Data consolidation threatens sustainable agriculture, says international panel

If you care about reducing pesticide use, promoting agricultural biodiversity, and supporting small farmers, then you should also care about who’s amassing agricultural data. That’s the message of a new report from a group of sustainable food policy experts.

The International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems spent three years putting together a comprehensive food policy platform that outlines how the European Union can build a more equitable and sustainable food system. Among dozens of proposals, the panel called on EU regulators to “block agribusiness mergers leading to over-consolidation of farm data” as a way to promote more resilient and ecological food production.

The problem is not that a growing number of farmers rely on data analytics to guide their planting decisions. It’s that large swaths of valuable data are increasingly being locked away inside the servers of private, for-profit corporations rather than being made public by open and disinterested sources, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and university extension services, that have historically informed farmers. The report noted that because these corporate data keepers make their money by selling patented seeds and chemicals, they have little incentive to collect or share information about other techniques.

In theory, these new technologies should be a huge boon for all farmers. Today, farmers can purchase software programs and sensors that measure and analyze everything on their farm, from soil conditions to crop yields, and they can use that information to determine exactly how much water, fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides their plants need. Collective yield data can also reveal which plant varieties perform best in a given region to provide better crop recommendations, among many other possible uses.

A flurry of ag-tech startups hope to capitalize on this estimated $20-billion market opportunity, but their products are only as good as the datasets they draw upon. And bigger is better. “Statistically, the more data points they have, the more accurate their predictions can be,” explains Jason Davidson, food and agriculture campaign associate for Friends of the Earth.

The catch is that for companies looking to build digital agriculture software, “it’s really difficult to enter into the market when you’re dealing with other companies that have huge swaths of data,” Davidson says.

Over the past decade, big agribusinesses have moved quickly to corner access to all types of agricultural data and create their own ag-tech platforms. Seed and chemical companies like Bayer, DowDupont, and BASF, for example, have partnerships with John Deere to gather farm-level data from their tractors and host their software on Deere farm equipment.

The Big Four seed and chemical purveyors are also acquiring ag-tech startups. Bayer-Monsanto alone has purchased five agriculture software companies since 2012, including a billion-dollar takeover of Climate Corporation, the world’s leading digital agriculture platform, which is used on more than a third of U.S. farmland.

Once these firms integrate information gathered from individual farms into their data-driven products, it often cannot be deleted. These provisions solidify existing platform dominance and ensure that corporations benefit from a farmers’ information even after the farmer decides to stop using the software or switch platforms.

The vertical integration of data-driven planting recommendations and the sale of seeds and chemicals also present an inherent conflict of interest. BASF, for instance, offers farmers rebates for buying its seeds and pesticides in tandem with its ag-tech platform. Corporations can also easily favor their products in recommendations or even remove competitors’ products from their platform entirely.

Smaller-scale, biodiverse, and organic farming practices are already marginalized when it comes to research, development, and market access. As agribusinesses drive the future of data-based farming, this disparity may only deepen, explains Peter Carstensen, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Law School.

“If [agriculture information] sources are themselves tied to … Monsanto or BASF,” he says, “what you are going to get are systems that make it increasingly hard for independent suppliers to supply for farmers who want to do other things — that is, be organic, be sustainable.”

In addition to blocking further mergers between dominant ag-data holders, the panel urged the EU to promote more open source data systems, so that more players have access to large data sets. And if farmers do not wish to make their data open source, the panel suggested that they form data co-ops, co-owning data with other farmers, in order to gain the benefits of accruing more data without forfeiting control to a private entity.

Additionally, other experts believe that greater data portability could promote competition among ag software providers by allowing farmers to remove any information they’ve generated from a platform.

“It is not necessarily through acquisition in which the top firms are going to continue getting more and more data, and so just preventing mergers is half the puzzle,” says Davidson. “Data portability … is going to be the other super-important piece to try to preserve competition in digital agriculture.”

Claire Kelloway is a reporter with the Open Markets Institute, where she researches economic consolidation and monopolization in the food and agriculture industry. She is the editor and primary reporter for Food & Power, where this article originally appeared.