Technology’s Role in Governing Sustainable Food Systems
Digitalization is altering how we understand the environment and act upon problems with sustainability.
This text is a summary of the third interview in a three-part interview series that explores how digitalization is reshaping environmental governance. I spoke with Sake Kruk who’s a Ph.D. researcher on the Environmental Policy Group at Wageningen University, Wageningen, Netherlands. His research examines how digital technologies are ushering in a recent type of environmental governance inside food systems, specifically because it pertains to sustainability assurance inside aquaculture. Aquaculture includes the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of fish and other aquatic animals or plants, while sustainability assurance is the means of monitoring and assessing the sustainability claims of producers who’re searching for to satisfy sustainability standards.
Sustainability assurance inside aquaculture has traditionally been performed by corporate, nonprofit, and governmental initiatives. A couple of examples include corporate social responsibility and eco-certification programs, government extension services that provide management advice to producers, and traceability services that track a product because it moves through a supply chain. Groups just like the Aquaculture Stewardship Council and the Global Seafood Alliance will create standards for sustainable aquaculture production, after which a third-party auditor will visit a production location and confirm whether that location complies with the established standards.
Kruk believes sustainability assurance inside aquaculture is a critical field of inquiry on condition that aquaculture serves as a very important source of protein the world over and is viewed as a more sustainable alternative to wild capture fisheries. At the identical time, aquaculture faces serious sustainability challenges including habitat destruction, water pollution, and intense chemical and antibiotic usage. If aquaculture could develop into a greater share of total food production and develop into more sustainable, it will have far-reaching environmental implications.
Progress toward sustainable production inside aquaculture has proven slow and difficult, Kruk explains. Small-scale fish farmers are quite a few, dispersed, and disconnected, diverse of their farming practices, and sometimes lack the resources and capabilities to provide sustainably. Sustainability assurance initiatives that depend on on-site assessments have struggled to succeed in these small-scale fish farmers and currently only ~3% of worldwide aquaculture production is certified sustainable. Kruk says that sustainability assurance driven by digital and distant sensing technologies is seen as a less expensive, simpler alternative to traditional approaches and will higher enable the participation of small-scale producers inside initiatives.
While digitalization could potentially simplify and streamline sustainability assurance, Kruk notes that it also introduces additional informational burdens on actors inside a supply chain. Many buyers and sellers could be involved within the production of a product, as they exchange intermediary and final goods with each other. Producing sustainably, and assuring sustainable production using digital means, requires that these actors collect, analyze, and exchange increasingly complex details about their products. And this information have to be codified and standardized in order that it could possibly be digitally transmitted. These requirements — often established by sustainability assurance initiatives — can strain the technical capability of buyers and sellers, especially when one considers the limited resources and capability of small-scale fish farmers.
Sustainability assurance initiatives play a key role in coordinating production amongst actors in a supply chain. They’ll determine what and the way sustainability information is collected, analyzed, and exchanged between buyers and sellers and, in doing so, structure our understanding of environmental issues and easy methods to govern them. After analyzing a various set of ten initiatives, Kruk outlines 3 ways these initiatives use digital technologies — like satellite imaging, blockchain, and artificial intelligence — to reshape environmental governance. First, sustainability assurance initiatives frame environmental issues from the outset in ways which can be determined and constrained by digital technologies. Then the initiatives establish sustainability objectives, that are programmed into the technologies. And, finally, the initiatives offer digitally-mediated strategies and interventions for achieving those objectives. At each step, initiatives make value-laden decisions about what sustainability is and the way it needs to be promoted.
While it could appear that the framing of environmental problems is self-evident and objective, Kruk argues that digital technologies actually shape how we frame these issues. It’s because digital technologies only collect, analyze, and interpret data which can be computable, numerical, and measurable. In consequence, Kruk explains, environmental issues are commonly framed when it comes to their biophysical characteristics. For instance, consider how climate change is commonly described as a rise in parts per million of atmospheric CO2, inches of sea level rise, square kilometers of melting arctic ice, increasingly severe and unpredictable weather patterns, and ocean acidification. These framings are a consequence of the tools we’ve chosen to make use of to measure climate change. Kruk notes that some sustainability assurance initiatives may transcend biophysical indicators and include behavioral data collected through questionnaires, interviews, demographic records, and the like. Still, this socio-economic data have to be measurable and deemed pertinent to environmental sustainability, which is ultimately a subjective determination.
Next, sustainability assurance initiatives will often program sustainability objectives into technology. Kruk argues that technology manifests sustainability objectives in specific ways and, in doing so, shapes how actors inside a supply chain address environmental issues. The primary manifestation of sustainability objectives is thru a uniform, “blanket” approach. Initiatives will encode sustainability thresholds and standards into digital tools, remotely collect data on small-scale producers, and apply the thresholds and standards equally to all producers. Second, Kruk explains that initiatives can take a more farm-specific approach by gathering data a few producer and providing them with customized farm management advice through tools, reminiscent of mobile or web-based applications. Finally, Kruk highlights a more open approach whereby initiatives create a digital platform that permits actors inside a supply chain to exchange details about their products and production practices. Sustainability objectives aren’t defined a priori but as an alternative emerge from interactions between actors. Each of the approaches described above has pros and cons, Kruk argues. They vary in how prescriptive, flexible, and targeted they’re and on whom they place the majority of the responsibility for sustainable production. Where Kruk sees overlap is in how initiatives use technology to literally and figuratively encode the sustainability objectives that producers must achieve.
Finally, after having established sustainability objectives, initiatives can use technology to assist producers in achieving those objectives. Kruk argues that the initiatives convey their prescribed strategies and interventions through three distinct, digitally-mediated approaches. First, they use technology to gather data a few farm after which help the farmer produce more sustainably by providing feedback in the shape of text messages, digital dashboards, smartphone applications, etc. Second, initiatives can offer rewards and impose sanctions, administered through digital tools, to motivate small-scale fish farmers to alter their production practices. Finally, digital technologies can facilitate informational exchanges between actors in a supply chain, with the hope of improving sustainability. It’s through providing advice, administering rewards and sanctions, and creating information-sharing platforms that initiatives use technology to shape the actions of small-scale producers.
Through his research, Kruk maps out quite a lot of ways in which sustainability assurance initiatives use digital technologies to manipulate sustainable food production. Each approach has advantages and risks. As an alternative of promoting anybody single approach, Kruk concludes that it’s way more vital to ask critical questions when analyzing the usage of digital technologies by initiatives. A few of these questions include: Who’re the lead, governing actors making decisions and what are their interests? Who’s introducing or programming the digital tools and who has access and control over the info that’s produced? In what ways are environmental problems defined through the usage of digital technologies and what’s excluded from that definition? What sorts of priorities and interventions are promoted and that are marginalized? Who ultimately advantages because of this?
These sorts of questions apply not only to sustainability assurance inside food systems but digital environmental governance more broadly. All of them must do with power dynamics and interrogate the way it is that environmental issues are framed, assessed, and acted upon. They get at the guts of how digitalization is reshaping environmental governance and needs to be front-of-mind for any policy-maker, decision-maker, or program administrator seeking to design or implement digital sustainability programs or policies.
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