‘It is important to approach open data and open technologies with an open mindset. Citizen- and farmer-generated data can lead to major breakthrough in policy making, providing insights and evidence for better informed environmental management and nature conservation. In the context of climate adaptation and mitigation, open data can also become a powerful tool in the hands of communities of practice, advocacy groups and small companies which can use it to generate solutions that address problems at regional, national and global level.’

These were the summary remarks of Pavlos Georgiadis, ethnobotanist, social entrepreneur and participant of the CAPSELLA, Harvesting Innovation event in Milan in May. Part of Milan Food Week, the event was hosted in collaboration with OPERA, the Italian Observatory for Agroecology. The guiding question was: how can ICT and open data innovations be used to further agroecological and agrobiodiverse farming practices?

The meeting was a culmination of the Horizon 2020-funded CAPSELLA project, the Collective Awareness PlatformS for Environmentally-sound Land management based on data technoLogies and Agrobiodiversity. This project emphasises communities of practice and bringing together diverse food system actors from tech and open data specialists, to scientists, farmers and academics. Under the principles of co-design and open innovation, the project experiments with the different ways technology can be used to further sustainable food systems.

ARC2020 has been tracking this project from the start, with Oliver Moore presenting at the CAPSELLA launch, two years ago. Helene Schulze went along to the closing event to think-through and present on the ways that innovation and open data for agroecology may be incorporated in policy-making.

CAPSELLA – linking agroecology and technology?

Concepts of social digital innovation, co-design and co-innovation, emphasise the significance of how ICT innovations are designed, how a need is identified, who is involved in the design and innovation process and who has access to the final product(s).

This is the key potential opportunity and potential obstacle for AgTech innovations aligning with or furthering agroecology. How can we ensure that this technology (such as data from satellite imaging) does not fall into the hands of the existing power concentrations within the global food system, Big Ag? Instead, how can technology empower small producers? The CAPSELLA project emphasises that this technology must be designed and built with the active participation of those for whom it is intended.

Policy promoting AgTech

With a range of researchers in agroecology, farmers representatives and innovation, ICT and policy experts, I was asked what policies are needed for data to drive innovation in sustainable agriculture and food systems.

I first addressed the need for nuance – when we talk about AgTech, we are talking about a large swathe of different innovations and interventions. These range from using drones to measure CAP compliance to grassroots open-source technology movements to large agribusineses collecting and purchasing satellite data. Accordingly, when faced with the question of what policies encourage innovation, we must think about the kind of innovation we want to see. What innovations enhance and further agroecology? How can those innovations be supported?

These questions were asked at the start of the day and the answers seemed clear: community-driven, bottom-up and accessible innovations. Innovations designed and built with the eventual user. An important part of agroecology is about decision-making capabilities, questioning and problematising the power dynamics embedded in the existing food system. This is why, when we talk about innovation, this term should refer not only the technological innovation but innovation in the decision-making structures, innovation in the way we make policy.

We need more participatory policy making where all sorts of actors and stakeholders are folded into all stages of the process, right from the very beginning in formulating the questions of concern. A purely top-down decision making approach is not agroecologically aligned, will likely lead to a situation where AgTech and digitisation reinforces existing vertically inclined or hierarchical decision making structures. Such structures may allow for increased corporate consolidation of the food system, or at least do not pave the way for a more equal food system.

Access to best practice

In what ways could AgTech counter such power dynamics? One solution is improved knowledge dissemination. In the words of participant and speaker Dr Andrea Beste,

‘Organic farming and agroecological farming systems depend on knowledge. We have so much knowledge spread around the world but it is fragmented. If you can put this knowledge together on the internet or on a platform where you can change or share something, then this knowledge will spread very fast around the world.’

The internet is a space which facilitates easy, fast and affordable access to knowledge such as best farming practice.

An example of how CAPSELLA proposes that AgTech might help knowledge dissemination is the SOILapp. This builds upon a very old soil quality measure, the spade test. Here the farmer digs up the top 30cm of soil with a spade. The app will then ask a series of questions to help the farmer understand the quality of the soil, these include soil moisture and texture as well as vegetation coverage. The data is then uploaded onto a map allowing the user to track changes in their own soil quality as well as compare with soil quality in other areas.

Open-data and open mindsets

The open-data mindset as used in the CAPSELLA apps requires a reframing in the way we think about knowledge. It requires a shift from a system based on competition to one encouraging cooperation. What might a food system look like where skill-sharing, knowledge dissemination and collective learning empowers individuals and communities rather than placing them at a too-risky competitive disadvantage?

The open-data mindset was framed as a response to the question of how to scale up agroecology. Professor Yiannis Ioannidis from the ATHENA Research and Innovation Center, argues that

‘By coming up with connections among the communities and people involved, helping them to communicate best practices and reuse data from a different environment and in general raising awareness… Openess and connectedness is key and technology is a perfect tool to be able to achieve this.’

There is a long way to go to reshuffle power dynamics in the food system. Bottom-up, community-driven AgTech innovations are small ways powerful actors can be challenged nonetheless. Through access to data and knowledge such technologies may facilitate, in the long-term, a food and farming culture more oriented toward cooperation, collaborative learning and the collective good.

CAPSELLA – participatory science and open data for field, seed & food

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