Tag Archives Agriculture

India’s farm ordinances: fuelling a famine

India’s farm ordinances: fuelling a famine

India’s countless farmers have rallied together en masse over the past few months to protest farm ordinances imposed by the Indian government. These ordinances may have severe implications for agriculture ...

Seeds of resistance: Palestinian farmers fight against annexation and pandemic

Seeds of resistance: Palestinian farmers fight against annexation and pandemic

The violent Israeli encroachment and annexation of Palestinian land is compromising the future of the West Bank and putting its residents in an extremely vulnerable position. Palestinians are resisting both ...

EADI/ISS Series | Digitalizing agriculture in Africa: promises and risks of an emerging trend by Fabio Gatti and Oane Visser

The potential of the digitalization of agriculture in Africa to contribute to food security, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability agendas is being increasingly claimed by international development actors, and reflects in growing investments in digital technologies that are supposed to help small-scale farmers to ‘upgrade’ the way they farm. However, these technologies should not be considered panaceas from the get-go and require critical scrutiny to ensure that they will benefit who need it the most. There is a strong need for independent and in-depth social science research able to go beyond the surface of international donors and policy makers’ discourses and assess the effectiveness ‘on the ground’ of such new and greatly emphasized developing trend.

Drones used to map the boundaries of fields and monitor plant health, ground sensors to measure soil moisture levels, air temperature and humidity to prevent crop diseases, digital apps to provide farmers with localized weather forecasts, market price information and agricultural advice—these are just some examples of an emerging rural development trend called digital agriculture.

Assuming different guises (‘digital agriculture’, ‘smart farming’, ‘climate-smart agriculture’, ‘precision agriculture’), digital technologies and ICTs have started to penetrate the agricultural sector in the Global South in the past few years. Africa, with more than 60% of the population employed in the rural sector and relatively low agricultural yields, has become the main target of this ‘development’ strategy. For some, this is ‘the new Green Revolution’, an opportunity which Africa, having failed to seize before, cannot afford to miss this time.

These technologies, however, are not without concerns and limitations. Our ongoing research on digital agriculture in Africa draws out some of the hidden dimensions of the digitalization agenda, showing that we need to be aware of the risk that digital agriculture – when implemented without critical debate – might primarily benefit tech companies and multinational input providers, rather than smallholders or the environment. In the next section, therefore, the purported benefits of digital agriculture are discussed, along with some concerns.

Drone flying above beautiful landscape with vineyards

A triple-win strategy

Most proponents of digitalization in agriculture—governments, international donors, development agencies, and high-tech companies—convey the idea that it represents a triple-win solution which could be used to ‘feed’ a rapidly growing population while at the same time reducing rural poverty levels and mitigating the environmental impact of farming.

In terms of food security, digital and mobile technologies promise to deliver better yields and reduced losses arising from bad crop management. The rural poor will purportedly benefit from better market integration from being able to sell their product at higher prices, for example by being able to guarantee the traceability and origin of the product or to reduce the time between crop harvesting and selling, therefore enabling a shift toward more perishable (and profitable) crops (Asad 2016). In addition, the environment would benefit from a reduction in the use of pesticides and wasteful irrigation practices. Nevertheless, the mechanisms that enable achieving such promises remain a ‘black box’.

An expanding market

Digital agriculture seems to be first of all an appealing business opportunity for companies. According to some recent estimations, the market for precision and digital farming products has been growing at 12% per year and is expected to reach €10 billion by 2025. ‘Big tech’ players like Microsoft, Google, IBM, Alibaba, as well as big agribusiness companies like Bayer, Syngenta and John Deere have started to move into the market by making preliminary acquisitions, forging partnerships, and developing new products. In 2013, for example, Monsanto bought the Climate Corporation, a data analytics company specialized in weather forecasting technologies, for US$1.1 million.

Food security

The most intuitive effect of digital innovations in agriculture is an increased food production that would boost farmers’ income. A better reach of agricultural extension services and real-time information (for example regarding short-term weather conditions or market prices), combined with improved access to high-quality inputs and the reduction of losses due to unexpected weather events or bad pest management, are believed to allow small farmers to improve agricultural output both in terms of quantity and quality. Post-harvest losses could also be reduced with the improved monitoring of storage conditions. Additionally, an increasing ability of smallholder farmers to sell to larger markets by allowing buyers to track crops to source (certification and provenance) would allow countries and governments to achieve food security targets due to the much wider availability of lower-cost and more nutritious food products.

Poverty reduction

In mainstream discourses, smallholder farmers are considered the main target of such digital innovation policies. In terms of poverty reduction, easier access to credit and improved traceability of agricultural products, together with better integration into the supply value chain, are believed to eventually increase selling prices and consequently boost smallholder income, therefore contributing to lifting people out of rural poverty. Aker et al. (2016) found, however, that there is limited evidence to support this claim and that farmers do not always manage to sell their products at higher prices when making use of digital market information systems.

In order to make the services economically affordable, one of the solutions offered resides in the ‘Facebook model’: a digital platform collects farmers’ data and gets revenues from using and/or selling this data. In exchange, the users don’t pay (see for example this post). In this way data becomes the ‘exchange good’ with which the farmer effectively pays for the services provided by the company. This opens questions related to data ownership and which arrangements can be put in place to protect farmers’ sensitive data.


In the end, market and economic considerations seem to prevail, so far, over concerns about sustainability and environmental change. A recent report by the Technical Center for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) in Wageningen states that “hard evidence of the impact of [such innovations] on climate resilience has yet to emerge”. The main climate change-related use case so far seems to be the highly localized weather forecasts, combined with the fact that “by increasing their productivity, [they] can help farmers earn additional income needed to invest in adapting to climate change”. Similarly, for the FAO “the effectiveness of these tools for advancing sustainability goals is unknown”. What are the real implications for the environment, then?

Other challenges and obstacles

From a socio-cultural point of view, there are other aspects that need to be taken into account. Agricultural knowledge transfer is a highly social process based on ‘on-field’ experience: human-to-human interaction might not be easily reduced to blocks of data analyzed by external algorithms (see for example Stone 2010). Also, what Friends of the Earth in a recent position paper calls the ‘erosion of tacit knowledge’ must not be overlooked: the risk is that delegating all farm-management decisions to an ‘expert app’ would reduce farmers’ autonomy and lock them into a dependency relationship with data analytics companies. Last, the lack of infrastructure, the ‘digital divide’ between urban and rural areas, and the high costs of telecommunication services in some countries represent obstacles which should be overcome before digital agriculture would be able to deliver the promised benefits for the rural poor.

In conclusion, the potential of the digitalization of agriculture in Africa to contribute food security, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability agendas still requires a proper assessment based on empirical evidence. More research is required in order to go beyond initial overoptimistic accounts and to facilitate the bridging of local barriers and yet unknown or unexpected effects.

This article is part of a series launched by the EADI (European Association of Development Research and Training Institutes) and the ISS in preparation for the 2020 EADI/ISS General Conference “Solidarity, Peace and Social Justice”. It was also published on the EADI blog.

About the authors:

photo_cvFabio Gatti is a graduate from the Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies (AFES) major at the International Institute for Social Studies (ISS). Together with dr. Oane Visser, he is currently investigating the impact of digital innovations on smallholder agriculture in Africa.

Foto-OaneVisser-Balkon-1[1]Oane Visser (associate professor, Political Ecology research group, ISS) leads an international Toyota Foundation-funded research project on the socio-economic effects of – and responses to – big data and digitalization in agriculture.


Fleeing the farms: the devastating effect of conflict on youth involvement in small-scale agriculture in Pakistan by Hassan Turi

Fleeing the farms: the devastating effect of conflict on youth involvement in small-scale agriculture in Pakistan by Hassan Turi

[Ελληνική έκδοση παρακάτω] Rural youth unemployment is a serious crisis facing countries of the Global South. Small-scale agriculture, which has long been the single biggest employer of the developing world, has ...

EADI/ISS Series | Two faces of the automation revolution: impacts on working conditions of migrant labourers in the Dutch agri-food sector

EADI/ISS Series | Two faces of the automation revolution: impacts on working conditions of migrant labourers in the Dutch agri-food sector

by Tyler Williams, Oane Visser, Karin Astrid Siegmann and Petar Ivosevic Rapid advances in robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) are enabling production increases in the Dutch agri-food sector, but are also ...

Food security, agricultural policies and economic growth through the eyes of Niek Koning by Dorothea Hilhorst

One of the pleasures of summertime is that I get to read some of the books that have piled up over the years and this is how I came to read Niek Koning’s monumental monograph on: ‘Food security, agricultural policies and economic growth: Long-term dynamics in the past, present and future’. For someone like me, who usually finds herself working around the immediacy of crises, disaster and displacement, the book gives me a solid reminder of how the critical moments of emergencies are interlinked with each other and emerge from global histories and contexts.

Food security is today increasingly linked to climate change but this book spells out how throughout history it is especially interlinked with agricultural policies and economic growth. If there is one lesson the book brings out, it is that policy matters! Good or bad policies make a crucial difference for whether people have or have not enough to eat to sustain themselves. Economics – to say it once more – is not a value-free science and requires clear policy goals and values behind them.

Niek Koning is driven by some pertinent questions, such as “Why has Asia surpassed Africa in economic development? Why have social reform experiments failed in Latin America? Why has communist China achieved miracle growth whereas the Soviet Union collapsed?” Unlike most authors that focus on such big questions, Koning does not provide a monocausal explanation (such as the absence or presence of a ‘Protestant’ ethic, the inclusivity of institutions or different leadership styles), but he puts together a framework that covers several aspects of world history. He starts with secular cycles and techno-institutional change. Looking through that lens, he zooms in on the fossil fuel revolution that has enabled modern economic growth and has entailed a demographic transition. He analyses how the socio-political fabric of societies, international power relations and changing political tides have induced different policy responses to the problems that were involved in modern growth, with vast consequences for both the fate of nations and global population growth. And yes, he also talks about what may happen when fossil fuels will be exhausted. A major message of the book is that agricultural policies have failed to ‘use’ the springboard that was created with the fossil fuel revolution to transform the global economy for a sustainable future.

This is not a book review and I am skipping some major parts of the book, showing how different ideologies and histories have created different outcomes. They are a good read – often more like a novel than an economic textbook – with among other a long conversation between Thomas Malthus and Karl Marx. Browsing through the chapters, one realises that indeed politics matter, and the political views of the author shine clearly through. In his view, supporting self-employed farmers are indispensable for obtaining and maintaining food security. Agricultural and industrial development going hand in hand would be an effective approach, coupled to more explicit pro-poor politics, including social safety nets. He is clearly opposing the neo-liberal trade models and analyzes how these are driven by self-interest of strong countries.

The book is not just an amazingly resourced piece of scholarly work, it is also in many ways a long essay. In the eyes of Koning, the impending exhaustion of fossil fuel create major risks to forge global food scarcity that will exacerbate the food insecurity of the poor. In his view, several things are needed to mitigate this threat. Claims on farmland for luxury foods and urbanization should be limited. New breakthroughs should make the economy less carbon-dependent to prevent a dramatic increase in the demand of the affluent for bio-energy and bio-materials. Biological and ICT-based innovations should overcome limits in land productivity. However, a vital overall condition is that global food and energy markets are stabilized to enable timely investment in innovations that enable poor countries to protect their farmers while securing economic growth. The propositions coming from the book may be agreeable or disagreeable, but coming from decades of deep scholarly work, they merit a lot of discussion.

Koning, N. (2017). Food security, agricultural policies and economic growth: Long-term dynamics in the past, present and future. Routledge.


About the author:

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here



Right-Wing Populism and Counter-Movements in Rural Europe by Natalia Mamonova

Right-Wing Populism and Counter-Movements in Rural Europe by Natalia Mamonova

Right-wing populism has gained high levels of support among rural population in Europe. How could this happen and what are the solutions? Natalia Mamonova, of the Emancipatory Rural Politics Initiative, ...

A green revolution using frugal innovation: crop insurance for Tanzanian farmers by Meine Pieter van Dijk

A green revolution using frugal innovation: crop insurance for Tanzanian farmers by Meine Pieter van Dijk

What is the best way to help traditional small maize farmers in Tanzania to increase their production? A crop insurance project in Tanzania showed great success in decreasing the vulnerability ...

Symbiosis in Russia’s and Ukraine’s agricutural sectors by Natalia Mamonova

One of the main characteristics of agriculture in the post-socialist countries is its dualistic structure—large- and small-scale farms coexist in countries such as Russia or Ukraine. ISS alumna Natalia Mamonova in this interview explains the relationship between these two forms of farming, examining whether they cooperate or compete against each other.

Why is the structure of agricultural production in most post-socialist countries dualistic, where large- and small-scale food producers coexist

The contemporary bimodal agricultural structure is rooted in the Soviet past, particularly in the failure of collective agriculture to provide enough food for everyone. In order to deal with food shortages and the peasant unrest after the cruel collectivization campaign of the 1930s, the Soviet government allowed rural dwellers to cultivate their household plots for personal consumption. Since then, the so-called ‘personal subsidiary farming’ has been playing an important role in the Soviet and, later, post-Soviet agriculture. Just prior to the USSR’s collapse in 1990, rural households contributed to 27% of the gross agricultural product, while kolkhozes and sovkhozes (collective and state farms) produced the rest.

Today, this bifurcation has become even stronger. For example, the share of personal subsidiary farming in Russia and Ukraine is about 40% of the total output, while large-farm enterprises contribute to nearly 50%. There are many explanations for why the bimodal agricultural structure was preserved and even reinforced in these countries. The main reason is the failure of the post-socialist land reform to create commercially oriented private family farms. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the land of kolkhozes and sovkhozes was distributed among rural dwellers by means of land share certificates. However, rural dwellers were unable to use them. The distributed land was concentrated in the hands of local rural elites, and later, in the early 2000s, domestic and foreign land investors accumulated it.

How do you explain this peaceful coexistence from the economic and governance perspectives?

The rural households are not completely independent food producers. Their phenomenal productivity is partly a result of their symbiosis with large farms. In the Soviet time, kolkhozes and sovkhozes used to help rural dwellers with various farm inputs and outputs (such as seeds, fertilisers, machinery, etc.). Moreover, rural dwellers could take some ‘for free’ without any permission. The contemporary large agribusiness often continues practicing such productive symbiosis under their corporate social responsibility programs. In general, lots of former Soviet structures and networks remain vital in the contemporary post-Soviet countryside, which largely influenced the societal attitudes towards large-scale agricultural development.

Another reason for the peaceful coexistence of large-scale industrial agriculture and smallholder farming in the post-Soviet countryside is a division in agricultural markets. Large-scale agribusinesses are specialised in monocrop export-oriented agriculture (predominantly grain) and have more recently started to invest in industrial style meat (poultry and pork) production. In contrast, rural households engage in labour-intensive and time-consuming production of potatoes, vegetables, milk, and meat for family consumption and sale in local markets. Until these two forms of farming do not compete with each other for land and markets, they are able to coexist side by side.

What about the attitudes of small landholders toward large-scale investors?

Some critical researchers and journalists call the post-Soviet land accumulation process an instance of land grabbing. Indeed, the land redistribution was often accompanied by deprivation of land rights of local population and various frauds. However, I would not necessarily use the term ‘land grabbing’ because of the lack of resistance to land deals among the rural population. I conducted a lot of interviews with Russian and Ukrainian villagers—the majority of them do not oppose large-scale land accumulations. Contrarily, they often welcome land investors in their villages. Why? The answer is in the bimodal agricultural structure.

Land grabbing remains one of the key focus areas at the ISS, with many researchers in the Political Ecology research group devoting their attention to this area of research. Natalia’s ISS PhD dissertation focused on land grabbing and agrarian change in Russia and the Ukraine. Her dissertation can be viewed at https://repub.eur.nl/pub/94152.

View the original article here.

Image Credit: www.volganet.ru

About the author:

csm_natalia-mamonova1_855f13fd5cNatalia Mamonova is a Research Fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Programme, Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI) and Affiliated researcher at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies (IRES) of Uppsala University, Sweden. She received her PhD degree from ISS in 2016. Since then, she was a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford, the New Europe College in Bucharest, and the University of Helsinki.