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Monsanto's Terrifying New Scheme: Massive Amounts of Data Collection

Why is the biotech giant paying huge sums for info about farms?
 
 
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Imagine cows fed and milked entirely by robots. Or tomatoes that send an e-mail when they need more water. Or a farm where all the decisions about where to plant seeds, spray fertilizer and steer tractors are made by software on servers on the other side of the sea.

This is what more and more of our agriculture may come to look like in the years ahead, as farming meets Big Data. There’s no shortage of farmers and industry gurus who think this kind of “smart” farming could bring many benefits. Pushing these tools onto fields, the idea goes, will boost our ability to control this fiendishly unpredictable activity and help farmers increase yields even while using fewer resources.

The big question is who exactly will end up owning all this data, and who gets to determine how it is used. On one side stand some of the largest corporations in agriculture, who are racing to gather and put their stamp on as much of this information as they can. Opposing them are farmers’ groups and small open-source technology start-ups, which want to ensure a farm’s data stays in the farmer’s control and serves the farmer’s interests.

Who wins will determine not just who profits from the information, but who, at the end of the day, directs life and business on the farm.

One recent round in this battle took place in October, when Monsanto spent close to $1 billion to buy  the Climate Corporation, a data analytics firm. Last year the chemical and seed company also bought  Precision Planting, another high-tech firm, and also  launched a venture capital arm geared to fund tech start-ups.

In November, John Deere and DuPont Pioneer  announced plans to partner to provide farmers information and prescriptions in near-real time. Deere has pioneered “precision farming” equipment in recent years, equipping tractors and combines to automatically transmit data collected from particular farms to company databases. DuPont, meanwhile, has rolled out a service that analyzes data into “ actionable management strategies.”

 Many farmers are wary that these giants could use these tools to win unprecedented levels of insight into the economics and operational workings of their farms. The issue is not that these companies would shower the farmers with ads, as Facebook does when it knows you’re looking to buy sneakers. For farmers, the risks of big data seem to pierce right to the heart of how they make a living. What would it mean, for instance, for Monsanto to know the intricacies of their business?

Farm advocacy groups are now scrambling to understand how — if given free rein — these corporations could misuse the data they collect. “We’re signing up for things without knowing what we’re giving up,” said Mark Nelson, director of commodities at the Kansas Farm Bureau. In May, the American Farm Bureau Federation, a national lobbying group, published a policy brief outlining some potential risks around these data-driven farm tools.

For farmers, the most immediate question is who owns the information these technologies capture. Many farmers have been collecting digitized yield data on their operations since the 1990s, when high-tech farm tools first emerged. But that information would sit on a tractor or monitor until the farmer manually transferred it to his computer, or handed a USB stick to an agronomist to analyze. Now, however, smart devices can wirelessly transfer data straight to a corporation’s servers, sometimes without a farmer’s knowledge.

“When I start storing information up on the Internet, I lose control of it,” said Walt Bones, who farms in Parker, S.D., and served as state agriculture secretary.

 
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