Making Sense of Smart Technologies for Sustainable Agriculture

This paper discusses the challenges of assessing the benefits and risks of new digital technologies, so-called ‘smart technologies’ for sustainable agri-food systems. It builds on the results of a literature review that was embedded in a wider study on future options for (sustainable) farming systems. 

Following the concepts of Actor-Network-Theory, we can conceive of smart technologies in agriculture as networks that can only be understood in their entirety when considering the relationships with all actors involved: technology developers, users (farmers, consumers and others), data analysts, legal regulators, policy makers, and potential others. Furthermore, interaction of the technology and its implementers with nature, such as plants, entire landscapes, and animals, need to be taken into consideration. As a consequence, we have to deal with a highly complex system when assessing the technology – at a time where many of the relevant questions have not been sufficiently researched yet. 

Building on the FAO’s SAFA guidelines, the paper outlines criteria against which smart technologies could be assessed for their potential to contribute to a sustainable development of agri-food systems. These include aspects of governance, ecology, economy and social issues. We draw some tentative conclusions on the required framework conditions for implementation of digital technology, in particular from the perspective of sustainable agriculture. These are aimed at fuelling further discussion about the potentials and risks of the technology.

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