Big tech takeover of agriculture is dangerous

    Business Inquiry

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    This will endanger the livelihoods of the world’s small farmers and food workers and completely transform our food systems.

    On January 15, Liu Jin, a 45-year-old driver for Alibaba’s food delivery platform in the Chinese city of Taizhou, set himself on fire in protest against unpaid wages. “I want my blood and sweat earnings back,” Mr. Liu said in a video widely shared on social media.

    Meanwhile, across the border in India, millions of farmers were refusing to vacate the streets of New Delhi. They had been protesting for months, defying attempts by the central government to implement reforms and put them at the mercy of large-scale corporations.

    The two may vary in opposition, but there is something fundamental in common. Each expresses displeasure at the acquisition of food systems by some of the world’s largest technology companies. In China, Alibaba is spearheading a wave of investment and acquisitions by technology companies in the food system, most recently spending $ 3.6 billion to acquire the nation’s largest chain of hypermarkets. In India, similar steps are being taken by companies such as Amazon and Facebook through the backdoor of e-commerce, handling food distribution and retail trade with India’s wealthiest tycoon and in support of central government reforms.

    Big Tech’s ambitions with food and agriculture go beyond China and India. They are global and span all aspects of the food system, including digital agriculture. While some people view it as bringing new technologies to farming, technology does not evolve in a bubble. It is shaped by both money and power, which the technology sector currently enjoys.

    In a new report, our organization GRAIN looks at how Big Tech is promoting industrial agriculture and contract farming and reducing agronomy and local food systems through the development of digital agriculture platforms. As the report suggests, the consequences are particularly severe for small farmers in the Global South.

    As with other sectors of the economy, large corporations – be they technology companies, telecommunications, food companies, agribusiness, or banks – can collect as much data from all nodes of the food system and find ways to profit. Running from this data. These efforts are becoming more and more integrated and connected through corporate partnerships, mergers and acquisitions, leading to corporate capture of the food system.

    By far, the biggest players in this mix are global technology companies. Microsoft, Amazon and IBM are all busy developing digital farming platforms to collect large amounts of data, which are then processed with their powerful algorithms to provide real-time data and analysis to farmers on their soil and water conditions Can be increased, their crops, the status of pests and diseases and the weather and climate change to come.

    This may appeal to farms in areas where there is too much data collection (routine soil testing, field studies, yield measurements) and for farms that afford data-gathering techniques (such as tractors, drones, and field sensors). Can lift For these farms, technology companies can collect sufficient quality data to advise on fertilizer application, pesticide use and harvest time that can be quite specific and useful. It helps a lot if these farms are cultivating large areas with single crops, as it greatly simplifies data collection and analysis.

    It is a different story for the 500 million or so small farm houses in the world that produce most of the world’s food. They are located in areas where there are no extension services and hardly any central data collection. Nor can small farms afford the expense of high-value data-gathering techniques to feed information to the cloud. As a result, data technology companies collected on small farms will inevitably be of poor quality.

    Small farmers will get advice from such digital networks, which will be far from revolutionary through text messaging on their mobile phones. And, if these farmers are doing mixed crop and other agricultural related practices, any advice they get will be useless.

    Good advice for farmers is not really the final game here anyway. For corporations investing in digital agriculture, the objective is to integrate millions of farmers into a large, focused digital network. Once integrated, they will be given huge incentives – if they are not obliged – to buy their products and supply them with agricultural commodities, all of which are being developed by the same companies as mobile money systems. Works through

    Big Tech’s emerging digital platforms will not help farmers share their knowledge or promote their diverse seeds and animal varieties. Platforms will emphasize conformity; Participating farmers will have to buy credits that promote credit (at high interest rates) and sell inputs, follow the “advice” of a chatbot to qualify for crop insurance (which they must pay) for their crop. Sell ​​the company (at a non-negotiable price), and receive payment on a digital money app (for which there is a fee). Any misunderstanding can affect a farmer’s credit and finance and access to the market. It will be largely contract farming.

    These developments in digital agriculture have not been divorced from Big Tech’s aggressive moves in food distribution and retail. In fact, digital agriculture is building centralized production systems that will supply Big Tech’s developed operations downstream, increasingly displacing small vendors, hawkers and other local actors who have long since shifted from small farmers to consumers Food delivery is done. A platform is being created for today’s small farmers and vendors for Big Tech companies to piece together tomorrow.

    But Big Tech’s effort to handle the food system will not go in vain. Everything we see today on the streets of New Delhi is just the beginning.

    The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of Al Jazeera.


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