Betting The Farm

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.[1] Walt Rostow’s formulation of the “stages of economic growth” became ubiquitous.[2]  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.[3] 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.

Biotechnology firm Monsanto – which built up a strong corporate position worldwide by patenting seeds, something that should not be legal – is heavily invested in “data driven” farming.[4] In 2013, the company acquired the data analytics firm Climate Corp.[5] Climate Corp crunches nationwide weather and geological survey data minute-by-minute, initially merely because it was trying to hawk weather insurance policies to large-event venues such as outdoor concerts and ski resorts. However, using its weather forecasting algorithm, the company then turned to target farmers. Integrating Climate Corp’s weather data with its own seed- and crop data, Monsanto’s business strategy is to intervene in every stage of farming practice by further dissecting farm practices and turning them automatically into 0’s and 1’s in order to package the results as a salable commodity.  Just as Google hones its search algorithm by extracting freely collected user data, Monsanto utilizes famers’ data to create and improve its service and products. By moving from sales of terminator seeds to sales of software and data services as well, Monsanto has become a powerhouse of digital capitalism.[6]

John Deere, which controls almost 60% of the U.S. farm-equipment market,[7] is reorienting its business in a comparable fashion. As the company struggles with falling profits due to low commodity prices, stagnating farm income, and a deep downturn in the agricultural equipment market,[8] Deere is intent on cultivating a new profit source.

In this quest, Deere is outfitting its machines with software, in effect turning them into Trojan Horses that collect hyper-local data in real-time, on weather, soil type, soil conditions, fertilizer, irrigation, crop history, and so forth. As famers plow their fields, John Deere collects data through its sensor-enabled equipment[9] and those data, data from other farmers and other external data are sold back to the farmers in the form of Deere’s licensed data management platform.[10] An additional revenue stream is thus created, based on the company’s tightening data-linkages with individual farmers.[11] Samuel Allen, John Deere’s CEO, emphasized the value to the company of this new line of business: “A farmer might not have to buy a new piece of equipment every year, but he’s still doing the data every year. That part of the business can be more constant.”[12]

The farm equipment business was once discrete; however, John Deere also is now forging alliances with biotech- agricultural commodities traders. The company acquired Monsanto’s high tech planting equipment and, in exchange, it made an exclusive agreement to connect its tractors, harvesters and other equipment to Monsanto’s data analytics platform.  This enables subscribing farmers to combine their own field data with other data, including real-time and historic data on soil, weather etc.[13] DuPont, Monsanto’s biggest competitor, also joined forces with Deere to link to Deere’s wireless data transfer technology.  This allows farmers to upload their field data directly to DuPont’s Field360 software – a subscription service – which offers a suite of farming data management tools. [14]

And, again, the promotional publicity conceals capital’s new-model attempts to lay new claim to the land – “smart farming,” “connected farming,” “precision farming,” “tele-farming,”cloud farming,” “digital agriculture” are but a few of the euphemisms being bandied around.[15]

From another direction, the digitization drive is also enabling the IT industry to invade agricultural markets. Tech giant IBM, which is going through a major restructuring and has shed thousands of workers over the last few years,[16] is now stepping into the agriculture sector as it searches for new profit sources. The company recently acquired the Weather Company, which holds a large quantity of weather forecast- and location data and is working with a Canadian agricultural data management firm Farmers Edge. Farmers Edge has integrated IBM’s weather forecast engine, serving real-time data on micro weather, soil conditions, air quality etc. and selling its service to farmers with the promise of ever-increasing crop yields. IBM is also targeting the Global South, where it is promoting “remote” or “tele-farming,” using real-time data to manage farms from afar through such products as its EZ-Farm application.[17]

Silicon Valley, which planted itself on what had been agricultural land, thus has turned its acquisitive gaze on farming. Between 2013 – 2014, Silicon Valley venture capital doubled its investment in agricultural and food related startups. In 2014, the Valley funded 151 agriculture-related startups for a total investment of $976 million.[18] Google is a leading participant. In 2014, Google, along with DuPont, Agco, UTC’s Sensitech, and 3D Robotics, launched Farm2050 to fund agtech startups.[19] In 2015, Google’s venture capital arm raised $15 million for the startup Farmers Business Network Inc., which evaluates public and private data on crop yields, weather patterns and planting practices.[20]

The US government is, predictably, backing this new ag-tech agenda and helping participating companies to drum up business worldwide. President Obama, on his trip to Ethiopia in 2015, announced that the U.S. Government’s “feed the future” initiative aimed to address global hunger and food security, by investing to scale up climate-smart technologies in Africa.[21] This, from the same government whose “Green Revolution” had devastated ecosystems built up over thousands of years by traditional farming practices.  Without a trace of humility, and with exactly the same institutional condescension, now the U.S. is flogging “smart farming” as a solution.

While capital continues to plow across the agricultural Midwest and the farmlands of the Global South, however, renewed struggle over the land is evident. In Latin America, campesino movements are at the forefront in fighting for land rights.[22] Brazil’s landless workers’ movement, The Unified Campesino Movement of Aguan in Honduras, Cuba’s ANAP Agro-Ecology Movement, The National Campesino and Indigenous Movement in Argentina, and Paraguay’s National Campesino Federation are becoming a Latin America-wide fight to access lands and food, sustain independent farming practices, and resist corporate-driven agriculture.[23] Farmers in Africa are calling for agricultural diversity and are building an alliance for food sovereignty. [24] In the United States, there is a growing protest against Monsanto’s use glyphosate, a toxic chemical in its roundup herbicide, and an accompanying demand for the EPA to curtail its use.[25]  In India, agrarian distress, deepening over two decades, has fueled huge marches and protests.[26]

Evidently, farmers are not so ignorant.  Indeed, as they mobilize against the ravages of today’s digital capitalism, they are giving object-lessons to all of us.

[1] Daniel Lerner’s The passing of traditional society: modernizing the Middle East (Glencoe, Ill: Free Press, 1958) is a classic instance.

[2] Rostow, W. W., The stages of economic growth: a non-Communist manifesto. Cambridge [England]: University Press, 1960).

[3] Quentin Hardy, “Working the Land and the Data,” New York Times, November 30, 2014, ;  Chris Anderson, “Agricultural Drone Relatively cheap drones advanced sensors and imaging capabilities are farmers new ways to increase yields and reduce crop damage,” MIT Technology Review; John Vidal, “Hi-tech agriculture is freeing the farmer from his fields,” Guardian, October 20, 2015; Clay Dillow, “Why 2015 is the year agriculture drones take off,” Fortune, May 18, 2015.

[4] Time McDonnell, “Monsanto Is Using Big Data to Take Over the World,Mother Jones, November 19, 2014 ; “Digitization: The Next Revolution in Agriculture,” Monsanto blog; “Digital Disruption on the farm,” Economist, May 24, 2014.

[5] Bruce Upbin, “Monsanto Buys Climate Corp For $930 Million,” Forbes, October 2, 2013.

[6] See Schiller & Yeo (forthcoming), Re-Absorbing Science and Engineering Into Digital Capitalism In The Routledge Handbook of the Political Economy of Science edited by David Tyfield, Rebecca Lave, Samuel Randalls, and Charles Thorpe.

[7] Michal Lev-Ram, “What John Deere is Doing to Fight Slumping Sales,” Fortune, November 15, 2015.

[8] Bob Tita, “Deere Profit Falls as Equipment Sales Drop,” Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2015.

[9]  Bernard Marr, “From Farming to Big Data,” Data Science Central, May 7, 2015.

[10] Bernard Marr, “From Farming to Big Data: The Amazing Story of John Deere,” Data Science Central, May 7, 2015; John Deere, Agriculture Technology Solutions.

[11] Katherine Noyes, “Cropping up on every farm: Big data technology,” Fortune, May 20, 2014; James Correa, “John Deere: Growing and Harvesting Value,” Open Forum, April 15, 2015.

[12] Michal Lev-Ram, “What John Deere is doing to fight slumping sale,” Forbes, November 15, 2015.

[13] Bob TiTta, “Deere Profit Falls as Equipment Sales Drop,” Wall Street Journal, May 22, 2015; https://digit.hbs.org/submission/big-data-in-big-agribusiness-monsanto-monopolizes-americas-farms/.

[14] Jane Slusark, “DuPont Pioneer and John Deere Offer Next Level of Decision Services to Growers,” Investor News, November 8,  2013. ; “DuPont Pioneer Launches Pioneer Field360 Select Software.”

[15] Federico Guerrini, “The Future Of Agriculture? Smart Farming,” Forbes, Feb 18, 2015; Laruen Helper, “Bosch and Flex Planting an ‘Internet of Soil’” Huffington Post, May 6, 2016; Carey Gillam, “DuPont, with Deere & Co, to roll out precision farming program,” Reuters, November 8, 2013.

[16] Jessica Davis, “IBM Layoffs Hit Canada, Europe, Australia; US Likely Next,” Information Week, April 4, 2016.

[17] David Kariuki, “The Internet of Things: Making Smart Farms in Africa,” Cleanleap, January 15, 2016.

[18] Katie Fehrenbacher, “Farming data continues to be hot in Silicon Valley,” Fortune, May 19, 2015.

[19] Josh Constine, “Eric Schmidt’s Farm2050 Collective Will Back Agriculture Tech To Feed Earth’s Growing Population,” Techcrunch, November 20, 2014,

[20] Jacob Bunge, “Google Ventures Invests in Agricultural Technology Startup,” Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2015.

[21]What You Need to Know About Climate Smart Agriculture and Why It Matters,” Feed the Future, July 29, 2015; “Aiding Africa Through Climate-Smart Farming,” Voice Of America, Auguest 28, 2014.

[22]5 Latin American Campesino Movements You Really Need to Know,” Telesur, April 16, 2016; Eric Holt-Giménez, “Scaling up sustainable agriculture – Lessons from the Campesino a Campesino movement,” agriCultures Network, January 13, 2015.

[23] ibid.

[24] Mamadou Goïta, “Food sovereignty in Africa: The people’s alternative”, Pambazuka News, July 13, 2010.

[25]500,000 Petitioners Demand EPA End Glyphosate,” Beyond Pesticides, May 5, 2016.

[26]2016: Three Months of Non-Stop Farmer Protests Across India,” The Citizen, April 3, 2016.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *