What started as a trickle has now become a deluge. As the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) and the ETC Group warned in their 2021 Long Food Movement report, the fourth industrial revolution is sweeping through food systems – driven by rapid advances in digitalization, automation, and molecular technologies. Developments that sounded like science fiction are suddenly on our farms and our plates, while others are close to mass commercialization. For instance, as many as 11,000 drones are already used in French agriculture. Farmers in China can deploy pig facial recognition technologies. Lab-grown chicken can be consumed in Singapore. Online food retail doubled in the US through the pandemic and is still growing, while Walmart and other food industry giants are snapping up e-retail platforms in India, and across Asia. The global food automation industry was already worth USD 12 billion in 2020 and is projected to more than double in size by 2026.
As various innovations enter the marketplace, Big Tech’s vision for food systems is coming into view. It is a vision in which data transforms every link along the food chain. Over the coming years, we could be looking at food systems where algorithms are used to optimize growing conditions on every fertile square meter of land, drones and surveillance systems manage farms, foods are grown in petri dishes, vats, and bioreactors, and, where commodities flow seamlessly across vast economic corridors, thanks to data-mediated food logistics systems and blockchains.
In addition, technological innovations are also bringing us towards a world where diets are personalized and delivered to the doorstep in multiple forms. Where artificial intelligence (AI) assistant apps decide on people’s food intake based on genetic information, family history, mood, and data readings from their fitness apps, shopping histories, their waste bins, and even from inside their digestive systems.
With agribusinesses ready to double down on these innovation pathways, investors ready to bankroll them, and governments poised to give their green light, it is crucial to press pause and question the underlying assumptions of these pipeline transformations. As successive Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports have told us, today’s industrial food systems are in need of a major overhaul: they are driving up to a third of climate change, generating unprecedented biodiversity loss, and failing to deliver decent livelihoods for farmers, or sufficient diets for the world’s poorest populations. But is the Big Tech vision really up to the challenge? Are these technologies really setting us on a pathway to just, sustainable, and resilient food systems? When we dig down, it is clear that Big Tech’s “solutions” leave many questions unanswered, and in fact risk making food systems even more inequitable and unsustainable.
The Big Tech agenda is built on the same power imbalances, social inequalities, and hidden costs (or “externalities”) that are rife in today’s food systems, and is fundamentally disconnected from local contexts and needs.
For example, digital agriculture tools allow for more targeted chemical usage, but they are designed to work at scale. This means a continued reliance on large-scale monocultures, with all the problems they bring, from biodiversity loss to resource depletion. Similarly, mega-factory farms with enhanced data-driven livestock surveillance can help detect diseases. But packing thousands of genetically uniform animals into intensive production units is what allows diseases to emerge and spread in the first place. Soilless and lab-based food production, meanwhile, promises to reduce food production risks. However, it could simultaneously undermine the livelihoods of millions of small farmers, who make up roughly half of the world’s hungry populations, and whose future is already threatened by land grabs, climate shocks, and corporate-led supply chains in which they have little voice. Automated retail and food delivery services also sound like a win-win. But they often rely on insecure and exploitative forms of labor, generate masses of disposable packaging, and erode people’s cooking skills.
Another inconvenient truth for Big Tech is that its whole vision is reliant on massive, centralized data and ICT systems, which are projected to account for more than 20% of global electricity demand by 2030 (with data centers alone accounting for 8% of demand). As well as raising sustainability concerns, these systems are also vulnerable to power outages, hacking, and other disruptions. And by harvesting huge quantities of metadata, digitalization and automation along the food chain will expose people to ever-greater manipulation of their food choices, i.e. the same “hypernudging” that has been used to influence electoral behaviors. ‘Fintech’ innovations promise to connect even the world’s poorest populations to the global food system – but they will also grant corporations access to millions of more ‘consumers’ and their data.
The cracks in the Big Tech vision should come as no surprise. Despite the world-saving rhetoric of food startups and philanthro-capitalists, these innovations are primarily about finding new growth sectors for breakthrough technologies. These solutions are not designed to address the multiple problems in food systems and have no recipe for doing so.
Moreover, these “solutions” only seem to make sense because the incentives in our economies are so skewed. Surely something is profoundly wrong when ingredients, labor, and packaging are so cheap that one half of society can regularly pay the other half to select, prepare, and deliver their food. There is also something amiss when a highly-processed plant-based burger with 20+ ingredients feels like the most nutritious and environmentally sound alternative to the meat on our supermarket shelves. And there is clearly something askew when farmers and their livelihoods are only an afterthought in designing sustainable production models.
What is really needed is a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, i.e. a fundamental redesign of food systems that rejects chemical-intensive monocultures and rebuilds farming systems around the principles of diversity, circularity, and resource efficiency.
In other words, the Big Tech agenda is built on the same power imbalances, social inequalities, and hidden costs (or “externalities”) that are rife in today’s food systems, and is fundamentally disconnected from local contexts and needs. This agenda should therefore set alarm bells ringing.
Over-hyped technological “solutions” also make us forget what questions we were trying to address in the first place and distract us from truly transformative changes. What is really needed is a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems, i.e. a fundamental redesign of food systems that rejects chemical-intensive monocultures and rebuilds farming systems around the principles of diversity, circularity, and resource efficiency. The potential of agroecological transformation has been recognized by the FAO, landmark reports from the IPCC and IPBES, and the World Bank and FAO-led global agriculture assessment, IAASTD. These milestone reports have told us time and again that the status quo is not an option; that the fundamental incentives and imbalances in our food systems and societies must be redressed; that the real problem is not how much food is produced, but rather who gets access to it; that food security relies on healthy ecosystems, efficient use of land and resources, resilience to climate shocks, and the ability of farmers to stay in business and keep farming – in other words, that food security and sustainability are two sides of the same coin.
There is a common misconception that agroecology means returning to the past and rejecting technologies. This is far from the truth. From affordable data-assisted farm decision-making to apps allowing consumers to see the hidden costs of products on the shelf, technological innovations are an essential part of the toolkit for transforming food systems.
But instead of rolling out new technologies and then retrofitting a change vision onto them, we need to start with a clear picture of the food system transformation that we want and need. Social and technological innovations will be at their most powerful when they are reimagined as a means to this end, not as an end in and of itself. The risks will be diminished, and the benefits amplified, when Big Tech puts its tools at the service of farmers, fishers, food workers, social movements, and the changes they are working to achieve on the ground. In other words, another ‘disruption’ must come first – an upending of the prevailing logic.