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New but for whom? Discourses of innovation in precision agriculture

Reference Type: 

Journal Article

Duncan, Emily, Alesandros Glaros, Dennis Z. Ross, and Eric Nost. 2021. “New but for Whom? Discourses of Innovation in Precision Agriculture.” Agriculture and Human Values 38 (4): 1181–99.

We describe how the set of tools, practices, and social relations known as “precision agriculture” is defined, promoted, and debated. To do so, we perform a critical discourse analysis of popular and trade press websites. Promoters of precision agriculture champion how big data analytics, automated equipment, and decision-support software will optimize yields in the face of narrow margins and public concern about farming’s environmental impacts. At its core, however, the idea of farmers leveraging digital infrastructure in their operations is not new, as agronomic research in this vein has existed for over 30 years. Contemporary discourse in precision ag tends to favour emerging digital technologies themselves over their embeddedness in longstanding precision management approaches. Following several strands of science and technology studies (STS) research, we explore what rhetorical emphasis on technical innovation achieves, and argue that this discourse of novelty is a reinvention of precision agriculture in the context of the growing “smart” agricultural economy. We overview six tensions that remain unresolved in this promotional rhetoric, concerning the definitions, history, goals, adoption, uses, and impacts of precision agriculture. We then synthesize these in a discussion of the extent to which digital tools are believed to displace farmer decision-making and whether digital agriculture addresses the biophysical heterogeneity of farm landscapes or land itself has become an “experimental technology”—a way to advance the general development of artificial intelligence. This discussion ultimately helps us name a larger dilemma: that the smart agricultural economy is perhaps less about supporting land and its stewards than promising future tech and profits.

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