• Harvest-RCN

The Politics of Technology for Sustainable Food Systems

By Kim Niewolny, niewolny@vt.edu


Our food and farming systems are experiencing great uncertainty. Climate change, food insecurity, and farm labor injustice are just a few of the complexities that frame our current conditions and perceptions of food system sustainability. At the same time, socio-technical innovation to sustainability has emerged as a possible solution. Sustainability technologies vary in scale, purpose, and politics. They include large-scale and entrepreneurial approaches such as big data analytics and robotic engineering in the agri-food sector.


The landscape of the Big Data network with business players Wolfert, Cor Verdouw, & Bogaardt, 2017

They are also informed by localized approaches and paradigms, such as agroecology, vertical farming, and low-input assistive technology engineering.

Sustainability technologies also comprise multi-sector, network innovations in communication and organizational design that are capable of changing the conditions in which are necessary for sustainable systems to emerge, disrupt, and respond across multiple scales. This paper brings these issues forward through the lens of the newly formed Research Coordination Network (RCN), HARVEST, funded by the National Science Foundation. HARVEST is focused on the convergence of engineering, socio-behavioral, socio-political, and humanistic disciplines to explore the possibilities, dilemmas, and ethics of linking technology, systems thinking, and sustainability frameworks to enhance small farm sustainability as a global concern.


Drawing upon HARVEST, this paper critically explores how technology is discursively framed and the implications of this framing on the small farm experience by asking such questions as:


· What kinds of human-centered, socio-technical strategies currently exist?

· What are the possibilities for new solutions and imaginaries for food system sustainability?

· Most importantly, how can we can uphold equity in these responses?

Ontological and epistemological questions that were further posed as part of the paper presentation:


· What kinds of technology strategies currently exist and how are they framed?

· For whom and at what scale?

· How can we uphold equity in these responses?

· What agro-foodscape realities are being enabled?

· Which do we want to help make more real, and which less real?

· What specific effects might be enacted?

· What technologies would we do well to avoid?


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