A wave of innovation driven by the convergence of digital and molecular technologies is transforming food production and ways of eating in the US, Western Europe and Australasia. This book explores a range of contemporary agri-food issues, such as the digitalisation of farm production, aka Precision Agriculture, farmer independence, gene editing, alternative proteins and the rise of app-based home food deliveries.
This is the first book to provide a systemic analysis of technological innovation and its socio-economic consequences in modern food systems, including the ‘hollowing out’ of rural communities and pronounced industrial concentration. The food system is under growing public pressure to respond to global climate change, but this book finds little evidence of transition to sustainable low-carbon trajectories.
In this introduction, the recent wave of innovation in modern food systems driven by convergent digital and molecular technologies is set in the context of two existential crises facing humanity: global climate change and COVID-19.
The analytical approach taken in the book is then discussed, with emphasis on concepts drawn from neo-Schumpeterian evolutionary economics, science and technology studies, particularly actor-network theory, and inter-capitalist competition in an era of platform capitalism.
This section is followed by previews of the individual chapters in the book.
This chapter examines the digitalisation of major field crop production in the US and Western Europe with the emergence of PA, aka ‘smart farming’, with the diffusion of GPS-assisted mapping, GPS auto-steer farm equipment, and site-specific variable rate technologies for input applications. These innovations are instrumental in the transition from field-level management to a high-resolution sub-field scale.
The chapter discusses the role of Big Data analytics in this transition and corporate farm management platforms, whose emergence set the stage for a series of recent mega-mergers in the ‘seed-chemical complex’ of agricultural life science companies. This round of consolidation was triggered by Monsanto’s acquisition of Climate Corporation in 2013 and this complex is now dominated by the ‘Big Four’.
A key argument is that PA technologies and corporate support platforms offering algorithmic ‘prescriptions’ for variable rate applications of farm inputs have reinforced farmer lock-in to the hegemonic paradigm of industrial agriculture.
This chapter examines the specificities of the diffusion processes of precision agriculture PA technologies in the US and Western Europe, and the contested issues these reveal. These specificities are seen in the context of structural agrarian change over the last 30 years, with its distinctive ‘divides’ and inequalities.
Digitalisation and decision support tools are imbuing farms with certain features of digital control centres, and the spatial nature of farm work is changing as screen time becomes increasingly important in managing farmscapes. The chapter explores the implications of these changes for farmer autonomy and the politics of knowledge production, and refers to the ‘right to repair’ controversy as an expression of farmer disempowerment.
PA technologies are transforming farmers’ experiential knowledge into newly commoditised inputs, transferring power to corporate service platforms and prescriptive software packages. Farmers’ equivocal engagement with these technologies is analysed using the concept of ‘re-scripting’. The chapter concludes with some reflections on ‘Appropriationism 4.0’.
This chapter analyses the rise of the alternative proteins (AP) industry, which is a vivid example of changing spatialities in modern food systems. Plant- and cell-based protein analogues threaten to displace the farmed livestock industry by compressing time and space and redefining the meaning of urban and rural. Later sections discuss the responses of Big Meat and Big Food corporations to these innovations and the formation of ‘protein conglomerates’.
AP start-ups have attracted massive funding from venture capitalists by using ‘promissory narratives’, which claim that meat substitutes can make a significant contribution to the mitigation of climate change and global hunger. These discursive claims are interrogated in the light of the recent performance of the plant-based sector, estimates of the infrastructural requirements needed to make even modest inroads into the global protein market, and recent critiques of arguments that prioritise a protein transition over a systemic sustainability transition.
A final discussion emphasises that the AP industry is intensely proprietorial, with the model of food-as-software secured by food-as-intellectual property.
This chapter traces the consolidation of power over the global seed-chemical complex by an elite group of ‘legacy’ life science corporations and the parallel privatisation of agricultural R&D. These developments reinforce the industrial agro-food system, reproducing its path-dependent techno-scientific trajectories and exacerbating the structural crises of rural economy and society. The ‘Big Four’ life science corporations have erected formidable barriers to entry using intellectual property rights platforms, which dominate the innovation process in agricultural biotechnology.
This political economy is explored over successive ‘generations’ of plant biotechnologies, beginning with their commercial introduction in the 1990s, the emergence of gene editing systems, notably CRISPR-Cas 9, after 2010, and concluding with the advent of gene driving. Gene drives radically extend the scope of molecular intervention from individual field crops and animal species to ‘engineering’ the agro-ecosystem, and potentially to global scales.
The chapter analyses the contrasting trajectories of the regulation and governance of biotechnology in the US and the EU, and argues that the US is an exemplary case of regulatory capture by industry.
This chapter examines how digitally mediated, platform-based technologies are reconfiguring food services, retailing, shopping practices, and foodways, and how certain earlier trends have been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Big-box grocery firms have adapted well to the rise of online, contactless shopping, in contrast to the bleak experience of dine-in restaurants, which suffered initially from the extraordinary expansion of app-based home delivery platforms in 2020–2021.
The chapter explores the ‘winner-take-all’ dynamic of platform capitalism in the context of the vertical integration and global consolidation in the app-based food delivery sectors. This analysis looks at the flawed business model of these sectors and their reliance on ‘gig’ employment practices of casualisation, piece rates, and limited access to labour benefits. Recent attempts to re-classify these workers as employees rather than independent ‘contractors’ are reviewed, notably California’s Proposition 22 and the European Commission’s decision to issue draft regulations to treat ‘gig’ workers as employees.
This chapter recapitulates the main arguments and empirical findings, highlighting the striking continuity of the unsustainable industrial food system in an era of global warming and existential crises for humanity. The innovations analysed in this book, including PA, alternative proteins, gene editing, and home food delivery platforms, are easily accommodated in this hegemonic system. In short, the wave of innovation represents evolutionary rather than radical change.
The counterpart of this central continuity is the lack of progress towards a broadly-based sustainability transition.
This impasse is reflected in the deeply entrenched power structures that thwarted hopes of reaching a progressive compromise at the 2021 United Nations Food Systems Summit. This summit was an uninspiring prelude to the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP26), which generated a range of nonbinding commitments but few concrete measures to mitigate climate change.
A postscript briefly discusses the repercussions of the renewed Russia–Ukraine war on food security and health as food and fuel price inflation accelerate on a global scale, threatening international economic recession.
This book explores the socio-economic impacts, trajectories, and agro-food ‘futures’ arising from the intense wave of innovation sweeping the industrial food systems of the United States, European Union, and the United Kingdom against the background of global climate change and COVID-19 and its variants.
Chapter case studies include precision agriculture (PA) technologies, accompanying corporate farm support platforms and their repercussions on farmer identity and the politics of knowledge production, alternative plant- and cell-based proteins, gene editing agricultural biotechnologies, downstream home food delivery platforms, and the ‘gig’ economy.
Key arguments include: the convergence of digital and molecular technologies is galvanising techno-scientific change; innovation is path dependent, reinforcing hegemonic food systems, and their corporate architecture; this trajectory accordingly is marked by structural continuities and evolutionary rather than radical, revolutionary change; modern industrial food systems are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, yet there is scant evidence of a sustainability transition, even in a pre-figurative form; in 2022, opportunities were missed at the United Nations Food Systems Summit and COP26 to set modern food systems on a more sustainable path.
Analytical resources are drawn from evolutionary economics, actor-network theory, digital geography, and inter-capitalist competition in an era of platform capitalism.