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The Problems of Digital Agriculture


A look inside the cycle of surveillance, privatization, and profits of “precision agriculture”

Precision agriculture, and digital agriculture more broadly, promises farmers precision control over everything from irrigation to nitrogen application. Digital agriculture proponents say that this tech can help farmers net a bigger profit — in theory.  

The promise of more efficient input use and maximized yields is alluring to some, especially because many farmers, including community-scale and agroecological farmers, sometimes struggle to make ends meet. Often, operations are characterized by slim profit margins exacerbated by increasing input costs and land prices — all coupled with decreasing commodity prices. 

So what does the plight of agroecological and community-scale farmers and workers have to do with precision agriculture?

Precision agriculture is rooted in the same mechanisms that produced today’s agricultural economy. The vast majority of consumers’ food dollars ︎︎︎ contribute to the bottom lines of companies that patent agricultural technologies and distribute agricultural products.

The positive spin on precision agriculture is touted by companies profiting from the technology’s sale. In reality, the development of precision agriculture is a threat to farmers’ viability and sovereignty.

Privatizing Knowledge and Entrenching Corporate Power

Precision agriculture — just like the many technologies developed and peddled by agricultural input companies before — threatens our ability to advance agroecology. Precision agriculture further shifts the ownership of agricultural production to private corporations. This shift is known as an enclosure ︎︎︎ – a process that began with the privatization of agricultural land that was previously managed communally.

Fast forward to today: corporations seek to privatize agricultural knowledge through precision agricultural technologies, then sell it back to farmers as a commodity. So what does it mean to privatize agricultural knowledge, and why is it a threat to agroecological and community-scale farmers?

The tools behind digital agriculture use GPS and other data collection technology. Proponents argue that, instead of planning at the field level, farmers can use this tech to plan interventions at the scale of meters. The technology gathers data about soil moisture and nutrient levels in each small area of the field, as well as information about pests in the area, which most often becomes proprietary information. This information feeds a proprietary algorithm which can then “prescribe” and sell GPS-targeted remedies (often sold by the same company), such as seeds and fertilizer for precision application or precision irrigation systems.

The profiteering doesn’t stop with GPS-targeted remedies. Companies also profit off technology platforms that manage and oversee the products, as well as insurance and financing. Purportedly, this level of quantitative information will help farmers maximize inputs efficiently while increasing yields, ultimately benefiting farmers’ bottom lines. 

Through precision technology, corporations collect and take ownership of data about a farmer’s operation, and then use that very same data to target farmers for sales of tools, seeds, and chemicals. The corporations that sell these technologies suggest that advanced data collection and utilization will decrease inputs (and, presumably, input costs) while increasing yields. The kicker? Time and time again, companies privatize aspects of agricultural production in an effort to capture more money from farmers, workers, and their communities. This isn’t the first time we’ve heard the argument that a corporation’s products will decrease inputs and increase yields. The pesticide industry is an example of this all-too-familiar story.

The Same Old Greenwashing

Bayer (formerly Monsanto) markets seeds modified to withstand the application of the herbicide glyphosate, purportedly decreasing the need for soil tillage, which proponents argue will increase soil health while decreasing erosion, equipment use and associated fossil fuel emissions, along with on-farm labor – all while increasing yields. However, with an increase in crops modified to withstand the application of pesticides, we’ve seen an overall global increase in pesticide use, and a whole host of downstream effects ︎︎︎ issues that farmers, workers, and their communities are left to deal with.

One of those issues? Over time, weeds have become resistant to glyphosate, meaning farmers must apply greater and greater quantities of herbicide to achieve the same result and, in some cases, stronger chemicals altogether. Though this is a problem for farmers and their communities who are exposed to greater concentrations of probable carcinogens and neurotoxins —  the increased need for these chemicals, paired with the rising cost of inputs, is in fact a boon for the corporations manufacturing these technologies.

Though the need for increasing chemical use to achieve the same results spells trouble for farmers, companies continue to market these products, touting the possibility of increased yields and farmers’ responsibility to “feed the world︎︎︎.”

Similarly, proponents of digital agriculture (often the same corporations!) argue that as farms adopt precision agriculture technologies, global yields will increase while input use and greenhouse gas emissions will decrease. The World Economic Forum argues ︎︎︎ that if 15-25% of farms adopted precision agriculture, global yields could increase measurably by 2030.

However, we know that the arguments relied on by corporations who make money off of these technologies — that farmers must “produce more, more efficiently” — aren’t actually true. Increasing yields won’t solve the problem of hunger (or climate change).

We presently produce enough food for every human on the planet; hunger isn’t a yield problem, it’s a political problem. People aren’t hungry because food doesn’t exist and farmers need to increase yields, people are hungry because food and agricultural products are commodified, and not all people have access to capital to buy food.

Harms to Agroecology and Farmers

Corporate-owned and controlled technologies line the pocketbooks of shareholders as new aspects of  farmers’ operations are increasingly privatized and commodified ︎︎︎. There are many ways in which these technologies may harm agroecological and community-scale farmers, and just as the arguments in support of these products are familiar, the harms also mirror that of previous generations of corporate profit-driven agricultural products:

  • Corporate control of agricultural data: Precision agriculture is dependent on mass on-farm data collection ︎︎︎, or surveillance by corporations. Who will own and have access to this data, and what will it be used for?
  • Farmer reliance on corporate-owned technology: As farmers rely on technology and platforms developed by corporations for information about their farms, the solutions offered are only those that can financially benefit the corporation, that is privatizing a farm’s data and selling it back to them ︎︎︎. This leaves farmers dependent on a technology that could change price or terms of use, and algorithms that dictate farmers’ decision-making.
  • Increasing input costs: the majority of the food dollar already lands off-farm ︎︎︎. Precision agriculture tools are expensive and deepen the phenomenon. From sensors to robots and drones, these “innovations” are built to capture more and more of the farmers’ dollars.

Where are the Solutions?

Those of us who practice agroecology know it’s possible to have forms of agriculture that support farmers, workers, and more-than-human communities. We do it every day. We are working to center sustainability in multiple ways, including ecological, economic, and social sustainability. Advancing agroecology requires shifting the political and economic conditions that created and maintain our present-day industrial food system ︎︎︎.

Though corporate-led digital agriculture threatens agroecological and community-scale farmers’ viability and sovereignty, its adoption isn’t inevitable. Proponents of agroecology are working to: 

  1. Combine local knowledge with farm-level research and science.
  2. Support agricultural systems that promote community-led democracy and farmer, worker, and community-led solutions to challenges on-farm.
  3. Prioritize place-based tools and technologies. 

Conventional agricultural and digital technologies are both major contributors to climate change. As the impact of climate change continues to undermine the viability of farms and their communities, climate-adaptive agricultural systems that prioritize resilience and community interdependence are critically important. While precision agriculture increases farmers’ dependence on one-size-fits-all “solutions” that benefit corporations’ bottom lines, agroecology fosters ecological, social, and political resiliency to the challenges ahead.

Ahna Kruzic (she/her) lives in Centerville, Iowa. She holds a Master of Science in sustainable agriculture and sociology from Iowa State University, and has worked as community organizer, researcher, coalition-builder, publisher, and non-profit administrator. Ahna currently works as Regenerative Agriculture Foundation's Associate Director.

More on Ahna’s work ︎︎︎