Technological Transitions in the US Local Food System in Response to Covid-19

Just Tech Covid-19 Rapid-Response Grant – Fall 2020

Abstract

This project asks how local food producers and distributors are using emerging digital technologies to connect with consumers and manage farm labor in ways that will have consequences for agricultural sustainability, surveillance capitalism, rural labor, and access to fresh and healthy food in the post-coronavirus era. The pandemic has exposed weaknesses in America’s centralized, data-driven food system, including crop destruction when retailers cancel bulk orders and viral outbreaks when farmworkers and meat processors cannot socially distance in their work. Despite this attention to larger producers, the pandemic has also disrupted local food networks that rely on decentralized, idiosyncratic digital surveillance to plan farmwork and reach markets. As small farmers and local food distributors switch en masse to replace face-to-face networking with digital tracking systems, the ways that they manage data form an invisible infrastructure governing risk, food access, and the consolidation of power within these networks. We propose to interview local farmers, food distributors, and digital tool developers, recording their experiences of this transition alongside de-identified screenshots and workflows of the tools they use to manage and organize data. These data include worker health, supply orders, food access, and farm productivity, presenting ethical and logistical problems for farmers and local food supporters. Just access to food and work requires urgent research to understand the technology-mediated systems that connect farms and eaters. By centering the collection and interpretation of data, this project analyzes how sociocultural biases in data management inform the decision-making that will shape the post-coronavirus rural economy.

Research Team

Principal Investigator

Andrew Flachs

Assistant Professor, Purdue University

  • Bio ▾

    Dr. Andrew Flachs researches food and agriculture systems, exploring genetically modified crops, heirloom seeds, and our own microbiomes. Born and raised in rural Pennsylvania, he graduated from Oberlin College with dual bachelor of music and bachelor of arts degrees in 2010. He earned his PhD from Washington University in St. Louis in April 2016 and was a 2016–2017 Volkswagen Exchange Postdoctoral Research Fellow with the Heidelberg University Karl Jaspers Centre for Advanced Transcultural Studies. He is currently an assistant professor of anthropology at Purdue University. His work among farmers in North America, Eastern Europe, and South India investigates ecological knowledge and socio-technological change in agricultural systems spanning Cleveland urban gardens, Bosnian heritage farms, Indian cotton fields. Andrew's research has been supported by public and private institutions including the Department of Education, the National Geographic Society, the American Institute of Indian Studies, and the Volkswagen Foundation, while his writing on agricultural development has been featured in numerous peer-reviewed publications, Salon, and National Geographic magazine. His book Cultivating Knowledge: Biotechnology, Sustainability, and the Human Cost of Cotton Capitalism was published in 2019 with the University of Arizona Press.

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