Big data, patents and GMOs

July 2014

Photo of a vortex of ones and zeros
CC photo by Infocux Technologies on Flickr
The vast majority of the world's food producers are traditional farmers. Building upon the wisdom of their ancestors, they have added a life-time of further learning about their own soil and crops. Sharing with the local community consolidates this wisdom. This is a knowledge which moves with the ever-changing needs and conditions.
In modern high-tech, industry-led farming, the consolidation of seed- and agri-chemical suppliers with their associated technical-know-how, all geared for world markets, has created a global juggernaut to supply food to the developed world. These ships are floating in a GM-driven current, and are moving forward relentlessly, no matter how stark those ice-bergs are on the horizon.
The farmers riding these juggernauts can't get off: there's total dependence on the biotech industry for seed choice and use, and the chemicals to cure all ills.  
And things are about to get worse. Meet Big Data...

In 2013, Monsanto paid close to $1 billion to buy The Climate Corporation, a company which sells advice on field-conditions and crop insurance. The year before that, the Monsanto bought Precision Planting, a company which sells high-tech agri-monitoring systems, and launched a venture capital arm geared to fund high-tech start-ups. Also last year, John Deere and DuPont Pioneer went into partnership to supply equipment for tractors and harvesters which will collect and transmit data directly back to their databases. This will enable the provision of near-real-time information and prescriptions for farmer-customers. Meanwhile, DuPont has rolled out a service which analyses data to produce “actionable management strategies”.
In fact, the largest corporations in agriculture seem to be racing to gather, and put their stamp on, as much agri-data as they can. The reason, of course, is that advice based on all this data will generate profit.
Monsanto estimates Big Data could be a $20 billion market.
Big Data will deliver “decision-support” services, whose aim seems to be to know how to farm a farm better than the farmer himself does. (And charge him for it.)
Once a farmer has sacrificed wisdom to the god of Big Data, he'll find himself on a biotech industry seed- and chemical-treadmill. (And being charged for it.)
Growers beware! Keep control of your farm's data or you'll become a tenant on your own farm.
Farmers may not be the only target of Big Data. Investors and financial traders bet billions of dollars every year in commodity crop futures. In a market where the slightest information edge makes the difference between huge profits and even bigger losses, Big Data will have a ready customer-base. As the policy advisor for national government relations at the Indiana Farm Bureau pointed out the danger that “... there is a potential for market distortion. It could destabilize markets, make them more volatile”.   

The extent to which GM plants could feed into a Big Data world is scary in scope.
Biotech industry patents on artificial genes and associated agri-chemicals coupled to 'decision support' are a vital part of this picture.
However, GM plants or microbes which alter with environmental conditions and which can send signals about their change directly back to base would be a real money-spinner. These would fall through every regulatory net: they're not a crop, not a food, not a drug, and not a pesticide. They could, however spread toxic contamination through the environment.
Now that the consolidation of the data-supply and biotech industries is underway, the juggernaut will have even more difficulty changing course. So, the sooner you alert farmers and politicians to the danger of this ultimate in industry control of our food supply the better.   

  • Lina Khan, Monsanto's scarey now scheme,, 29.12.13

1 comment:

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