- Patti Naylor farms with her husband, George. She participates in the Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security.
Many technologies have proved beneficial to farmers, relieving them of some of the most physically demanding work, improving safety on the farm, and providing new insights for farm management.
As agricultural technology is advancing, with sensors, artificial intelligence, robotics, drones, genetic sequencing, machine learning, and communications networks to collect, process, aggregate, and analyze data, the benefits to the farmer — and to the environment — must be questioned. Big Data, the massive accumulation of digital information on land, seeds, plant genetics, livestock, workers, production systems, and consumer behavior, is an emerging source of power and profit for both tech companies and agribusiness.
Elliot Grant, the CEO of Mineral, a new ag tech company of Alphabet, the parent company of Google, in a Des Moines Register guest column published Jan. 15, attempts to convince us that the many challenges that face farmers today can be solved if they just had adequate “tools.”
Grant asks, “if agriculture is so important, why isn’t it getting the best tech?” The real question should be, “since agriculture is so important, why are we leaving its future up to a few powerful companies?”
Alphabet/Google is positioning itself to join the data mining game as companies jostle to see who will control the most data — and the related infrastructure — coming from every corner of our food system. Mineral claims it already has data on 10% of the world’s farmland. Seed, chemical, and equipment companies are in the tech game as well, a big influence in Bayer’s $63 billion acquisition of Monsanto. As reported last fall, “Bayer’s ‘Field View’ digital platform, extracts 87.5 billion datapoints from 180 million acres of farmland in 23 countries and funnels it into the cloud and AI servers of Microsoft and Amazon to generate new business strategies.” With little to no oversight to this digitalization of agriculture, government leaders, commodity groups, and agribusiness executives are enabling this power grab.
In 2020, the CEO of an Iowa farmer-member cooperative told farmers that data would soon be more valuable than the crops they produced. With the price of crops determined through a global market without reflecting the costs to produce the crops, this may not be a huge leap.
This commodification of data is profitable through carbon markets, incentive programs, and precision climate-smart agriculture, all based on narrowly defined and corporate-friendly practices that have been called out as greenwashing. Farmers are lured into giving up their data – their knowledge – for little real return. Some of these data-collecting schemes are even taxpayer-funded and heavily promoted by USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.
In turn, the financialization of data-rich farmland attracts investors, often through shares in Real Estate Investment Trusts, or REITs. With closely-held technology, thousands of acres of farmland can be managed by artificial intelligence. Bill Gates, cofounder of Microsoft with its Azure Farmbeats service, reportedly owned the most private farmland of anyone in the United States in 2021. It is becoming more and more difficult for today’s family farmer to compete with this appetite for farmland investment.
While agribusiness and tech companies claim benefits to farmers and to the environment, the technology being developed and employed will lock-in the farm practices, land use, crops, and equipment that support the extractive, chemical-intensive corn-soybean-CAFO-ethanol model, further entrenching this system. Additionally, the collection, processing, and storage of data takes huge amounts of energy.
As many people in Iowa are beginning to understand, this system of agriculture is not sustainable. Evidence shows it causes widespread air and water pollution, harms ecosystem health and human health, moves more and more farmers off the land, and destroys rural communities and small businesses. Any biodiversity that is left is only a novelty, at risk of completely disappearing.
Agribusiness repeats the claim that decisions about agriculture need to be science-based. However, they are really talking about technology that serves their economic interests. Science and technology are not the same. Science, which includes ecology and sociology that we ignore at our own peril, is not an endpoint as new research adds to scientific knowledge. We must guard against the corrupted application of science.
The machine-smashing Luddites of the early 19th century would recognize these concerns. Historians tell us that these skilled workers were not against technology. Their protests were against “the new logic of industrial capitalism, where the productivity gains from new technology enriched only the machines’ owners and weren’t shared with the workers.”
We don’t need to smash machines, but we do need clearly defined rules and limits. We can assess which technologies are beneficial, develop open-access technologies for public use, emphasize the value of human knowledge, and define policies to ensure the digital collection tools and the infrastructure work for the common good. We can create a sustainable agriculture system if we set the rules to benefit all of us equitably and to protect the planet. After all, technology will not change the fact that we are part of nature.
Patti Naylor farms with her husband, George. She participates in the Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism at the United Nations Committee on World Food Security where policy recommendations for “data collection and analysis tools for food systems and nutrition” are currently being negotiated.