11 Jun 2021

Digitalization of Agriculture and Rural Areas: Towards a Taxonomy of the Impacts | Silvia Rolandi

Written by Silvia Rolandi

Digitalization is a topic catching the attention of academics worldwide. It is perceived as a phenomenon that is to change our society in all sectors – from education to food production. Indeed, the Covid-19 outbreak seemed to accelerate the digitalization process shedding light on current studies and the projects already running, which were previously considered niche fields. The attention toward possible and already existing impacts of digitalization has generated a vast amount of literature over the last year. However, this proliferating area of research tends to lack a comprehensive overview, especially in the rural domains. In fact, most contributions seem to focus on a specific field or a digital technology missing an overall reflection on the bigger picture even when pertaining to a specific sector.

In light of this, a group of researchers from the University of Pisa in collaboration with the Institute of information science and technologies (ISTI – CNR, Pisa), attempted to present a comprehensive analysis proposing a taxonomy of the impacts related to the use of digital technologies in rural domains.

The literature review showed that digital technologies can have various effects on transformations in socio-economic terms. These effects are influenced by hopes, imaginations, and visions on the role that these tools might play for social actors. The dominant narrative, especially for international agencies, seems to support global industrial agri-food systems linking agricultural issues and the possible achievement of the UN SDGs to technological solutions. The attention is particularly concentrated on population growth and food availability where technological innovation (including social, political, and moral facets) is presented as the key solution.

These approaches do not take into account possible reflections on ethical and normative aspects of the digital transformation in agriculture and rural areas. In this respect, several issues need to be tackled and solved, which will require the attention and expertise of practitioners and researchers from various disciplines. One of the illustrative examples is the data issues in terms of their storage and utilization, which can be approached from multiple disciplines. Legislative, economic, technical, and other related questions might be answered by engaging relevant stakeholders in a participatory process to anticipate potential future issues and adopt guidelines and norms. This can in particular help to introduce digital tools avoiding the identified problems.

Studies on the impacts of digital agriculture are pivotal to identify and find possible solutions ahead of time or while the issues are still rising. These studies – recent and still scarce – are aimed at identifying possible impacts while proposing eventual solutions.

In order to contribute to the academic debate, we performed a systematic literature review – a stand-alone methodology – and proposed a classification of the digitalization impacts based on the results obtained during the first year of the H2020 project DESIRA. The intention was to provide a tool to practitioners (e.g., farms, rural communities, rural workers, and officials), which can allow them to identify potential impacts (both positive and negative, depending on the specific context) and connections between digital solutions and their possible uses in specific application scenarios. The creation of such a tool (in the form of a grid and simplified with a sunburst) was inspired by our hands-on experiences in the project. We realized that this tool could help to stimulate preliminary reflections on possible outcomes – both positive and negative – and thereby support the design of policies to address side effects.

Our scientific article attempts to answer the main research question identifying the main areas of impacts and proposing, as discussed above, a comprehensive view. The research question unfolded at three levels:

  • What are the main areas of impacts identified by scholars in agriculture and rural areas?
  • What are the outcomes?
  • What are the connections between digital solutions and impacts?

The main result of our work is the first systematization of digitalization impacts in agriculture and rural areas and the development of a practically applicable tool. We believe that further research on this topic is needed considering that the literature on digitalization in agriculture and rural areas is constantly and rapidly changing, which consequently implies that the taxonomy must be continuously updated. Furthermore, in the near future, the identified effects might change in relation to different domains or diverse application scenarios. These considerations shall also be linked to ethical issues that in the conducted work could not have been completely included and were only mentioned in a few examples.

This blog post is based on the recent joint publication of Rolandi S, Brunori G, Bacco M, Scotti I. The Digitalization of Agriculture and Rural Areas: Towards a Taxonomy of the Impacts. Sustainability. 2021; 13(9):5172. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13095172 as part of the H2020 project DESIRA. The project aims to analyze ongoing digitalization processes in rural areas and agriculture to strengthen the capacity of society and political bodies in responding to digital challenges.