Latin America is one of the world’s major producers and exporters of agricultural commodities. Argentina and Brazil, in particular, rank among the top exporters of crops such as maize, soy, and sugarcane. These two countries are also home to 75% of AgriTech companies in Latin America. In 2016, Microsoft and Monsanto jointly created an investment fund to promote the adoption of digital technologies in large-scale farming in Argentina and Brazil. Similarly, BASF collaborated with the Brazilian seed stage venture capital company, ACE, to establish AgroStart, an initiative to promote start-ups developing digital technologies for agribusiness. The city of Piracicaba in southern Brazil is currently the leading center for AgriTech in Latin America. It hosts the Agtech Garage, one of the largest networks in the region bringing together AgriTech start-ups, agribusiness corporations, investors, large-scale farmers, and universities. These are recent outcomes in a longer trajectory of agricultural deregulation that started in Argentina and Brazil as early as the 1990s, when agribusiness companies began to innovate based on scientific and technological developments, following the example of U.S. agribusiness corporations.
It is clear that AgriTech was introduced in Latin America by the powerful agribusiness sector. But Latin American agri-food systems are not all about industrial agriculture. Importantly, large-scale industrial agriculture primarily produces commodities for export, while peasant and indigenous food producers continue to source the domestic and territorial food markets. However, whether and how smallholder farming and connected localized food systems are targeted by AgriTech and impacted by the digital transformation of agri-food systems remains a relatively under-examined issue. This article attempts to fill this gap by looking into how AgriTech is trying to penetrate smallholder farming in Latin America. The authors believe that understanding the complex challenges that AgriTech poses for small-scale food production is essential for the future of food sovereignty and the agro-ecological transformation of Latin American food systems, particularly at a time when monopolizing knowledge and information is a key tactic of capital accumulation.
Accordingly, this article begins by providing an overview of AgriTech’s attempts to intensify its control over small-scale peasant farming in Latin America, particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic. This allows us to identify the actors and policies promoting the digital transformation of small-scale farming in the region. Subsequently, the article assesses the risks of this transformation on the rights of peasants and of indigenous peoples, as well as on food sovereignty. The final section then offers some elements for an alternative pathway for the use of data and digital technologies in food systems, building on existing initiatives by small-scale food producers and other grassroots organizations. Throughout the essay, we refer to Colombia, a country which is fast emerging as one of the foremost sites of AgriTech’s takeover of smallholder food production in Latin America.
Through this article, we hope to contribute to discussions on how to approach data and digital technologies in ways that support food sovereignty and human rights. In particular, we want to explore how such technologies can adhere to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and Other People Working in Rural Areas (UNDROP) and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).
This article relies mainly on desk research. This is an important limitation because the same actors that promote the AgriTech agenda in small-scale farming have also done the bulk of the research conducted in the field so far. Nevertheless, we were able to identify some important studies from independent researchers and gather additional information from Latin American organizations that are part of the food sovereignty movement. Our conceptual framing borrows from Cecilia Rikap’s ideas and is based on a political economy approach. We hope that the article can encourage a critical and independent research agenda on the role of science and technology in food systems which puts peasants’ and indigenous peoples’ perspectives at the center.
2. AgriTech’s Increasing Capture of Smallholder Farming in Latin America
As in the rest of the world, measures to contain the Covid-19 pandemic led to an increased use of digital tools by small-scale food producers in Latin America. The closing of open-air food markets, for instance, led peasant cooperatives to adopt or intensify the use of digital platforms to sell their produce, while consumers eagerly took to online sourcing. This was a major breakthrough for AgriTech in Latin America, given that aging small-scale farmers in the region (typically those over 50) are perceived as “resistant to digital interventions”.
This shift comes at a time when the digital infrastructure in the rural parts of Latin America is still under construction. In 2019, while 67% of the Latin American population had internet access, only 13% had access to broadband. Across the region, the digital gap in internet access between the rural and urban populations is about 25% on average. This gap widens to 43% in Peru, 36% in Colombia, and 30% in Mexico. While the gap is notably lower in Argentina and Brazil, these two countries do not stand out in terms of the promotion and uptake of AgriTech by smallholder farmers. Additional research is needed to explain this phenomenon. Smartphone penetration in rural areas is estimated to be between 55-65%.
With an eye on expanding digital infrastructure in the rural areas, Microsoft started the TV White Spaces Project in 2016. Using Microsoft Azure Cloud, the project identified and accessed available and unoccupied television channels for use as high-quality wireless broadband broadcasting. The technical features of this program, namely that TV signals travel longer distances and penetrate obstacles better, fewer access points are required to cover the same area, and lower power consumption means lower cost for users, make it particularly well-suited to meet the challenges of covering remote rural areas. In November 2021, Microsoft announced that it could connect 4 million Colombian peasants to the internet, enabling them to use digital platforms for education, agriculture, and telemedicine. This would complement the government’s efforts to bring 4G connection to 70% of the population by providing coverage to the remaining 30%.
Latin America lags behind Asian and African countries in the use of digital agricultural tools in general, and the number of users and investors seeking to establish fully commercial digital platforms and tools in particular. The AgriTech program of the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA), which represents the interests of mobile network operators, divides digital agricultural services used by small-scale farmers into five categories: a) agri e-commerce, b) digital procurement (both concerned with access to markets), c) digital advisory, d) agri digital financial services (both concerned with access to services), and e) smart farming (access to assets). To the two categories of digital services providing access to markets, we add a third category: digital platforms linking smallholders to carbon markets. We will call this service, e-carbon trade.
2.1 Agri E-Commerce
In a recent study, the Inter-American Development Bank concluded that the most-used digital service in Latin America is agri e-commerce. The scope of most of these platforms is local, covering only a single city. There are exceptions though. Frubana operates in Barranquilla and Bogotá in Columbia, in São Paulo in Brazil, and in Mexico City. Smattcom links small-scale farmers mainly in Mexico, but also in other countries, to domestic and overseas buyers. The study traces the evolution of agri e-commerce in Latin America through a bar graph (reproduced as Figure 1). The first bar shows platforms linking buyers and sellers only, with a low degree of operational complexity and capital intensity. Most digital platforms developed by small-scale farmers under a social-solidarity economy model fall under this category. An in-depth study on this category of agri e-commerce in Brazil shows peasant cooperatives and family farmers already up against significant challenges such as competition from consolidated and larger digital marketplaces, the lack of scale, insufficient logistics and infrastructure, and the lack of capacity to analyze the data produced by digital platforms to further develop their business models. The study concludes that strong public policies are needed to make digital food markets inclusive for smallholder food producers and marginalized consumers.
The subsequent bars in the infographic show agri e-commerce companies with high degrees of value chain integration and control and, therefore, of operational complexity and capital intensity. This latter model poses big challenges to the future of agri e-commerce platforms and the arrangements controlled by small-scale farmers.
2.2 Digital Procurement
Agribusinesses use digital procurement tools to improve efficiency and operational profitability such as digitization of farmers’ records. These tools also help manage certification and traceability requirements needed to export crops such as coffee, cocoa, honey, and fresh produce. Both agribusinesses and farmers’ cooperatives engaged in exports use these tools and services. However, despite a large number of small-scale farmers being part of those global value chains, only a small section uses such tools and services.
2.3 E-Carbon Trade
In February 2021, Rabobank and Microsoft together set up a digital platform called ACORN with the stated objective of onboarding small-scale farmers looking to trade carbon sequestered on their farms, thus allowing them to reap “the profits of the carbon market”. In January 2022, the two companies, along with Solidaridad Network, undertook a joint project to connect Colombian and Peruvian coffee growers to this platform. ACORN uses remote sensing technology and artificial intelligence (AI) to measure and monitor carbon sequestration. According to the Microsoft News Center, the project in Colombia and Peru is aimed at making the coffee supply chain more sustainable, transforming 36,000 hectares of conventional coffee plantations into “climate-smart coffee” through agroforestry. With the carbon sequestered in the trees, coffee growers will be able to provide carbon credits to corporations such as Microsoft which are looking to buy them in order to meet their “net zero” commitments by reducing emissions and capturing carbon. Microsoft claims that this project was designed to specifically allow small-scale farmers to join the international carbon market.
2.4 Digital Financial Services
The use of mobile money services in Latin America is much lower compared to other world regions, mainly due to regulations protecting banks from competition from non-bank-led mobile money services. The IDB study mentioned earlier, maps 27 live mobile money services and 13 million active accounts in Latin American and the Caribbean, amounting to less than 4 % of active mobile money account bases worldwide. Foregrounding the financing needs of small-scale farmers and the limitations they face in accessing banks, the study makes the case for expanding digital financial services. In fact, their use of digital services, and the rich datasets that these generate, enable fintech companies to undertake credit risk assessments of small-scale farmers by cross-referencing data collected from farms (such as farm location, farm size, estimated crop production, etc.) against hundreds of technical resources and publicly available databases.
2.5 Smart Farming Services
These services, which include automation, Internet of Things (IoT), and AI, are the least used by small-scale farmers in Latin America. Except for a few instances related to irrigation, pest control, and aquaculture, these services are still in the pilot-testing phase. The high cost of equipment (sensors, gateways, drones) and connectivity costs put them out of the reach of most small-scale farmers. For this reason, tech corporations, research centers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and multilateral institutions sponsor testing projects. A case in point is Smart Agro, a joint initiative started by Telefónica and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in 2018. The project, which applies AI algorithms developed by Telefónica’s Chile Research and Development Centre in efforts to improve water efficiency, has been pilot tested in El Salvador and Colombia.
2.6 Digital Advisory Services
These services correspond to (and are aimed to replace) what used to be called rural extension services, and provide information about weather, prices, and pests, as well as offer recommendations for farming practices. Most of these services are free, provided by government institutions or NGOs. The Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Cooperation (IICA) together with the Market Information Organization of the Americas (MIOA) and the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service launched some of the first digital advisory services in collaboration with national authorities in different countries. Digital advisory services are being increasingly integrated into other digital services, particularly digital procurement and digital financial services. In Colombia, Control Ganadero offers livestock farmers a range of services, including digital records, hyper-local weather information, transportation insurance, and links to veterinarians, and livestock buyers and sellers.
3. Actors and Institutions Promoting AgriTech for Smallholder Farming
3.1 Multilateral Organizations
Two regional multilateral organizations, IDB and IICA, stand out as key promoters of AgriTech for small-scale farming in Latin America. As an international financial institution, IDB funds AgriTech projects mainly through its innovation laboratory (IDB Lab). The 13 projects listed in its online database focus on AgriTech adoption, including climate-smart AgriTech for small farmers and women, IoT in aquaculture, AI for irrigation, digital tools to optimize traceability of value chains, tools to adopt precision agriculture for climate-smart cocoa production, and digital platforms for e-carbon trade. Besides these specific projects, IDB provides funding support to agriculture and climate policies. It is also one of the main institutions funding policy research in these areas.
As an organization promoting agricultural cooperation throughout the Americas, the IICA works in close cooperation with the IDB. In 2011, it started cooperating with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which culminated, in 2018, in a Digital Education Alliance between IICA and Microsoft aimed at promoting the use of AgriTech in the Americas. The Interpretive Center for Tomorrow’s Agriculture (CIMAG) was created as part of this alliance with support from the pharmaceutical company Bayer. IICA took an active role in the preparations ahead of the UN Food Systems Summit in 2020 and 2021, facilitating the development of a joint position of all Latin American countries at the Summit. The AgriTech-led transformation of food systems and the defense of the agro-exporting interests of the Americas were at the core of this position.
The FAO is active in pilot testing smart farming tools in collaboration with telecommunication corporations across Latin America. While its activity is limited compared to the inter-American bodies, the role of the FAO in policy advice and standard setting and its work on developing an International Platform for Digital Food and Agriculture, among other things, may influence the AgriTech agenda in the region. The FAO is hosting a follow-up to the UN Food Systems Summit (“coordination hub”), which pushes an agenda of corporate-led transformation of food systems, with AgriTech playing a major role.
3.2 Big Tech
Among corporate bodies, Microsoft plays, perhaps, the most active role in promoting the AgriTech agenda in small-scale farming in Latin America. The tech giant works closely with the IICA and the IDB, is involved in expanding digital infrastructure in rural areas, including its cloud computing services, and directly engages in developing and testing agriculture-related digital tools through partnerships with agribusiness associations, start-ups, banks, and other relevant actors.
The GSMA is another major presence. It has an AgriTech program which is funded by the United Kingdom and Australian governments, and aims to develop and implement digital services and tools for small farmers. The telecommunications corporation Telefónica is also active in developing similar AgriTech projects in the region.
Table 1, also reproduced from the IDB study, offers a concise overview of the sources of funding. Microsoft, notably, does not appear in this table and is barely mentioned in the study despite its influential role.
Table 1: Funding AgriTech for Smallholder Farming
3.4 Governments: The Example of Colombia
Colombia’s emergence as an AgriTech innovation hub can be attributed to a confluence of factors, including a strong presence of digital financial services, tech-friendly policies and regulations, “a robust start-up and investment culture, rising incomes, and a relatively strong middle class”.
In 2016, Colombia adopted a new Strategic Plan for Science, Technology and Innovation for the Colombian Agricultural and Livestock Sector for the decade, 2017-2027. This Strategic Plan was developed in the context of the peace accords signed between the Colombian government and the Armed Revolutionary Forces (FARC) which ended a decade-long armed conflict. With land dispossession and landlessness at the core of this conflict, the first accord seeks to address these issues through a plan for comprehensive rural reform, which includes a component related to science, technology, and innovation. The Strategic Plan, thus, has a strong focus on pushing the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) for innovation in agriculture and livestock farming. One means to achieve the plan’s objectives has been through the development of a program on research, development, and innovation for family farming, which includes research on agroecology and support to farmers to participate in science, technology, and innovation. However, other components of this Plan are not aligned with this one. The strategy related to food security is framed narrowly and focuses on food safety and nutrition only, while another is specifically crafted to incentivize access to biological and genetic resources while ensuring protection for intellectual property. The current government of Ivan Duque has deepened the latter components of this plan, particularly with the National Mission on Bioeconomy which was launched in 2020. This mission is a good example of how the push for digital technologies is increasingly linked to attempts to make “ecosystem services” part of a supposedly “greener” version of capitalism, including in the context of sustainable agricultural production.
4. A Critical Assessment From a Human Rights Perspective
The rhetoric accompanying AgriTech in Latin America revolves around technological innovation benefiting small-scale food producers, connecting them to markets, creating new sources of income, etc. This section examines the risks inherent in these initiatives by studying them from a human rights and food sovereignty perspective.
The first set of risks arise from data collection by the above-mentioned actors. These risks, which include issues related to privacy, data security, and more broadly, control over data, are not exclusive to Latin America or to the use of digital technologies in the food and agriculture sector. But they demand careful attention as tech companies expand their reach with the explicit objective of connecting small-scale farmers to digital technologies. It comes as no big surprise that telecommunications companies use the data flowing through their (mobile) networks to develop AgriTech programs, which raises the issue of illegitimate appropriation of smallholder farmers’ data.
The second risk pertains to control over digital infrastructure. Building a corporate/private digital infrastructure is a central element in the ongoing efforts of tech companies in Latin America, both traditional telecommunications (mobile) companies, as well as Big Tech companies such as Microsoft. Although this is positioned as bringing digital technologies to the rural areas, it is clear that controlling the physical digital infrastructure and the platforms through which people use these technologies is the basis for (quasi)monopolistic control of the digital economy by corporate actors. While data issues have received the most public attention in debates around opportunities and risks of digitalization, and the control over digital infrastructure is a critical issue at both local and global levels, as well as central to the concentration of power in the hands of global digital corporations.
Building a corporate/private digital infrastructure is a central element in the ongoing efforts of tech companies in Latin America, both traditional telecommunications (mobile) companies, as well as Big Tech companies such as Microsoft. Although this is positioned as bringing digital technologies to the rural areas, it is clear that it forms the the basis for (quasi)monopolistic control of the digital economy by corporate actors.
Data collection and control over digital infrastructure, obviously, go together. The risks are particularly evident in a country like Colombia which is marked by high levels of violence and repression. The fact that Microsoft is providing the digital infrastructure in five regions that are affected by armed conflict (the so-called “zonas futuro”) and targeted by a national security policy, raises a number of serious questions, in particular whether the enjoyment of rights to privacy, freedom of speech, freedom of information, and the right to dissent will improve or further deteriorate in the future.
Thirdly, control over digital infrastructure not only facilitates data capture, but is also the basis for promoting digital services, including digital financial services. Limited access to financial services is a central concern for many smallholder farmers in Latin America and elsewhere, but the conditions under which the new fintech services link them to financial markets require careful consideration. The so-called “financial inclusion” programs — of which microcredit schemes are the most well-known — have a mixed track record. Case studies from regions other than Latin America have demonstrated that drawing the rural poor into global financial markets leads to new, more financialized forms of poverty, as well as coercive land sales, child labor, forced migration, and increased food insecurity and malnutrition.
A similar risk could potentially arise from efforts to connect small-scale food producers to carbon markets which will likely become more pervasive in the next few years. Pushed to comply with climate change mitigation measures, corporations, including those in the tech and agri-food sector, will need to find ways to meet their “net zero” pledges. Offsetting schemes will be central in this context. Agribusiness giants such as Bayer are already using farmers to generate carbon offset credits (for example, by growing off-season cover crops). Arguments in favor of such schemes focus on creating additional sources of income for those smallholders who use sustainable practices. However, linking small farmers to carbon markets carries serious risks of transforming them into service providers for corporate actors. It may also lead to dispossession because corporations could seek to acquire direct control over the land, forests, and/or water bodies that serve as carbon sinks.
Digital advisory services (see section 2.6) create a fourth set of risks by enabling the gathering of detailed information on smallholder farms, and thus allowing capillary control over farm management. Moreover, they will usually promote a specific model of production based on the use of external inputs such as pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, hybrid seeds, etc. Such a model increases both the dependency of smallholders on these technologies and traps them in a cycle of debt and dispossession.
Finally, the (implicit) imposition of a specific agricultural model also points to ecological risks related to the depletion of soils, erosion of agricultural biodiversity, etc., exacerbating the detrimental ecological impacts of increased use of digital technologies in general (through mineral and energy extraction, for instance).
Together, these potential negative outcomes suggest that the current corporate-driven push for digital technologies in rural areas in general, and AgriTech in particular, will result in an exploitative inclusion of small-scale food producers and rural people into markets. Our analysis points to a corporate agenda of leveraging digital technologies to subordinate smallholder farming to the interests of capital, and jeopardizing human rights by preparing the ground for new forms of exploitation and dispossession. A centerpiece in this endeavor is the capture of collective knowledge and the monopolization of rents that can be generated from it. The resulting loss of autonomy and dependencies imposed on peasant farmers and rural people undermines the right to food and nutrition as well as other human rights.
Our analysis points to a corporate agenda of leveraging digital technologies to subordinate smallholder farming to the interests of capital, and jeopardizing human rights by preparing the ground for new forms of exploitation and dispossession. A centerpiece in this endeavor is the capture of collective knowledge and the monopolization of rents that can be generated from it.
The above-mentioned risks also threaten to undermine the rights of peasants, indigenous peoples, and other rural people as enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the UNDRIP, and the UNDROP. The latter two declarations are landmarks in the evolution of international human rights law because they explicitly recognize the collective nature of peasants’ and indigenous peoples’ rights. Losing control over their data and knowledge through corporate AgriTech infringes their rights to self-determination and development (UNDROP, Art. 3.2; UNDRIP, Art. 3), to determine their food and agriculture systems (UNDROP, Art. 15.4), to the means of production, including financial services (UNDROP, Art. 16.1), as well as to maintain, control, protect, and develop their knowledge, including technologies and science (UNDRIP, Art. 31; UNDROP, Art. 26.1). Appropriation of peasants’ and indigenous peoples’ knowledge and resources through digital technologies by Big Tech and other corporate actors subordinates them to capital accumulation. One illustrative example of peasants’ and indigenous peoples’ dispossession through digital technologies is the use of digitized genetic sequences (often referred to as digital sequence information or DSI). If digitized genetic information is considered data that can be freely used and patented by corporations, the use of farmers’ own seeds becomes conditional to the payment of royalties, whenever these seeds contain a patented sequence.
5. An Agenda for Future Action that Centers Human Rights
Against this backdrop, it is clear that strong safeguards are needed to ensure the respect and protection of the rights of peasants and indigenous peoples in the development and rollout of AgriTech, as well as in corporate accountability. However, it is also necessary to lay out an alternative pathway which is conducive to human rights and food sovereignty. Such a proactive agenda entails starting a broader conversation about reframing the understanding of technology towards “communitarian and re-localizing innovation (that is, innovations that break with the patriarchal, racist, and capitalist ways of living)”.
Strong safeguards are needed to ensure the respect and protection of the rights of peasants and indigenous peoples in the development and rollout of AgriTech, as well as in corporate accountability. However, it is also necessary to lay out an alternative pathway which is conducive to human rights and food sovereignty.
The vision of food sovereignty as well as the UNDROP, which together put small farmers’ agency, autonomy, and self-determination at the center, offer crucial starting points in imagining an alternative digitalization agenda for food and agriculture. As such, they are reminders that a corporate-driven deployment of digital technologies and AgriTech is not a natural law, and that other pathways are not only possible but necessary. Indeed, challenging and overcoming the subordination of knowledge and technology to capital accumulation needs to be a central component of a human rights-based alternative. The principles of such an alternative will, in many instances, be diametrically opposed to the fundamental assumptions of the corporate-driven model. Indeed, the bottlenecks identified by promoters of AgriTech in Latin America point to some key characteristics of bottom-up approaches to digital technologies for the food and agriculture sector.
Above all else, any truly alternative vision needs to recognize that, “The right to participate in and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications in agriculture should preserve, not violate, the right of peasants and other people working in rural areas to choose which technologies suit them best.” It requires an understanding of the specific nature of peasants’ and indigenous peoples’ sophisticated knowledge and innovation systems, which are intrinsically collective and dynamic. What’s also needed are more discussions among interested actors, including small-scale food producers, and alliance-building among organizations and individuals who are on top of technology issues.
To that end, the following paragraphs propose some elements for further discussion. These are inspired by: a) ongoing digital technology initiatives by social organizations in Latin America, and b) public policies which have created alternative food markets/networks in the region, and may provide a blueprint for digitalization policies promoting social justice and human rights.
Firstly, limited connectivity and access to digital technologies in rural areas are issues that need addressing. Several bottom-up initiatives that emphasize the need for “territorial”, that is, location-specific, approaches are currently being rolled out in Latin America. One example is the Free Territories, Free Technologies project in Brazil which promotes community internet networks that contradict the assumption that internet access can only be provided by Big Tech companies. These networks also address the challenge of making digital tools sustainable, especially once initial funding (by the state, NGOs, or corporate sponsors) has ended. Anchoring digital infrastructure and services in a given territory and developing them in a participatory, bottom-up way, such that they are based on available resources and serve the needs and aspirations of the people, would go a long way in addressing the problem of sustainability.
Secondly, several ongoing bottom-up initiatives seek ways of using digital technologies to support and foster personal relationships, both within and beyond a given community. This stands in stark contrast to corporate-led approaches which consider reliance on personal relationships among rural people as a factor that inhibits larger uptake of digital tools. Many initiatives that emerged during the Covid-19 pandemic to connect urban populations with smallholder food producers have had a strong component of building connections, in addition to providing food to marginalized populations. Macias Yela provides examples from Brazil and Ecuador which combine the use of digital technologies with ancestral, indigenous forms of solidarity and bartering. Building producer-consumer networks based on trust is also opposed to Big Tech’s inherent reach for surveillance and control.
Leveraging digital technologies to support real social relationships is closely related to a third element, namely the promotion of cooperation among individuals and groups, rather than the competition that is intrinsic to the corporate model. This applies particularly to the reliance on and promotion of collective forms of knowledge, and experiential learning and sharing of knowledge, as opposed to monopolizing and monetizing it (for example, through digital advisory tools or the patenting of digitized genetic information). One example is the app Lunagro developed in Colombia (see Box 1).
A Digital Advisory Service to Advance the Right to Food and Nutrition
Lunagro is a free app for cell phones launched in 2021 by FIAN Colombia in collaboration with the Botanical Garden of the University of Caldas and Colombia’s National Network of Family Farming. The application allows peasant populations and organizations, people in cities, and other actors to obtain daily information on the lunar calendar to carry out agricultural and fishing practices based on agroecology. The app also provides relevant information regarding the human right to food, nutrition, and food sovereignty, as well as information to identify the location of peasant markets held throughout the country. According to the initiators, Lungaro provides digital tools to rural and urban populations, enabling them to strengthen their knowledge, practices, and political advocacy.1We thank Ingrid Paola Romero Niño, Juan Carlos Morales González, and Hernando Salcedo from FIAN Colombia, as well as Profesor José Humberto Gallego Aristizábal from the University of Caldas in Colombia for providing this information.
Finally, we can see a clear tendency among bottom-up initiatives to use digital tools to advance broader aims of social and environmental justice, instead of focusing solely on maximizing economic benefits, increasing production, creating new marketing opportunities, etc. In Brazil, which is characterized by high levels of land concentration, environmental destruction, and violence against rural communities, initiatives like Agro e Fogo (Agricultural land and fire) provide a platform where local and smallholder organizations can signal conflicts in the Amazon, Cerrado, and Pantanal ecosystems. The platform, thus serves as a tool for monitoring violence against communities and ecosystem destruction in order to hold public and private perpetrators accountable.
In addition to these elements for an alternative pathway for the food-tech intersection, it is also useful to look at public policies that have created alternative food markets and networks, particularly in Brazil. State programs put in place by President Lula da Silva’s government to combat food insecurity and malnutrition, and provide basic social security2The most well-known policies/programs are Fome Zero (“Zero Hunger”) and Bolsa Família. have impacted the lives of millions of families and produced huge human rights benefits. While these policies included direct payments to marginalized households, an important component was to provide support to smallholder farmers. This was done through public procurement and support to alternative circuits of production and consumption, particularly short distribution chains connecting producers and consumers. In addition to stimulating demand for food from agro-ecological production, these policies also fostered collective action and cooperation, creating new “networks of sociability”. Women and other marginalized groups, particularly, benefited from those policies. These examples point to the importance of proactively shaping targeted public policies in order to generate outcomes that are conducive to the realization of human rights and social justice. Such policies should be developed through participatory, bottom-up processes that build on existing experiences.
By way of conclusion, two priority areas of intervention emerge from our analysis. The first is to formulate and uphold peasants’ and indigenous peoples’ individual and collective economic rights over data. Such rights complement important procedural rights such as the right to participation, and free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). Building on the evolution of economic, social, and cultural rights, including through the UNDRIP and the UNDROP, policy frameworks should guarantee that data about the land, water bodies, forests, fisheries, plants, and animals that they own or manage, as well as data generated through their work (agricultural activities, ecosystem management, etc.) remain under the control and ownership of peasants and indigenous peoples. This resonates with the key principles of the Just Net Coalition’s Digital Justice Manifesto, according to which data sources must own their data and data-creating work. Additional discussion with peasant and indigenous peoples’ organizations is needed to define what data should be considered as personal and what as collective.
Secondly, digital infrastructure needs to be conceived as a public good. Public investments ensuring public interest control over the infrastructure that underpins the digital economy is a key element of limiting corporate power and enabling people-centered trajectories. The experiences of internet community networks mentioned earlier point to the importance of localized, context-specific approaches to respond to the real needs of small-scale food producers. Other critical elements of public interest control over digital infrastructure are the storage and processing of data as close as possible to data sources, net neutrality, and the promotion of publicly-controlled clouds. It is difficult to imagine how a transformative tech agenda for food and agriculture can be possible if we are dependent on corporate digital infrastructure. Public interest control is, therefore, a precondition for data sovereignty and technological self-determination.