Agriculture in the high-tech bioeconomy

High tech in agriculture

An article by Dr Sarah Hackfort, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

In developing the bioeconomy, one clear focus is on biotech and digital technologies, for example when it comes to utilising biomass or raising productivity.
In many cases, however, technology-centred transformations are not based on well-founded analyses of how and with which consequences technical innovations are developed and used, and which social developments they entail.

For instance, little research has been carried out so far to assess the impact that digitisation will have on agriculture and food production, and indeed on how working conditions and consumption behaviour are changing. However, it is vital to understand these changes because the social impact of technologies is never neutral and they are thus relevant also to questions of democracy. 

Understanding the social consequences of digital technologies

The BioMaterialities research project is studying the use of digital technologies in agriculture. The technologies in question range from new genetic engineering methods in the lab and the big data analysis of agricultural data to digitally controlled greenhouses.
Such new technologies are often claimed to have great social or ecological benefits. Nonetheless, they can also entail negative side effects or provoke social disputes and political conflicts over economic monopolies or patents for new products, for example.

Digital technologies in the agricultural sector are now widely used not only out on the fields, but also along the entire value chain. This gives rise to new business models, with agricultural data being stored in the cloud.

How is this data then used, and by whom? What are the advantages for farmers if they use the digital platforms of large agricultural firms such as Bayer? And what are the effects of vertical economic integration processes on producers and consumers when companies like Amazon enter the food business?

The project analyses this and other changes brought about by new technologies at different points in value chains, the associated opportunities and risks, and the underlying political and economic power dynamics and social inequalities.

Democratising the use and consequences of digital technologies

Following critical approaches, we research the conditions under which digital technologies can be democratised in terms of their use and consequences, and how they can be developed and used to make production processes more sustainable. The aim is also to understand how the economy should be designed to ensure that technologies are used not only to achieve economic growth, but rather to care  for our future, meeting human needs and preserving the natural environment that we rely on for our survival.

About the researcher

A political scientist, Sarah Hackfort leads the BioMaterialities research group at Humboldt-Universität and works at the IZT – Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment. Her research focuses on sustainability and future-relevant issues concerning resources, agriculture and food. In her work, she applies research methodologies from political ecology, democracy theory and feminist theory.