Agriculture and rural areas facing the “twin transition”: principles for a sustainable rural digitalisation

From Firenze University Press Journal: Italian Review of Agricultural Economics (REA)

University of Florence
4 min readMar 21


Gianluca Brunori, Pisa Agricultural Economics Group (PAGE), University of Pisa

With the Green Deal, the European Union has committed to transform itself «into a fair and prosperous society, with a modern, resource-efficient and competitive economy where there are no net emissions of greenhouse gases in 2050 and where economic growth is decoupled from resource use» (European Commission, 2020).To achieve this objective, «Europe must leverage the potential of the digital trans-formation». In other words, the digital and ecological transformations should go in parallel, and should rein-force each other. As the document points out, «Europe needs a digital sector that puts sustainability at its heart».

The choice to stress the link between the two transitions or, as proposed in the Green Deal document, to pursue a “twin transition”, addresses a critical point of the strategy. Indeed, the two transitions are very different in in their dynamics and nature. On the one hand, the ecological transition, aiming at reverting the trend towards degradation caused by the fossil-based economy, requires a strong political and societal push, driven by public interest (Mazzucato, 2013). On the other, the digi-tal transformation — at least the one we have experienced so far — is a mainly market-driven process: the advance-ment of digital technologies has opened huge opportuni-ties for innovative business, which in most cases has tak-en advantage of regulatory gaps and generated inequali-ties and harm. Agriculture plays a key role in the twin transition.

Together with energy and mobility, food is considered one of areas where, to meet the sustainability goals, transformation should be deeper(European Environ-ment Agency, 2021). The Farm to Fork strategy empha-sizes this aspect. The contribution of agricultural systems to greenhouse gases, reduction of biodiversity, pollution, water scarcity is well-known, as is the importance of the food system for human wellbeing. Ensuring food security and nutrition for all while reverting the trend to ecosystem degradation and ensuring a decent income for farmers and workers is one of the hardest challenges, a “wicked problem” for policymakers. The agro-ecologi-cal transition, which translates the ecological transition into agriculture, implies a radical rethinking of land-scape infrastructures, farm design, production processes, business models, supply chains, consumption behaviour(Ollivier et al., 2021; Duru, Therond, 2015). Digitalisa-tion can provide tools for managing the complexity of more diversified agricultural systems, to optimize the use of inputs, reduce the burden of an unpleasant and heavy workload, simplify administrative tasks, improve communication with peers and consumers, anticipate risk and accelerate adaptation (Rolandi et al., 2019).

It can also improve the quality of life of farming households by making rural areas more liveable (Cowie et al., 2019). However, also different digitalization pathways are pos-sible, much less coherent with the agro-ecological tran-sition and sustainability goals (Klerkx et al., 2019). As is evident in countries where it has occurred earlier, digitalization has mainly benefited the dominant agricultur-al model, based on specialization and large-scale farms, which was the most profitable market for technology providers (Lajoie-O’Malley et al., 2020). The mechanical sector has been the fastest to propose digital solutions to farmers, by embodying them into agricultural machinery (Wolf, Buttel, 1996). Decision support tools in precision farming have been focused on a limited number of crops such as wheat, maize, canola, and soybeans. As pointed out by many observers (Bronson, 2019), this might have increased the disparity between large and small farms, providing much lower than needed improvements to the sustainability performance of farms.Evidence shows that digitalization, driven only by market forces and in the absence of an effective policy environment, might take our food systems far from sus-tainability. Policy approaches to technological develop-ment in many cases have considered the link between market and technology as unproblematic, considering technological innovation fully coherent with the public interest provided it generates efficiency and economic growth (Schot, Steinmueller, 2018).

Keeping separate policy agendas for technology development and envi-ronmental, health and social issues has generated diver-gent pathways. Unintended consequences of technol-ogy development, framed in policymaking as “market failures”, have limited the capacity of public policies to steer the evolution of technology towards societal goals (Weber, Rorhacker, 2012). Coherence between the digi-tal and ecological agendas will require a new genera-tion of policies — transformative policies — that get rid of “market failure” approaches in favour of “directionality” (Duncan et al., 2022). This paper proposes a policy framework for a “sus-tainable digitalisation”, a digitalization pathway that supports the agro-ecological transition of the farming sector by sustaining the competitiveness of low-input, circular, diversified, quality-oriented farms, and prevents the digital divide between rural and urban areas and between large and small farms. Transformative policies in this field require creating the basic (infrastructural and human capital) conditions for digitalization, adapt-ing digitalization to different contexts, favouring digital inclusion, developing digital ecosystems, designing specific policy tools and adaptive governance models.


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