Even though we chiefly associate Microsoft, Google, Amazon or Facebook with the content that appears across most screens every single day, the very same tech giants will soon indirectly appear… on our plates. While doing so, they will also strengthen the agro-food sector that has long needed a fundamental makeover.
Why would a software corporation collaborate closely with a company that sells tractors to small farmers from different corners of the world? Let us consider some examples. Owned by Microsoft, the Azure FarmBeats platform offers weather data and other services to farmers. They provide the platform with detailed information about their farms, crops and soil. In collaborating with companies producing technological tractors and drones, Microsoft offers highly valuable data which allow for the appropriate “profiling” when preparing sales offers, as well as access to smaller farmers who were not previously included in the databases. Another example is Bayer (one of the leading companies in the agrochemical sector), which uses Amazon services. And so a player who promotes industrialised digital farming, based on large-scale monocultures and the use of agrochemicals, teams up with a company that has access to consumers. These are just some examples that illustrate the strengthening of the network of ties between corporations that sell products to farmers with companies that have control over data and (through particular algorithms) have a strong influence on consumer choices.
If precision agriculture is the answer, what was the question?*
Based on digitalisation, precision farming is presented by big corporations as the answer to both ecological problems and the technological exclusion of farmers. Thanks to remote measurements of parameters related to crops, it will reportedly be possible to more precisely adjust the amount of agrochemicals – harmful to health and ecosystems – that are required. Special sensors are claimed to be able to advise farmers about what places on a given field require more chemical agents. Bearing in mind that companies that control the farmers’ data work very closely with the chemical sector, a question arises as to whether all this is about the good of the planet and people, or whether perhaps what is at play here are the financial interests of companies that aim for the maximisation of profit, and, consequently, the highest sales of agrochemicals.
The expansion of digital precision farming does not just happen under an ecological cloak. For example, the seemingly neutral objective of “including” small, scattered farmers into the system of great platforms is said to only serve the farmers themselves. In reality, it serves the expansion of access to new markets and clients. Through digital platforms, companies do not only give farmers “advice” about the weather and the amount of pesticides. They also give them discount coupons for purchasing particular brands of chemicals. It turns out that the promise of “rational” and “effective” farming indeed results in an effective system, but it is only (financially) effective for the companies that control it. It certainly isn’t rational in terms of the well-being of farmers, consumers and ecosystems.
What food system?
The vision of the future imagined by companies linked to industrial precision farming only reinforces the belief by decision-makers and the wider public that there should be no fundamental changes in the agro-food system. All that’s needed is to program drones so that they dose harmful pesticides, and to let artificial intelligence take control of tractors, and hey presto: problem solved.
Furthermore, when confronted with research, the promises of industrial-scale digital farming turn out to be merely overrated marketing tricks. With such huge involvement of energy and technology (monitoring systems, drones, servers for centralised data platforms), the use of precision farming only saves… 5% of pesticides (organic farming saves 100%, seeing as it doesn’t use them at all). This research only reinforces the theory that precision farming is “effective” only for companies that make money from it.
In reality, the industrial farming system, based on large-area monocultures and agrochemicals, leads to the extinction of species, destruction of ecosystems, and climate change. By contrast, well-managed systems based on agroecology provide not only crops that are better in terms of their quantity and nutritional value, but also support the soil and entire eco-systems, instead of destroying them with harmful herbicides and pesticides.
What feeds us, what doesn’t serve us well?
Industrial-scale, monocultural farming based on chemicals rose from the boastful ambition for total control over biological systems. Today, through the growth of large digital platforms, it has also gained an additional, dangerous aspiration: to control data and consolidate financial power over the system that feeds us, both literally and metaphorically.
Every kind of development, both personal and civilizational, should have two fundamental dimensions. First of all, they should create new resources, inventions, ideas. Secondly (but perhaps more importantly), they reject old patterns, strategies and premises that do not serve us well. It would make sense to also view agro-food systems from this perspective. As well as introducing new developments, what is also crucial for our functioning is the elimination of harmful strategies from the past. One such stagnant, un-feeding strategy is the industrial-scale, monocultural farming based on chemicals. It is de facto an experiment of the last few hundred years and it is not healthy for either human health or for ecosystems. And so perhaps instead of allowing the strengthening of the system that does not feed us, we should make a wiser choice by turning our focus to the principles of agroecology?
* The subheading is a reference to the article by Christine von Weizsäcker (1991), who wrote a similarly titled text about genetic engineering: “Gentechnik ist die Antwort – aber was war eigentlich die Frage?“ [“Genetic engineering is the answer, but what actually was the question?”].
When writing this article, I used two reports:
▪ “Greenwashing & high tech! Faking it: (un-)sustainable solutions for agriculture”
by Andrea Beste;
▪ “Digital control: how Big Tech moves into food and farming (and what it means)”
published by the GRAIN organization.
The article was also published in Tygodnik Powszechny no. 23/2022 as part of the Biennale Warszawa 2022 supplement.