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Newsletter no 37 - The digitalization of the food system


dimanche 15 septembre 2019, par Manu

Box 1 - The Internet of cows [1]

It sounds like a joke, but it is one more aspect of the invasion of digital technologies into agriculture and food, whose ultimate aim is an agriculture without farmers - industrialized from seed to plate or glass of milk, and controlled by large agribusiness companies, machinery and computing.

Companies like IBM, Microsoft and Huawei offer technology packages for what they call the "Internet of cows." These are digital devices (collars and / or chips) that are placed in each cow to measure their pulse, temperature, peak fertility and other health conditions related to the digestive system. The data is transmitted over the internet to a cloud owned by the companies themselves, which stores them in Big Data systems, analyzes them with artificial intelligence and sends the information that the program deems pertinent to the computer or telephone of the agricultural company, farm owner. There are also interactive chips that can direct the cattle for milking when it is time, connected to an automated milking system previously installed to suit the cow in question. Each device is associated with a particular cow.

For a decade there have been satellite systems for monitoring livestock in certain areas. The difference now is that the data collection is much broader, the data is about each animal, and all the information goes into a cloud owned by those companies, or according to the contracts shared clouds with Bayer-Monsanto or agricultural machinery companies such as John Deere.

There is also the internet of pigs and sheep, which are similarly structured. The idea is not that the process ends at each farm, but that the monitoring follows each animal, including on the hoof livestock transactions, through the use of blockchain and crypto currencies, to the slaughterhouse, certification chains that include processing, sale tracking retail and even as far as the refrigerator.

Both IBM and Microsoft have advanced digital systems that cover all the agricultural production of a farm. The package offered by Microsoft, called "Farmbeats", offers a system of permanent monitoring of the condition of soils, humidity and water, condition of the crops (if they need irrigation, if there are diseases, pests, etc.), climatic data, up to date weather data (wind direction, rains, etc.), to provide indications when and where to sow, apply irrigation, fertilizers or pesticides, when to harvest etc - all from the Microsoft cloud.

To solve the issue of rural connectivity, a key element of the system, but which is lacking in rural areas, Microsoft uses the “white spaces of TV”, which are disused television bands. This allows a router to be installed in each farm, connecting sensors, drones, chips, phones and computers to the Internet within a radius of a few kilometers and sending the information to the company’s cloud.

The largest agribusiness companies such as Bayer, Syngenta, Corteva and BASF have digital divisions with projects of this kind and since 2012 they have collaboration agreements or joint ventures with the largest machinery companies (John Deere, AGCO, CNH, Kubota) for big systems data, clouds for storage and computing, and drone companies. For example, PrecisionHawk, Raven, Sentera and Agribotix are new companies created in collaboration between multinationals manufacturers of agrotoxic seeds and machinery.

Again, as with transgenics, companies claim that this is necessary to feed a growing world population, to increase production, save water and be "sustainable." In reality, it is about agriculture without farmers, aimed at replacing small farms with large companies, where from the seed to the plate, the control is carried out by a chain of transnationals that leave no decision to the farmers.

Each farm also provides a large amount of data that companies appropriate, building maps over entire regions, which allows them to visualize and negotiate projects far beyond each farm, passing over farmers and peasants.
They are projects that move forward, but it does not mean that they work. The true knowledge about fields and animals, which is what gives food and sustenance to most of the planet, come from the peasant way of life itself. These technology packages are new forms of attack against her.

Box 2 - Digital green grabbing in Brazil [2]

The Cerrado region in Brazil, one of the most biodiverse in the planet, has been witnessing the rampant expansion of agribusiness, especially in the region called MATOPIBA [3], which has been called “ideal” for soy plantations by agribusiness due to its terrain comprised of plateaus and lowlands.

Since some areas of the MATOPIBA region (especially the lowlands) still have a cover of native Cerrado vegetation, industrial farmers and agribusiness companies are now staking a claim to those lands, in order to comply with Brazilian legislation. The Brazilian Forest Code (Law 12651/2012) requires landowners to keep at least 20% of their land in the Cerrado biome –the so-called “legal reserves”. Because the plateaus have been almost completely deforested for the establishment of soy plantations, agribusiness companies are expanding their farms to the lowlands, where the local villages are situated.

Land grabbers use the Rural Environmental Registry (Cadastro Ambiental Rural, CAR) as an instrument to formalize their land claims. The CAR is an online system, in which anybody can register environmental and land use information ; no proof of property is required. Although according to the legislation CAR does not have any value as a property title, agribusiness companies are attempting to utilize it as proof of their land occupation and use. This is the case of the “legal reserves areas’” – most of them covered with native vegetation ; that are registered as part of their property, although those lands are traditionally used by the local communities.

Communities who try to register their lands in the CAR often find out that they have already been registered by plantation owners. Despite the flaws of the CAR, unfortunately several initiatives have promoted this system, such as a project coordinated by the UNDP and Conservation International with the objective of encouraging “sustainable” soy production in the Cerrado.

Box 3 - Digitalization of fisheries

In the last few decades, the collection of ocean data has developed hugely and for a range of reasons. These include tracking cargo shipments, creating digital seafloor maps, and monitoring fish stocks, resulting in the development of quota allocations and the Total Allowable Catch (TAC) system. However, the concern is around what kinds of political-economic agenda the collection of big data will mobilise and what the consequences for small-scale fishing communities around the world may be. The widespread increase in the use of data and the digitalization of the ocean space needs to be considered in light of historical political-economic shifts concerning use and control of ocean-space and in particular within the narrative of the “Blue Economy”.

Data and fisheries

The use of data in fisheries emerged simultaneously with discussions around the optimal use of national fish stocks based on a discourse of environmental sustainability and economic efficiency. The production of this data resulted in the development of the TAC system which is determined by fisheries scientists through annual surveys which collect data on the population sizes of commercial fish species. The collection of these data has been increasingly digitalized through on-board GPS devices and the automatic storage of information on computers. The ability to record catches in real-time means that the TAC and remaining quotas or catches that exceed the quota can be detected immediately. Although this knowledge adds to the global understanding of species populations and distributions in the ocean, the quantitative and scientific nature of this data undermines the traditional knowledge of local fishers which allow them to protect the sustainability of ocean ecosystems.

Quota-based management systems and catch share models such as Individual Transferrable Quotas (ITQs) were made possible through the digitalization of fish stock data. These types of management systems are supported by environmental organisations that advocate for the implementation of these models for the advancement of conservation efforts in the oceans. However, they are often contentious as they are a result of privatization of public resources and are associated with inequitable allocation of fisheries resources.

Data and the Blue Economy

The increasing role of data in ocean management is being emphasised as part of the growing pressure on the ocean and ocean resources to act as a new economic frontier to solve a myriad of crises in our food, energy, and climate systems. The expansion of big data turns the ocean into a financial asset to be exploited for economic profitability rather than a point of access for variable and nutritious food and ecosystem to be respected and nurtured. The market-based agenda of the blue economy focuses on private sector involvement in ocean-based extractive developments. According to the blue economy discourse, emerging ocean-based industries have high growth, innovation, and job creation potential, and can contribute to energy security, climate change management, and food security. However, these discourses are also associated with dispossession and the appropriation of ocean resources and spaces.

A variety of developments have been facilitating the increased gathering of data for ocean management in growing the blue economy. Satellite data has been growing exponentially and is set to double by 2020. With increased spatial and spectral resolution, more data per instrument will be recorded with fewer limitations to observation. Drones and unmanned airborne vehicles are allowing for cheaper and easier data collection. In order for big data to contribute to growing a rich information ecosystem, advanced application programming interfaces are being developed to allow for quick and cheap processing of the huge amounts of data that are being collected.


Fishers have a deep-seated knowledge of fish species populations, breeding cycles, migration patterns, and fishing techniques which they use to protect fish stocks. The quantitative and scientific nature of the calculation of the TAC overlooks this knowledge, reducing information to scientific data rather than holistically combining this with existing traditional knowledge. The vision of nutrition has become technical in nature and food is increasingly viewed as a commodity rather than part of the commons. This reductionist, fragmented and individualist view of food lacks a human rights perspective.

Digitalization widens the gap between producers and consumers ; it results in an increasingly automated and delocalized process of food production, and dispossesses fishers of their knowledge and access to ocean resources. This shifts the power from physical food production systems and fishing activities in favour of often-unknown financial actors with access to and control over these technologies. It concentrates political and economic power in the hands of remote actors who engage in the immaterial realm of information and financial means, reaffirming class struggles and oppressive inequality. Additionally, all of this big data feeds into policy decisions such as determining the use of ocean space with technical tools such as Marine Spatial Planning. These data are being mobilised to support a certain type of political-economic agenda and, if this includes the increasingly dominant discourse of Blue Economy, the consequences for small-scale fishers with marginal political power across the world may be devastating.

[1ETC Group’s contribution, more information on this in the ETC Group report, Blocking the Chain. Industrial food chain concentration, Big Data platforms and food sovereignty solutions, 2018 - https://www.etcgroup.org/content/blocking-chain

[2https://www.fian.org/fileadmin/media/publications_2018/ Reports_and_guidelines/The_Human_and_Environmental_ Cost_of_Land_Business-The_case_of_MATOPIBA_240818.pdf

[3MATOPIBA is the acronym for a land area of 73,173,485 hectares across the States of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí, and Bahia.