Condescension toward farmers has been a bedrock historical fixture of urban middle-class understanding (In the United States, “clod-hoppers” is one of the more polite disparagements). After World War II, U.S. social scientists incorporated this prejudice into what they termed “modernization theory,” which they developed as a rationale for compelling indigenous peoples to abandon “traditional” village life. Walt Rostow’s formulation of the “stages of economic growth” became ubiquitous. In this conception, “development” took the form of a repeated sequence: out of agriculture, into industrial manufacturing, and then on to the production of services. In this scheme, the U.S. – conveniently – constituted a paragon of developed modernity. Modernization theory was far from being merely an academic daydream. The U.S. Government packaged its foreign policy toward the then Third World under the motto of “development” – and used it, among other things, to sell what was called the “Green Revolution.” The Green Revolution pushed to increase agricultural productivity via “technology transfers.” Fertilizers and pesticides and high-yield seeds from the U.S., alongside intrusive management practices, were the standard package.
Capitalist agriculture was thereby given a giant push. And the ratchet continues to turn: capital has continued to transform agriculture. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that farming should increasingly exhibit some of digital capitalism’s trademark features.
Alongside the Green Revolution, industrial capitalist agriculture brought about massive land grabs, widespread destruction of biodiversity, climate change, environmental pollution, and unsustainable use of water resources. Heralding that the same social forces that caused the problems now will fix them, corporate capital is calling for a “digital revolution” and a shift to more information-intensive farming practices.
Drones, driverless tractors, sensors, robotics, mobile apps, global positioning system satellites, and cloud-based data storage are sweeping across the agricultural sector, as well as below and above, the landscape. Farming is being digitized and data codified throughout the agricultural lifecycle – from the cultivation of soil, to plant breeding, to planting schedules, to pest control, to irrigation, to crop monitoring, to harvesting, to food production and distribution, all the way to ultimate consumption. Companies including Monsanto, John Deere, Cargill, and DuPont are at the forefront of this process. The public relations industry has been hard at work creating happy-talk names for what they’re doing: “maximizing crop yields,” “sustainability” farming, and so on. Broader social and economic ramifications are ignored, as is the fact that this initiative stems not from social-justice activism, or even from good-Samaritanism, but from a familiar drive for profit.