Digital dinners

Data-firms and e-commerce giants like Amazon are moving into food. Should we be worried? That depends on who is in the driving seat, says Pat Mooney. Interview by Nick Dowson.


How are new technologies – ‘big tech’ and ‘big data’ – changing the face of food-growing?

We are seeing platforms, such as Amazon or Ali Baba, moving into almost any marketplace because of their command of data. They can buy and sell from bricks-and-mortar stores, as Amazon’s doing now, while delivering groceries and, if they want to, speculating on commodities.

The next step for platforms may be the takeover of companies like [agrochemical giant] Bayer. We’re already seeing more and more links in the food chain becoming more concentrated. Seed, pesticide and fertilizer companies are merging. [The recent wave of mergers in the agricultural input sector saw the creation of Bayer-Monsanto, Dow–DuPont, and ChemChina-Syngenta.]

And the same change is happening with asset management companies such as BlackRock which has multi-trillion-dollar investments, massive quantities of data, and stocks in each one of the agribusiness players. It’s like a game of poker where BlackRock can see everyone’s cards.

The largest farm machinery manufacturer, John Deere, has sensors on all its new machines – probably hundreds. Deere has been collecting weather data for decades but now it can make recommendations on every field it works, promoting and planting proprietary seeds, pesticides and fertilizers. Throughout the growing season it can monitor crop progress and since its machines do the harvesting, it can use its data to play commodity markets, allowing it to profit even when there’s a crop failure.

The key question is: who owns technologies and makes decisions about access to data? We cannot have data platforms managing everything; that’s dangerous, it guarantees problems. Information is vulnerable – to cyber-attacks, for example – and can be abused. We also know there is mission drift whenever data is gathered. What we need is a UN treaty that can monitor and manage that data as a public utility.

Robotic farming and precision agriculture trumpet their environmental benefits and efficiency when food production is under pressure from climate change. What do you think about this claim?

I think that for food security, we need to reduce long supply chains and diversify crop variety and species, so they can adapt.

The risk is that big data, controlled by a handful of companies, takes agriculture in the other direction: it could lead to larger farms dominating. Now we have a very highly centralized, un-diversified supply chain system for agriculture. And that leaves us in a situation where around 45 per cent of all private agricultural research is on one crop, maize.

The only way to get around that is to grow more of our food locally, which also means diversifying science. Farmers have bred over two million varieties of the 7,000 crops we have. They can probably meet almost any climate, pest or disease problem we’re going to face with climate change. We should be focusing on all the crops we have – which give a wide range of nutrients and can be grown in all kinds of conditions.

According to agribusiness, robotics can be disassembled into smaller machinery; a harvester disaggregated into smaller machines collecting different crops in different fields – operating linked or separately.

In theory, you could have co-operatives growing, say, peanuts in Nigeria, and you could use disaggregated robotics to have less child labour. Co-operatives could manage shared machinery to make it more profitable and efficient. But I wouldn’t want to trust the food security of the planet on that theory.

New digital technologies – from gene-editing to grass-measuring lasers – are proliferating. How can we make sure they are used for the public good?

Almost all technologies have unanticipated consequences. We need a participatory system of technology assessment and a recall process. Technologies need to be monitored, then governments can assess them rigorously and engage those most affected.

Some of the things being talked about are more problematic because they’re untried or haven’t been tested sufficiently in different environments to know whether they’re safe, for example [gene-editing technology] CRISPR/CAS9.

We have climate change because we weren’t paying attention to the impact of fossil-fuel technologies; we have pandemics because no-one’s paying attention to what urbanization and deforestation are doing to the environment. These are problems of technologies’ unintended consequences.

Equally, we can’t guarantee positive impacts will be distributed fairly. In the case of gender equity, the biggest barriers facing women farmers is capital for accessing land and markets. All the studies show that labour-saving devices don’t help women, they just increase work in other ways. What’s needed is a cultural shift.

BlackRock has massive quantities of data, and stocks in each one of the players. It’s like a game of poker where they can see everyone’s cards

What could a more democratized version of big data look like in farming?

We do ‘high tech’ things in a lab that can have macro implications for the planet. But there’s also what I call ‘wide tech’, where peasant farmers are making innovations, keeping in mind the entire ecosystem of their farm, changing what they do with livestock, crops, irrigation – and thinking about wider context.

The dirty secret about our food system is that the majority of people in the Global South depend on smallholder producers – who use only 25 per cent of our land and resources – for most of their food.

If peasants have the ability to access data through smartphones, that could be extremely useful for sharing market information. There are around 350 million smallholders; think of them as research scientists. If they can be linked to share their experiments with one another they can say: ‘We had that pest five years ago, here’s what you should try.’

Since the 1950s farmers have given over two million crop varieties to governments to be stored in national and international gene banks. And they’ve given over 8,000 strains of livestock breeds. That’s vastly more than has been produced by the private sector. We need to have trustworthy digital technologies to help farmers develop their enormous creativity and flexibility.

Farmers’ organizations, like Via Campesina, the world’s largest peasant organization, are setting up those kinds of systems, having farmers exchanging seeds and information about pests, and tapping into gene banks, where they donated varieties originally.

How can social movements influence debates on the future of food?

Civil society needs to be challenging the logic that agribusiness should be allowed to design our food system. We need to have a clearer, long-term vision. We have written the ‘Long Food Movement’ document because we need to be planning 25 years ahead, and preparing for crises. (See ‘10 steps to end world hunger’, page 23.)

It’s the government’s job to set policy to make food healthy and safe. Civil society has sparked most constructive changes – and was behind the anti-junk food laws coming into force in Chile or Mexico, for example.

There’s a growing focus on hunger since the Covid-19 pandemic. What are the important battle lines over the future of our food systems?

For me it’s between long and short supply chains. Covid showed us the failures of long supply chains and helped us to recognize that precision agriculture and big data bring us to a dependence on, for example, microprocessors from Taiwan, and all the distribution issues that come with that.

So, we need to develop short supply chains. We also need to decentralize agribusiness and break it up. And we need to be reinvigorating the public sector, recognizing it has a real role to play. It needs to be smart and fast enough to respond to things and that requires capacity. If you want largescale innovation you need a much more dynamic public sector with more resources.

Source: J Clapp & S Ruder, ‘Precision Technologies for Agriculture: Digital Farming, Gene-Edited Crops, and the Politics of Sustainability’

Lasers are used to measure quantities of grass available to feed cows; self-driving tractors are embedded with thousands of sensors. The application of new digital technologies – including wireless communication, data analytics and genome editing – are changing the face of agriculture. Dubbed by some as ‘Agriculture 4.0’ as a nod to the fourth industrial revolution, these data-driven precision technologies see farm equipment connected up with software platforms that track on-farm data and relay information on soil and climate conditions to farmers, advising what seeds to plant and where and when to apply pesticides and fertilizers.
Gene-editing of plant genomes has been touted as a way to improve yields and disease tolerance – or increase crop resistance to pesticides. Robots – whether large tractors or smaller ones in swarms – can reduce labour and increase precision in sowing, watering and spraying pesticides; they can even pick berries. All these technologies collect vast amounts of information. ‘Big data’ is claimed to be a way to hone how crops are grown within fields down to the minutest level, in order to maximize production. Uptake is greatest on large commodity crops, particularly in industrialized countries where there is a tendency towards fewer but larger farms.
Source: Global Environmental Politics, August 2020

Pat Mooney is the co-founder of ETC group, which monitors and campaigns around new technologies with potential to impact the world’s poorest people. He’s the lead author of the ‘Long Food Movement’ report, published in 2021. Nick Dowson is a former New Internationalist staffer and freelance journalist who covers investigations, public services, the climate crisis, housing and technology.