How AgTech, automation, and big data is shaping labour and rural communities in our food system

We’re currently seeing a massive shift toward automation and digitalization in systems and institutions across the world. Many scholars and activists have written about the ethical dimensions and potential pitfalls of big data (Zwitter 2014Illiadis and Russo 2016), including issues around surveillance (Lyon 2014), access and inequity (Lanier, 2014; Felt 2016; Kitchin 2014). There has also been a growing field of work exploring how digitalisation will exacerbate power inequities in the food system (Bronson and Knezevic 2016; Carolan 2016a, 2018, 2016b; Mooney 2018) And finally, important research is happening around issues of labour injustice and inequity in food and agriculture (Basok, 2002; Horgan and Liinamaa, 2017; Walia, 2010; Robillard et al., 2018Reid-Musson, 2017Weiler, et. al. 2017)

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Photo by Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Within this context, a group of us got together to explore some key trends being observed at the nexus of agricultural production, technology, and labour in North America, with a particular focus on Canada. After reflecting on our discussions, reading the literature, and analysing the data, we wrote a paper that highlights three key tensions we’ve observed: 1) the complex relationship between rising land costs and automation; 2) the development of a high-skill/low-skilled bifurcated labour market; and 3) growing issues around the control of digital data itself. In the paper we apply a social justice lens to consider the potential impacts of digital agricultural technologies for farm labour and rural communities, which directs our attention to racial exploitation in agricultural labour specifically. After all, structures of racism, classism and patriarchy have long underpinned Canadian agriculture (Carter, 1990; Holtslander, 2015; Laliberte and Satzewich, 2008; Perry, 2012Preibisch, 2007). After exploring these tensions over the past year, it seems that policy and research must work to shift the trajectory of digitalization in ways that support food production as well as marginalized agricultural labourers. We also point to some key areas for future researchwhich is lacking to date. We emphasize that the current enthusiasm for digital agriculture should not blind us to the specific ways that new technologies intensify exploitation and deepen both labour and spatial marginalization

You can read the full paper here (open access):

Automated pastures and the digital divide- How agricultural technologies are shaping labour and rural communities

Another group of us have also just published a similar paper that reviews the political economy of big data and agriculture more generally, which can be found here: The Politics of Digital Agricultural Technologies: A Preliminary Review

Looking forward to hearing your feedback!

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