Monsanto's scary new scheme: Why does it really want all this data?

As biotech giant pays huge sums for data analysis about farms, many are terrified about how it might be harnessed

Published December 29, 2013 7:00PM (EST)

   (<a href=''>Nejron Photo</a>, <a href=''>Fotokostic</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Salon)
(Nejron Photo, Fotokostic via Shutterstock/Salon)

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.

Justin Dikeman, a sales representative with DuPont, said farmers continue to own whatever data they collect on their operations. A spokesman for John Deere also said farmers own their data, and that farmers have the opportunity to opt-out of the company’s cloud services. Monsanto did not reply to a comment request.

Details on who owns what at which stage of the analytics process is less clear, though. Even if a contract guarantees that farmers own the raw data, for instance, it’s not obvious whether farmers will be able to access that data in a non-proprietary format. Nor is it evident how easily farmers can stop these devices from collecting and transmitting data.

How corporations use the information is another central concern. One worry is the giants will harness the data to engage in price discrimination, in which they charge some farmers more than others for the same product. For example, details on the economic worth of a farm operation could empower Monsanto or DuPont to calculate the exact value the farm derives from its products. Monsanto already varies its prices by region, so that Illinois farmers with a bumper crop might be charged more for seeds than Texas farmers facing a drought. Bigger heaps of data would enable these companies to price discriminate more finely, not just among different geographic regions but between neighbors.

Another issue is how the value of this information will be determined, and the profits divided. The prescription services Monsanto and DuPont are offering will draw on the vast amounts of data they amass from thousands of individual farms. Farmers consider much of this information – such as on soil fertility and crop yields – confidential, and most view details about particular farming techniques as akin to personal “trade secrets.” Even if the corporations agree not to disclose farm-specific information, some farmers worry that the information may end up being used against them in ways that dull their particular competitive edge.

“If you inadvertently teach Monsanto what it is that makes you a better farmer than your neighbor, it can sell that information to your neighbor,” said John McGuire, an agriculture technology consultant who runs Simplified Technology Services and developed geospatial tools for Monsanto in the late-1990s. And if the corporation gathers enough information, “it opens the door for Monsanto to say, ‘We know how to farm in your area better than you do,’” he said.

There are also no clear guidelines on how this information will be used within commodity markets. Real-time data is highly valuable to investors and financial traders, who bet billions of dollars in wheat, soybean and corn futures. In a market where the slightest informational edge makes the difference between huge profits and even bigger losses, corporations that gather big data will have a ready customer base if they choose to sell their knowledge. Or they could just use it to speculate themselves.

“If this real time yield data goes into the cloud and a lot of market investors get into it, there is potential for market distortion,” said Kyle Cline, policy advisor for national government relations at the Indiana Farm Bureau. “It could destabilize markets, make them more volatile,” he said.

John Deere has stated it will not share data with anyone it believes will use it to influence or gain an advantage in commodity markets. Monsanto, DuPont and other firms have not, however, issued similar public statements.

Some farmers and smaller manufacturers also worry that data analytics will give conglomerates like Monsanto and DuPont more power to compel farmers to buy other lines of products. Monsanto, for example, has proven highly adept at leveraging its wide suite of products to support one another. How Monsanto used its dominance in one business (genetic traits) to benefit others (seeds, fertilizer) was the focus of a three-year antitrust investigation by the Justice Department. (DOJ closed the probe last November without taking any action).

In recent years, Monsanto, DuPont and John Deere have also expanded into selling farmers a variety of financial services and insurance. John Deere, for one, acknowledges that its financial division may consult data from a farmer’s machinery, if the farmer permits.

Other private corporations are also competing for a share of the big data pie. Established equipment manufacturers like AgCo and Case IH have been expanding their data analytics services, and some high-tech upstarts are also joining the game. The Climate Corporation, the weather data and insurance company Monsanto bought in October, for example, was founded by a former Google employee.

Open-source groups attempting to provide farmers with some similar technologies include ISOBlue, a project based at Purdue University, which teaches farmers how to capture and independently store their own data. FarmLogs, a Michigan-based company backed by Silicon Valley money, sells software and data analytics that let farmers fully control the information collected. “We’re pushing back against the monopoly on information” that some existing vendors create, said FarmLogs founder Jesse Vollmar, who grew up on a farm.

What is not clear is whether these smaller open-source companies will be able to keep up with the established giants over the long run.

“Monsanto has its fingers awful deep within our industries,” McGuire said. “Its expansion [into data analytics] should scare a lot of people.”

To be sure, much depends on how widely farmers adopt the privately-designed “decision-support” services. Monsanto has estimated this to be a $20 billion market, but there is no proof yet whether the company will be able to process these reams of data into profitable farming and business strategies. Whether Monsanto’s bet will pay off is “tough to validate,” said Paul Massoud, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus.

Some experts question whether relying on prescription-based services is in farmers’ best interest at all. “I don't see farmers themselves crunching numbers, so [I] doubt they'll be learning anything more about how to farm well,” said Bill Freese, expert on agricultural biotech and science policy analyst with Center for Food Safety. “Monsanto’s scheme does not really represent farmers embracing data analytics, but Monsanto embracing it to better sell the seeds it wants to sell with a pseudo-scientific rationale.”

A new group called the Grower Information Services Cooperative thinks the best way farmers can protect their interests during the transition to big data is to organize. Formed in west Texas last December, GISC is pushing a model where farmers would store their data in a repository through the co-op, and companies would pay the group a fee to access it. The system would give farmers technical as well as legal ownership, and provide a way for them to share in its monetary value, said Mark Cox, controller and communications director for GISC.

“Growers need to be proactive in how their information is managed,” Cox said. “Otherwise all that economic power will consolidate to these corporations and the grower will be at even more of a disadvantage. We don’t want the grower to become a tenant on his own farm.” GISC began accepting members this month, and is meeting with farm bureaus around the country to publicize its mission.

Soil sensors and seed planting algorithms may be a game-changer. Whether farmers fully reap the fruits of that harvest, though, will depend not on technologies but on the legal technicalities that bind their use.

By Lina Khan

Lina Khan reports on the effects of concentrated economic power with the Markets, Enterprise, and Resiliency Initiative at the New America Foundation.


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