The Huge Tech takeover of agriculture is harmful | Agriculture Information
On January 15, Liu Jin, a 45-year-old driver with the Alibaba food delivery platform in Taizhou, China, set himself on fire in protest of unpaid wages. “I want my blood and sweat money back,” Liu said in a video broadcast on social media.
Meanwhile, millions of farmers across the border in India refused to clear the streets of New Delhi. They had protested for months, stubbornly resisting the central government’s attempt to impose reforms that would hand them over to huge corporations.
The two protests may take different forms, but they have something fundamental in common. Each of them is outraged by the takeover of food systems by some of the world’s largest tech companies. In China, Alibaba has spearheaded a wave of technology company investments and acquisitions in the food system, most recently spending $ 3.6 billion to acquire the country’s largest hypermarket chain. In India, companies like Amazon and Facebook are taking similar steps to take over the food distribution and retailing through the back door of e-commerce in partnership with India’s richest tycoons and support central government reforms.
Big Tech’s food and agriculture ambitions go beyond China and India. They are global and extend to all aspects of the food system, including what is known as digital agriculture. While some see it as a means of bringing new technology to agriculture, technology does not develop in a bubble. It is shaped by the money and power that the tech sector currently has.
In a new report, our organization GRAIN examines how Big Tech is promoting industrial and contract farming, and undermining agroecology and local food systems through the development of digital farming platforms. As the report shows, the consequences for smallholders in the global south are particularly severe.
Just like in other sectors of the economy, large companies – be they tech companies, telecommunications companies, food companies, agribusinesses or banks – are trying to collect as much data as possible from all hubs of the food system and find ways to benefit from that data. These efforts are becoming increasingly integrated and linked through corporate partnerships, mergers and acquisitions to enable corporate mapping of the food system.
By far the biggest players in this mix are global technology companies. Microsoft, Amazon and IBM are all busy building digital farming platforms to collect large amounts of data that can then be processed with their powerful algorithms to provide farmers with real-time data and analysis on the condition of their soils and water and the growth of theirs Harvest, the pest and disease situation and the threatening weather and climatic changes to which they could be exposed.
This can be attractive for farms in areas where a lot of data is collected (regular soil tests, field studies, yield measurements) and for farms that can afford data collection technologies (such as tractors, drones and field sensors). For these farms, tech companies can collect enough quality data to provide advice on fertilizer application, pesticide use, and harvest times, which can be quite specific and useful. It is very helpful if these farms cultivate large areas with single crops, as this makes data collection and analysis much easier.
The situation is different with the roughly 500 million small farm households in the world, which produce most of the world’s food. They are usually located in areas where there is minimal to no renewal services and hardly any centralized collection of field data. Even small businesses cannot afford the expensive data acquisition technologies to feed information into the cloud. As a result, the data technology companies that collect on small farms will inevitably be of poor quality.
The advice smallholders receive from such digital networks via text messages on their mobile phones is far from revolutionary. And when these farmers practice mixed crops and other agroecological practices, any advice they receive is useless.
Good advice to farmers isn’t really the end game here anyway. For companies investing in digital agriculture, the goal is to integrate millions of farmers into one huge, centrally controlled digital network. Once integrated, they are strongly encouraged – if not obliged – to buy their products and provide them with agricultural commodities. All of this works through the mobile money systems that are being developed by the same companies.
Big Tech’s emerging digital platforms are not going to help farmers share their knowledge or promote their various seeds and animal varieties. The platforms will emphasize compliance; Participating farmers must buy the inputs advertised and sold on credit (at high interest rates), follow “advice” from a chatbot to qualify for crop insurance (which they must pay for), and their crops to the company sell (at a non-negotiable price) and receive payments through a digital money app (which incurs a fee). Missteps can affect a farmer’s creditworthiness and access to finance and markets. It will be contract farming on a large scale.
These developments in digital farming are not separate from Big Tech’s aggressive moves into food distribution and retail. In fact, digital agriculture is building the upstream centralized production systems that feed Big Tech’s evolving operations downstream, rapidly displacing the small vendors, traders and other local actors who have long been bringing food from smallholder to consumer. The prerequisites have been created so that today’s smallholders and salespeople are tomorrow’s pieceworkers for big tech companies.
Big Tech’s attempt to take over food systems, however, will not go unchallenged. What we see on the streets of New Delhi today is just the beginning.
The views expressed in this article are from the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.