversations at AgTech events in the Netherlands, and through the analysis of Dutch (web)document search (such as farm journals, digital agriculture project websites). In addition, he investigated the rise digital agriculture in horticulture (including in greenhouses) in the Netherlands with ISS colleague Karin Siegmann, and ISS MA students who did their MA Thesis in the framework of this project. This sub-project was co-funded by an ISS grant. Further, joint research by Visser and another ISS student, investigated the intersection of sustainability and digital agriculture, by focusing on digitally-enable strip farming in the Netherlands. Another student project supervised investigated digital agriculture in France. Finally, closely related, Visser together with a colleague at the university and a research assistant, conducted a sub-project on high-tech (and low tech) urban agriculture (vertical farms, indoor farm, rooftop farms), largely funded by the ISS.

Dr Sippel has conducted research on digital farming technologies specifically in two contexts, Australia and California, US. Together with her PhD student Moritz Dolinga (funded by SFB 1199, University of Leipzig) she also worked on the Netherlands. Dr Sippel activities have included field work, as well as continued and comprehensive literature review and desk top research. From December 2021 till April 2022, Dr Sippel was a visitor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and collaborated with the AFTeR project (Agri-Food Technology Research Collaboration) led by Professor Guthman. This project explores how the emerging Food and Ag Tech sectors are taking shape in the San Francisco Bay Area. Dr Sippel has also been a member of the Science and Technology Agriculture and Food Network (STSFAN) since 2020, and has contributed regularly to the online meetings and activities of the network (https://stsfanetwork.wixsite.com/stsfan). Dr Sippel successfully applied for additional funding from the German Research Foundation and the European Research Council worth more than EUR 500,000. Since July 2022, Dr Sippel is a full professor of economic geography and globalization studies at Münster University, Germany. At Münster, she will continue her research on digital farming technologies, especially with regard to the digitization of farming in the Mediterranean region.

Research assistant Louis Thiemann did desk work to assist the project by a) continuously reading and evaluating the rapidly growing academic literature on social sciences aspects of digital agriculture; and b) continuously searching, reading and evaluating reports on the subject emitted by IGOs and governments (World Bank, FAO, CGIAR institutions, Ministries of agriculture and development cooperation), development institutions specialized in aspects of digitalization (Alan Turing Institute, Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation), critical reports by NGOs (Friends of the Earth, La Via Campesina, International Panel of Experts for the Study of Food Systems), and news/investigative reports on new technological developments and related labor conflicts. Louis also visited the 12th Berlin Agriculture Ministers' Conference at the Global Forum for Food and Agriculture (GFFA), in January 2019, a 3-day high-level event which had chosen digital farming as the headline and key topic for discussion. After defending his PhD thesis in June 2022, Dr. Thiemann will be a postdoc at the Department for International Agricultural Policy and Resource Governance, Kassel University, Germany from September 2022.

  • PI Oane Visser
  • bottom-up designed farm robot by Dutch farmers and students
  • corporate designed farm robot


Describe the results at the end of the grant period and expected ripple effects

The findings addressed the three main research questions; 1) how the AgTech firms and outside investors drive digitalization, 2) the impacts of digitalization on both farmers and - the often invisible - migrant farm workers, 3) the politics of digital agriculture, looking at how farmers (attempt to) confront incarnations of digital agriculture, that disempower them.

1.Drivers: We found that outside investors’ desire to manage and standardize large-scale investments in farmland, is one driver of digitalization of farming (namely through digital land valuation systems). This trend which brings new financial resources to agriculture, might also increase the control of outsiders over farming at the cost of farmers’ autonomy. More recently, and especially accelerating during the covid pandemic, outside investors have focused on new technologies directly aimed at cultivation. Investors and Agtech firms used covid to legitimize far reaching digitalization and automation.
Whereas automation was presented as enhancing safety and convenience for farm workers, our research shows very mixed effects on work conditions. Automation that eases the physical labour, often goes hand in hand with increased digital surveillance with elevated production targets, which often leads to an increased work pace, with ultimately higher work pressure. The project examined the impact of digitalization on both farm workers (often migrants) and farmers themselves.

2. Impacts: We find that whereas precision farming is hyped as smart and super accurate, it is in fact less precise than proponents proclaim. However, it is the farmer rather than the (immature) technology that is blamed for the inaccuracies. Thus, an article resulting from the project is provocatively entitled ‘Imprecision farming? Examining the (in)accuracies and limits of digital agriculture’. Farm workers get even less attention than farmers when new digital technologies are implemented. They are widely depicted as ‘cheap fingers’ whose work will be made easier by robots. Our research demonstrates the highly diverging, and often detrimental, implications of new technologies for farm workers.

3.Responses: Finally, we investigated how the advent of digital farming tools, platformed knowledge and digitalization in product and land markets changes the scope, sites and mechanisms of agrarian politics. An unequally digitalizing food regime presents us with very different horizons for contestation than those devised within earlier waves of technological change (e.g., the ‘Green Revolution’). Based on analysing primary literatures and the emerging social sciences literature on digital farming, our research traces the new agrarian politics of digitalization, discussing why seasoned forms of farm resistance against subsumption by big corporate firms may prove ineffective against intangible technologies brought in by investors. We argue that new tools are needed for critical agrarian studies in a digital age.

Critical, systemic perspectives are needed to tie on-farm changes in technology use to broader changes in power relations within food systems. Digitalization is likely to create new dependencies on key corporate infrastructures (internet access, smartphones, expensive farming equipment, satellite data, platform memberships). Financialization processes, as well as the ontological shift in how land, animals, crops and labor are perceived and managed (Sippel & Visser 2021), and are already potentiated by the digitalization of farm investment channels. Due to the newness, complexity and ambivalent values linked to digitalization, rural dwellers have hardly been able to establish movements to shape digital agriculture themselves. Consequently, farms have not yet managed to effectively defend their interests in the face of powerful actors such ag BigTech firms and multinational input suppliers who increasingly capture farm data, and determine the direction of digitalization of agriculture.

New technologies are quickly captured by existing power holders and their alliances. Niche agricultures with stronger associational structures, including organic/agroecological markets and certain niche crops, may develop more inclusive digital infrastructures. In most cases, however, farmers are so far limited to resisting corporate digitalization by tinkering or hacking the on-farm machinery that institutes it. The pace of innovation in digital agriculture is too rapid to achieve broader practices of reflection and deliberation on the content of individual algorithms and databases. Excluding the vast majority of (peasant and family) farms from the socio-technical transition will have significant effects not only on the shape of emerging digital tools, but also on their accuracy, bias and potential utilities (Visser et al. 2021).

To a lesser degree, digitalization is also assisting the motives of counter-movement to this trend, including the organisation and broadening of nested markets, strengthening of some cooperative structures, and international cooperation between farmer movements and agroecology researchers. A broad alliance for an alternative digitalization regime is not yet on the horizon. Development of digital platforms requires a whole new set of technical knowledge and skills, as well as new organizational tactics. We argue that for agrarian movements to be effective, they need to stimulate such knowledge amongst their members, and build alliances with (mostly non-agricultural) ICT movements and NGOs engaged in open-source digitalization.

Research findings were presented at numerous conferences and during invited lectures in Denmark, Romania, the Netherlands, Germany and Australia, including at a large agrifoodtech exhibition for engineers and agribusiness in the Netherlands. A workshop at the ISS (The Hague, NL) was organized in the first (with representatives from a trade union, agrifood robotics, and migrant farm workers). Two closing panels at the large 2021 EADI-conference were organized, where the researchers and students involved in the project presented their findings, and also representatives from NGOs (FIAN International) and from an agricultural extension agency, were presenting and attending.

The project has generated a total of 6 publications in major journals, 4 book chapters, 10 blog posts and interviews for a variety of media outlets and 1 working paper. Its work was presented at 14 academic conferences, and 7 workshops and conference panels were organized.

Through additional funding of >600.000€, the research impulse contained in the original Toyota Foundation grant has evolved into a solid long-term research agenda and community that now involves 10-12 researchers, PhD and MA students. The project’s research resonates amongst practitioners: a Dutch farm journal, and a blog by a French Agtech consultancy firm prominently referred to the research.
  • Danish farm robot in the Netherlands
  • PI Oane Visser presenting at plenary roundtable in Germany



2017 研究助成プログラム Research Grant Program   【(A)共同研究助成  (A) Joint Research Grants】
助成番号(Grant Number)
題目(Project Title)
The Rise of Digital Farming: Investigating the role of social interaction and values in the "new agricultural revolution"
オアヌ フィッセル / Oane Visser
International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam
助成金額(Grant Amount)