13 October 2020
Author : Morgan Meyer / CNRS Research Director, sociologist, Mines ParisTech
Declaration of interests : Morgan Meyer does not work, advise, own shares, receive funds from any organization that could benefit from this article, and has not declared any affiliation other than its research organization.
Making your own machines, repairing your tractor, exchanging seeds, using open source software: these are actions that aim to make farmers more free and self-reliant. These are gestures that show that tinkering and sharing are far from being trivial activities, but political acts.
But “free” and “autonomous” from what? It is often said that agriculture has become a locked system dependent on a few large corporations. Agricultural machinery, sold by companies like Iseki & Co (Japan) or John Deere (USA), are real black boxes, not very accessible and not very adaptable. The complexity of tractors makes them difficult for farmers to repair.
As far as seeds are concerned, there is a monopoly situation with three multinationals (Bayer-Monsanto, ChemChina-Syngenta and Dow-DuPont) dominating the market. And most of the software used on farms is proprietary (such as Agri4D, a management software for arboriculturists, cereal growers and winegrowers, or software from the company Isagri). The list of the negative consequences of this market hold on farmers is long: high prices, indebted farmers, standardised products, decreasing plant and animal diversity, a vision of a highly productivist and unethical agriculture, dependence on private actors, devaluation and disappearance of local and ancestral knowledge in particular.
In order to offer alternatives to this order of things, several initiatives have emerged in recent years. To promote the self-construction of agricultural equipment, networks such as Farmhack have been launched in the United States (2011), England (2015) and the Netherlands (2016). In Greece, the Melitakes cooperative, created in 2016, has notably launched the self-construction of a chickpea threshing machine. And in France, self-construction workshops have been organised since 2009, leading to the creation of L’Atelier paysan (Peasant Workshop) in 2014. All these collectives are campaigning for “equipped” autonomy in the double sense of the word: autonomy that is achieved through equipment and autonomy that is transmitted as a team (équipe in French).
The Atelier paysan is a cooperative that promotes “a bottom-up, novel and subversive conception of adapted machines and buildings”. In practice, the Atelier paysan has trained around 1,700 people and has carried out around 80 tutorials. The cooperative produces and distributes plans for the construction of agricultural machinery under a free licence (a licence that allows a work to be used, modified and redistributed). A wide variety of techniques are dealt with, from mobile greenhouses to wheat brushes and plastic unwinders, for example. L’Atelier Paysan advocates “technological sovereignty” for farmers and positions itself in favour of low-tech. At the same time, it criticises the productivist and Fordist model of agriculture and too much faith in digital technology.
The struggle for reparability
Self-construction goes hand in hand with the ability to repair agricultural machinery. The repairability of tractors has become the most publicised example in the field. The story of tractor hacking began in 2017 when American farmers began using pirated software to repair their John Deere tractors themselves. They do so because it is technically and legally impossible to repair these tractors by themselves. Only the company’s technicians and authorised dealers can carry out the repair work, as only they have the software needed to carry out the diagnosis, authenticate spare parts, restart the engine, etc. The company’s own technicians and authorised dealers can do the repair work. This problem is compounded by the fact that repair is a slow and expensive process.
What started out as a technical and economic frustration soon turned into a political and legal battle. On the one hand, farmers are mobilising so that bills, such as the Fair Repair Act, can thwart manufacturers’ business practices. Farmers are demanding a “right to repair”. On the other side, actors like John Deere (and also Apple) have been lobbying – with success so far – for a new legal framework not to emerge. In Europe, debates about the right to repair are also currently taking place, with the European Commission’s efforts to introduce the right to repair for all electronic products, to be in force by 2021.
Seed is another object through which a similar battle is being fought: the majority of seeds are commercialised by corporations, which hold intellectual property rights through patents. As a result, free trade in seeds and the development of new varieties by farmers have become rare. What was a shared good for thousands of years, developed and controlled by farmers, has become a private good, with commodification developing especially from the second half of the 20th century onwards.
Farmers’ seed movements – and seed activism more broadly – have emerged to transform this private good back into a common good, whether in countries like Brazil, India or Australia. In Europe, the movement has developed especially in the 2000s, for example in France, Spain and Italy.
The Farmers’ Seed Network (Réseau Semences Paysannes) is a collective that demands “seed autonomy” and campaigns to “defend the fundamental rights of peasants over their seeds” by building “a collective alternative to industrial varieties”. At the legislative level, the struggle of farmers’ seed networks has borne fruit: the sale of farmers’ seeds will be allowed in Europe from 2021. Also worth mentioning is the US Open Source Seed Initiative, founded in 2012, which is inspired by the legal instruments of the open source software movement in the field of plant breeding. In particular, it has developed a “pledge” that defends the open source freedoms of seeds, i.e. the freedom to save, replant, share, exchange, study and adapt them.
Sociotechnical worlds to be analysed
Mobilisations around autonomy, the common good and sharing are obviously not recent. However, it is interesting to note that many collectives have formed in recent years to defend a more sovereign and autonomous agriculture, and that new technical and legal tools are being mobilised in this struggle. Semantic and even ethical changes are taking place, with agro-ecology, open source and transition as important new references.
The struggles for free agriculture are empirically very rich places, because they make the social worlds of the different actors visible and palpable. They reveal a diversity of issues – around autonomy, conviviality, identity, digital, design, the knowledge and learning at stake, political, legal and economic dimensions and tensions, commonalities and peer-to-peer. They show that objects such as a seed or a tractor raise legal questions and that DIY, piracy and sharing are, more than ever, political gestures.