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Exploring the Need for AgTech for the Organic Sector

Because organic farmers are banned from using common conventional materials such as most synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, the tools available for them to tackle common agricultural challenges are limited. Agricultural technology (AgTech) can provide the opportunity to develop sustainable, organic-compliant methods for addressing organic obstacles, but there has been a disconnect between what has been built by the AgTech industry and the needs of organic producers.

Historically there have been a lack of communication and a paucity of organic-AgTech collaborations. Additionally, the diversity of organic farming operations presents the need for AgTech discussions that include issues such as accessibility of technology for small and low-income farms, equity around tech use and adoption, and inclusion of marginalized farming communities in the development of AgTech. Specifically, AgTech tools are often developed:

  • Without farmer input
  • More for the goal of making the most money rather than what will benefit the farming community
  • Using proprietary software that is costly to purchase, update, and fix
  • To collect farmer data for profit without giving farmers access or control over their data

To explore the potential promises and pitfalls of AgTech and organic, The Organic Center developed a December 2021 virtual conference that focused on how AgTech can help organic move toward the future, while highlighting current technological trends that can empower farmers rather than exploit them.

Dr. Kathleen Merrigan, the Kelly and Brian Swette Professor in the School of Sustainability and Executive Director of the Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems at Arizona State University, kicked off the event with a talk entitled “Organic Ag-Tech: Oxymoron or Golden Opportunity?” Focusing on how the collective community of organic activists can best help shape the next 30 years of organic food and agriculture, she shared current innovations in AgTech that fit within organic values, concluding that AgTech, when done right, could be a boon for organic.

Dr. Steven Mirsky, a USDA Research Ecologist in the Sustainable Agricultural Systems Laboratory at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, continued Dr. Merrigan’s theme on the opportunities of AgTech for organic, sharing the perspective of the expansive possibilities of technology when it comes to agriculture. “Organic could see the biggest impact from advances in agricultural technology, because of the challenges and constraints that go into organic agriculture,” said Mirsky. “What technology brings is really transformative, so the future is very bright.”

Dr. Andrew Hammermeister, Director of the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada and Associate Professor in the Faculty of Agriculture at Dalhousie University, finished the first conference block on AgTech opportunities in organic, discussing the intersection of organic, smart agriculture, and ecological intensification. Dr. Hammermeister noted that the future of organic agriculture should include a coupling of smart technologies with ecological knowledge.

One of the reasons that AgTech overlooks organic is the monetary opportunities available from large-scale conventional agriculture. To discuss organic AgTech funding opportunities, we heard from Revathi Kollegala, the Executive Director of the Regen Foundation, and Dr. Steven Thomson, a National Program Leader with the USDA National Institute Food and Agriculture. They highlighted both private foundation support, as well as federal programs such as the AFRI and SBIR Small and Medium-Sized Farms, which aims to promote and improve the sustainability and profitability of small and mid-size farms and ranches (where annual sales of agricultural products are less than $250,000 for small farms and $500,000 for mid-size farms); the Engineering for Agricultural Production Systems program, which invests in agricultural production research, education, and extension projects for more sustainable, productive, and economically viable plant and animal production systems within the priority areas of plant health and production and plant products; animal health and production and animal products; food safety, nutrition, and health; bioenergy, natural resources, and environment; agriculture systems and technology; and agriculture economics and rural communities; and the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI), which seeks to solve critical organic agriculture issues, priorities, or problems through the integration of research, education, and extension activities. The purpose of this program is to fund projects that will enhance the ability of producers and processors who have already adopted organic standards to grow and market high-quality organic agricultural products.

Despite the opportunities of AgTech for organic, there are many potential pitfalls, such as a lack of data sovereignty, which was highlighted by Dr. Sarah Rotz, a professor at York University, who focused on how agricultural technologies and data bias reinforce agri-food inequities. The Gathering for Open Ag Tech Team spoke about how the open source movement could help overcome these inequalities, as open source tools afford farmers’ and food stakeholders’ ability to exert control over where the data is stored, how it is used, and who uses it. Dr. Julie Guthman, Professor of social sciences at the University of California, Santa Cruz, extended the discussion to suggest circumstances in which AgTech can exacerbate the economic challenges of organic farming and in which it might mitigate them. “If AgTech means producing corporate cooperation with organic farmers geared toward enabling agroecological practices cooperatively funded by universities or other non-profits, and made available to coders or produced with open source technology, then we’re talking,” said Dr. Guthman, highlighting the elements that would enable organic and AgTech to complement one another.

Dr. Heather Darby of the University of Vermont discussed ways that farmers could be supported to make appropriate tech choices. She noted that AgTech tools should be looked at critically to determine if they meet the needs of the people who are expected to use them. “In my mind, technology should serve a purpose,” said Darby. “It shouldn’t just be there because it’s the newest greatest coolest thing everybody else is doing it.” She also highlighted that some older farmers are less familiar with smartphones and their apps. This is exacerbated in remote rural areas that lack access to strong broadband and even cellular service. Apps that are designed to work offline will help farmers without reliable cell service, and Darby suggested that the younger generation of farmers could become important mentors to older farmers, helping them improve their technological literacy (or increase their experience).

Summer Sullivan, a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of California, Santa Cruz followed Dr. Darby’s talk by examining how collaborations between engineers and ecological agronomists and farmers could be developed, highlighting synergies and frictions of agroecology and AgTech using a case study from the University of California, Santa Cruz, which developed an initiative in 2013 focused on AgTech. One of the main challenges that need to be overcome when bringing these distinct groups together is the difference in perspectives: engineers tend to focus in on specific phenomena and processes, while agroecologists see things from a systems-based perspective.

To highlight AgTech projects that include organic perspectives, the conference included talks by Dr. Paula Ramos of North Carolina State University and Dr. Dorn Cox of OpenTEAM and Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture & the Environment. Dr. Ramos discussed projects she has been working on with smart, IoT, and low-cost systems to bridge the technology gap in agriculture. In addition, Dr. Cox spoke about OpenTEAM innovations in collaboration, digital equity, and data sovereignty.

The conference concluded with a farmer panel, highlighting the perspectives of five farmers, including Nate Powell-Palm of Cold Spring Organics, Philip LaRocca of LaRocca Vineyards, Earcine Evans of Pure Ciné, Wa Kou Hang of Twin Cities Green Farm, and Jon Bansen of Double J Jerseys / Organic Valley. The farmers spoke about current technologies that they found useful, but also highlighted needs for future technological development, such as a focus on usability.

Dr. Jessica Shade is Director of Science Programs at The Organic Center (organic-center.org).

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 Organic Report, you can view the full magazine here.