Farming by Satellites: how West Country farmers were being driven to, and by, precision agricultural systems
Precision farming integrates satellite coordination and information communication technologies into farming practices to deliver self-driving and auto-regulating machinery and equipment to farmers, who can afford to invest, right across the globe. It is often sold on the basis that it can help clean up or ‘ecologically modernise’ conventional, industrial agriculture. It should also increase production rates in industrial agriculture to help to ‘feed the world’ as well as being cost effective in ways that could make farmers more money – miracle-grow formula and win-win technology. There are critical concerns that precision farming facilitates a continuing trend of transnational firms appropriating control over agricultural industries. Many neo-Marxist or neo-Weberian critics contend that any ‘green’ benefits fall secondary to the more dominant social and economic trend of ongoing capital accumulation, increasing rationalisation and industrial progress that has been deemed detrimental to natural environments and human populations. These social and economic pressures are actually the real drivers in change. Rather than greening industrial agriculture, precision farming is another way of masking over and profiting from the risks caused by ongoing capitalist accumulation and industrial agriculture. The other set of concerns are to do with human culture and labour. Farming is the grass roots of modern civilisation and dependent upon human labour, knowledge and cultural methods. With the introduction of data over knowledge, and auto-steering tractors over human labour and skills, what kinds of impacts will this have on farm families, rural cultures within countryside landscapes in Britain or other countries where precision farming is being adopted?
As a farmer’s son, I was concerned about the impact the computerisation of agriculture will have on family farms, nature and rural communities. I spent four years interviewing and working with a cooperative group of Duchy of Cornwall farmers in the West Country of England. I wanted to know why they were using these new technologies and the kinds of benefits, impacts or outcomes that they experienced following adoption. The results tend to confirm critics’ concerns, unfortunately. Precision farming has much more to do with the organising of agricultural production. The restructuring of farming by way of precision farming greater empowers transnational agribusinesses and Agri-Food supply chains, rather than protecting the environment, feeding hungry people or making family farming more sustainable. I conclude my research by suggesting that it is not technology, or agricultural technologies such as precision farming that will deliver these end goals in and of them selves. There could be room to improve precision farming systems if they are coupled with well-managed policy designs and agri-environmental schemes.
This PhD thesis offers a sociological analysis of the adoption of precision farming technologies by a cooperative of family farmers in the West Country of England from 2014-17.