Universal internet access helps make food more sustainable

Consumers wanting to reduce the carbon intensity of their food should advocate for better rural internet.

Producers know most agricultural towns have broadband, but in the country, cell service fades. Telematics produced by farm equipment has to be stored, getting pushed to the cloud at the farmyards while IoT devices use networks, like LoRaWAn. Network-controlled automation is impossible.

New technology in agriculture, such as self-driving tractors, precision water uses or blockchains, can make a farm more efficient and sustainable, but a strong cellphone signal, or internet, is needed to make it work.

Consumers wanting well-sourced, sustainable food and a story behind it have little understanding what any of this technology means; or does; or even exists.

Farmers haven’t told them. It is an untold chapter in the story of our food.

But if consumers knew about it, even a little bit, they might start realizing the need for better rural internet.

I’m lucky to live in a diverse city, surrounded by tons of millennials who have little knowledge of modern agriculture and big ideas about ensuring their food is sustainable and environmentally friendly.

The modern-day consumer is just trying to do the right thing in a world where it’s sometimes easy, but usually really hard, to figure out what the right thing actually is.

Vertical farming is an easy sell as the right thing to do, in part because it’s simple to explain to the consumer.

The disruptive technology is helping reduce food waste from harvest or travel, and the companies making these automated growing systems boast of reducing the geographic footprint of farming, lowering labour costs and decreasing water usage.

Plus, reliable crop yields.

Urban consumers love this stuff.

It seems like the right thing to do and it’s easy enough to understand.

Trouble is there isn’t even close to enough vertical farming to feed the country, let alone the world. Consumers trying to find the right thing to do can’t rely on vertical farming to meet their demands.

Thankfully, farmers are trying to do the right thing, too.

They’re adopting precision agriculture tools to become more sustainable by using technology to manage inputs and reduce waste.

But to do so on a widescale, they’ll need access to the internet.

If consumers understand the role internet access plays in the story of making their food sustainable, they will realize the right thing to do is to ensure farmers can have that access.

Rural communities alone don’t have enough political pull to convince widescale government investment in improving universal broadband services.

Canada’s major telecoms don’t have enough of a business incentive to take it upon themselves and improve services, either.

Governments seem unsure of where or how to build out networks in an affordable way and, despite making investments or commitments, appear to be hoping if they wait long enough, the private sector will figure it out for them.

One of those wait-and-see private sector plays is Elon Musk’s StarLink. The public relations pro and Tesla founder is planning to launch low-orbit satellites to bring internet to remote places. It is likely years away from being successful, despite its huge potential.

Regional investment strategies between the telecoms and industry have promise, but aren’t happening on a wide scale.

Farmers should include the way they are using technology, and their need for the internet to do so, with the story of the food they are producing for consumers.

In turn, consumers wanting to reduce the carbon intensity of their food should advocate for better rural internet.

If there is enough will among consumers —voters — then universal internet can become a reality.

It’s the right thing to do.

D.C. Fraser is Glacier Farm Media’s Ottawa correspondent. Reach out to him by emailing dfraser@farmmedia.com.

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