Nirvana or nightmare?
Asia-Pacific’s new wave of disruptive technologies
The following interactive image shows several disruptive technologies that are currently being applied, potentially threatening the future of our planet and life. Hover the different elements on the image in order to get an explanation of these technologies.
*The image is optimized for desktop/laptop screens. For mobile devices, please turn your device and use landscape mode.
Tech-titans: Billionaires and mega-corporations are investing in a new wave of disruptive technologies in the interest of maximizing profits.
Sensors: Automated sensors measure numerous aspects of the environment creating data to be processed, which is of significant financial interest to corporations and will help them to maximise profit. This risks both de-skilling farmers and overlooking important aspects of the environment and biodiversity, causing ecosystems to be at greater risk of harm.
Satellites: Over 1,200 satellites were launched in 2020, with the rate of launching predicted to double every year. Many are used for the transfer of farm data provided by farmers to the data clouds and to collect data about ecosystems directly via remote imaging. The emissions generated by this digitalised infrastructure – predicted to be a fifth of global energy use by 2025 – would become a major contributor to climate change.
Intensification: Ultra-processed synthetic alternatives to conventional protein sources (such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy) rely on industrial monocultures for most of their ingredients, often using genetically engineered varieties dependent on synthetic chemicals, such as pesticides and chemical fertilisers, which damage the health of farm workers and consumers.
De-skilling: Farmers and other workers would be likely to be displaced from their land and de-skilled by disruptive technologies owned by powerful corporations and investors. People’s detailed practical knowledge of agro-ecosystems, along with their cultural life, would be erased as they were forced to migrate to take up low-skill jobs elsewhere.
Monocultures: Diverse habitats, such as community forests and ecologically-appropriate patchworks of small fields, would be likely to be destroyed and replaced by fully-mechanised monocultures of crops grown on intensive industrial-scale plantations.
Public relations: Corporations use both advertising to consumers and influence over the media to promote disruptive technologies. The potential risks such technologies pose and in whose interests they are developed are rarely questioned in either social or mainstream media.
Robots: Robots are designed on the basis of data extracted from the existing human workforce, who they will replace. They are normally tied to an intensive system of industrial monocultures, carrying out tasks more cheaply than humans and without the need to rest or eat. By contributing to the increasing industrialisation of food systems they would be helping to exacerbate overall damage to the environment and biodiversity.
Drones: Classified as farm machinery in China since 2017, are now designed for spraying pesticides and use multiple forms of surveillance to survey new areas of land for potential enclosure via digital fences. Increasingly, Indigenous peoples and other local communities are likely to be dispossessed of their land by such means and evicted from their ancestral lands to give way to the expansion of industrial farms and plantations.
Digital machinery: All digital farm machinery collects data about crops, soil and climate, which is then transmitted to the digital cloud and accessed and processed by the computers of large corporations to enable them to dictate decisions about what happens on the farm – decisions that farmers used to make themselves. The data also helps corporations plan profitable future investments. None of this takes account of the long-term wellbeing of the land, seas and rivers, or those whose livelihoods are derived from them.
Food sovereignty: ETC Group has calculated that at least 70% of people in the world still obtain their food primarily from local smallholder food webs.
3D and 4D printing: Technologies such as 3D and 4D printing threatens to enable the de-skilling and theft of the intellectual property of craftspeople, including artisan makers and repairers of anything from farm tools to kitchen utensils. The environmental impact of such processes are largely unknown, but could be much higher than the processes they replace.
Synthetic biology: The spread of synthetic biology and other forms of genetic engineering threaten to increase the use of industrialised monocultures and toxic chemicals. One of these technologies – gene drives – could drive whole species extinct and potentially drive other closely-related species to extinction as well, with unknown long-term consequences for biodiversity and food systems.
Meat alternatives: Alternatives to meat, such as the Impossible Burger, combine synthetic biology with intensive industrial agriculture. The growth of this industry threatens to undermine the incomes of smallholder and agroecological livestock farmers and nomadic herders. Meanwhile the industrial plantations needed for its ingredients would damage biodiversity.
Artificial intelligence: Machine learning (often called AI) is the key mechanism whereby corporations intend to reshape food economies and ecologies worldwide via biodigital convergence. The data about living systems that they intend to harvest, and the predictions machine learning would enable them to make with that data, would increase their control over farms, farmland and farmers, and give added incentives for corporate grabbing of both cultivated and uncultivated land and water, all of which would maximise corporate profits.
Facial recognition: Facial recognition is a technology that is already widely used to monitor people’s behaviour, often without their consent, and it is now being used with pigs, cows and other livestock in order to reduce labour costs and increase the scale of factory farming, contrary to industry claims that it would benefit the welfare of animals. This increase in intensification would cause severe negative environmental and biodiversity effects.
Internet of things: The “internet of things” – the way in which objects are embedded in a network of sensors, data processing software, and other technologies, that connect and exchange data with other devices and systems over the internet – is central to the processes of digital automation that lie at the heart of the industrial intensification of agriculture. The network is generally designed by a corporation to maximise its profit by maximising the amount of patterns from which its AI can guide profitable short-term investments, without regard for the long-term impact on the environment or biodiversity.
Geoengineering: Geoengineering involves large-scale schemes to change the earth’s oceans, soils and atmosphere with the aim of reducing the effects of climate change, usually temporarily. Climate geoengineering is a false solution to the climate crisis – it aims to address the symptoms of climate change but ignores and enables the root causes to continue.
Blockchain: Blockchain is a decentralized digital ledger that is replicated across numerous locations. It is the backbone technology behind cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum and enables automatic transactions across the “internet of things”. However, by concentrating power in the hands of secretive mega-corporations, allowing no right of appeal against the algorithm, it undermines local systems of governance, including those designed to protect the environment. It also uses huge amounts of energy. In 2019, Bitcoin alone used the same amount of energy as the Netherlands.
Biodigital convergence: Two classes of technologies – agrichemicals and genetics – are today most commonly associated with either crop production (through pesticides and genetically modified crops respectively) or with synthetic foodstuffs brewed in factory vats (including artificial flavours and essences). However, it is possible that the convergence of these two technologies with the digital realm (biodigital convergence) will have the farthest ranging impacts on the environment.
Hyperspectral imaging: Hyperspectral imaging technologies are used to allow the surveying and analysis of land, vegetation and crops. They use information from the electromagnetic spectrum for each pixel in the image of a scene in order to find objects, identify materials, or detect processes. They are key enablers of highly intensive industrialised “precision” agriculture. Corporations can be expected to measure what makes profit with little regard for the environment or biodiversity.