Will Monsanto Become The NSA Of Agriculture?

from the big-ag,-big-data dept

Monsanto is best-known for its controversial use of genetically-modified organisms, and less well-known for being involved in the story of the defoliant Agent Orange (the company’s long and involved story is well told in the book and film “The World According to Monsanto“, by Marie-Monique Robin.) Its shadow also looms large over the current TPP talks: the USTR’s Chief Agricultural Negotiator is Islam A. Siddiqui, a former lobbyist for Monsanto. But it would seem that the company is starting to explore new fields, so to speak; as Salon reports in a fascinating and important post, Monsanto is going digital:

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.

Here’s the key shift that is behind that move:

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.

Data that in isolation is of limited use suddenly becomes highly valuable when aggregated. Here, for example, are some of the ways that companies like Monsanto might use their new stores of knowledge:

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 possibility is the following:

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.

Finally, there’s this:

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.

The parallels with Facebook, Google and other online services that make money from collecting and analysing personal data, are clear. By pooling huge quantities of previously secret data, companies gain a privileged position with unique insights into what farmers are doing. As well as enabling them to track exactly what the latter are up to on a 24-by-7, field-by-field basis, it also allows these aggregators of agricultural data to see the bigger picture in terms of the relationships between different farms. In other words, the race seems to be on to become the NSA of agriculture, with Monsanto already emerging as the likely winner.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and +glynmoody on Google+

Filed Under: , , ,
Companies: monsanto

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Will Monsanto Become The NSA Of Agriculture?”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
That One Guy (profile) says:

Maybe I'm missing something but...

What reason would the farmers have to hand over that data in the first place, if they consider it private and/or confidential? The possibility that it might get them a discount on seeds in the future(weighed of course against a possible increase in seed prices)?

Given their actions in the past, I could certainly see Monsanto trying to include an extra clause in the ‘license’ for the seeds that says any data gathered also has to be sent to them, but I imagine that might not get the warmest reception, either with the farmers or any lawyers/judges the matter ended up in front of, as forcing farmers to provide research data like that probably wouldn’t go over too well in court.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Maybe I'm missing something but...


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.

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.

Simple English:

Farmers nowadays use fancy tractors and stuff that connects to the internet. Monsanto is cornering the fancy internet tractor market. Farmers will have to use Monsanto tractors to plant Monsanto seeds, and Monsanto will know to the penny exactly how much they can wring out of them.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re: Maybe I'm missing something but...

anon @ 11:47

another episode of ‘you can’t be too cynical’…

monsanto = eeee-vil

besides taking advantage of a broken patent system in cornering the market on OUR COLLECTIVE heritage of agricultural/etc genomes, their stated goals are inherently eeee-vil: a vast wasteland of Big Agri monoculture ‘farms’ dependent upon an unnatural system of endless cycles of artificial over-fertilization, continual dousing in pesticides and herbicides, and GMO/’patented’ crops designed for ‘durability’ and ‘consistency’ (NOT flavor/nutrition), controlled by them to accrue all the profits, but ‘owned’ by others to take all the downside risks and live in perpetual serfdom to monsanto/banksters…

works great if your only goal is profit for the 1%…

MM_Dandy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Maybe I'm missing something but...

I agree that patenting DNA sequences is a very bad thing. I just want to point out that, from a farmer’s point of view, yield is the driving factor in variant selection. That is, volume (with weight and moisture content usually interpreted as signs of quality) over area. It is also the one they will use as measurement of crop success or failure, and not usually a closely guarded secret. If you asked a farmer, they’d probably even tell you the average yields from each field harvested: 100 bushels/acre for this 300 acres, 97 for that 80 acres, and so on.

Now, having said all that, I still think any sort of private yield reporting program or system should be strictly opt-in. Will it? Well, let’s just say that I do not have a great deal of confidence in Mansanto to do the right thing for the right reasons.

Sampson (profile) says:

Re: Maybe I'm missing something but...

I think it would work in a similar way to a ‘Smart fridge’
In order that you can communicate with said fridge you need to have it connected with the internet. Somewhere in the machines small print will be a clause that allows the manufacturer to harvest (no pun intended) your data and sell it to whomever they wish. The only way to stop the data would be to disconnect the machine from the net (or maybe communications is done by GPS?) However the machine may not work if it can not communicate.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Maybe I'm missing something but...

In most cases most neighboring farmers can’t grow non-monsanto crops because of cross pollination..this years crops maybe fine but saving seeds for next year make them hybrid crops from the monsanto farm next door ..and monsanto does go after these farmers .. anyhow back on topic .. monsanto will force these monsanto farmers to keep this data flowing. or go broke trying to fight its implementation.

artp (profile) says:

Yes, this will cost farmers money

Every time a new innovation comes along, it is trumpeted as crating more income for farmers. And that is true – for about two or three years. Then the suppliers (seeds, equipment, chemicals) and buyers (meat packing, grain exporters, food processors) catch on to exactly how much more/less they can charge/pay farmers without driving them out of business.

With more data, Monsanto doesn’t have to wait that extra two or three years. They can hit the ground running, and squeeze every possible penny out of farmers. They can also squeeze extra money out the rest of the time, too. Regional pricing, as Glyn points out, is an anticompetitive strategy.

This would not be possible without the commoditization of agriculture that was kicked off by Earl Butz in the Nixon administration. It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

Until farmers recreate an actual; farm economy and start adding value to their products AND give consumers what they want, this will continue. Sound like Masnick’s Connect with Fans strategy? Right now, the strategy of agriculture is to conform to Big Ag’s demands and fight what consumers want. Kinda backwards if you ask me.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Yes, this will cost farmers money

Farming is a business, but I would argue that it’s not like any other. We need farming in order to survive. Whoever controls the seed controls us in a fairly direct way.

That farmers may be so shortsighted that they’re willing to sell their (and thus our) future in exchange for increased short-term profit is a real problem.

btrussell (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Yes, this will cost farmers money

Farmers are given quotas.

Too much? Throw the excess out. Do not make more money, do not lower prices.

Too little? The farmer is penalized.

This is why so much food is wasted. The farmers are making sure they are covering their assets.

They do much more risk assessment and do much more to minimize risk than any investor or wall street broker, but are put on a fixed income to make things easier for other said cock suckers, all in the name of keeping the economy and inflation stable.

My info comes from living on a farm with a quota.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I like monsanto...

Monsanto is a business. It does what it does in order to make as much money as possible, not to feed the starving children of the world.
There is nothing wrong with this, all businesses exist in order to make money. It’s how they do it that we have a problem with.
The technology of genetic engineering may enable us to feed the starving people of the world but it won’t be an international mega-corporation that does it.

art guerrilla (profile) says:

Re: Re:

i was just reading an informal critique of so-called ‘miracle’ Big Agra GMO/patented seed stocks, and it appears it is 90% PR, and 10% kinda/sorta did some sort of ‘good’…

so called ‘golden rice’ ? practically a myth, mostly PR…

remember, most all these ‘improvements’ have NOTHING to do with real benefits for the farmer and consumer: they LOCK THEM INTO a monopoly system where they are DEPENDENT upon the monsantos/et al of the world, for the chemicals these crops, this method REQUIRES…

remember, many/most of these GMO/hybrid ‘improvements’ are to WITHSTAND the deleterious effects of pesticides and herbicides; do you want to guess who sells those chems which WILL toxify the soil over time (not to mention mere humans and livestock) ? ? ?

further, the common arrangement is the farmers are NOT allowed to save THEIR OWN SEED STOCK without paying extortion to Big Agra…
that has been the basic economic basis of agriculture since the freaking beginning of agriculture:


alternatives() says:

Re: Re:

Sometimes massive investment is needed to overcome large problems, like starving children…

…but most of the time the large problems like starving children has nothing to do with the production and everything to do with the market system pricing people out of food.

If monsanto increases yields and feeds more people, good.

And yet the key word is If. But perhaps the original AC can step up and explain the US of A hunger issues

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

but most of the time the large problems like starving children has nothing to do with the production and everything to do with the market system pricing people out of food.

And distribution problems. It used to be true (I expect it still is, but don’t know for sure) that the US alone destroys enough food to feed all of the starving people in the world. I’m not talking about things like food waste, I’m talking about things like dumping grain directly into the ocean.

The problem of starvation is not a problem of production. If Monsanto’s goal is to eliminate world hunger, they’re using the wrong solution.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

We disagree. In my opinion, Monsanto is one of the biggest threats to an abundant food supply in the future. They are aggressively turning themselves into a seed monopoly. When all food production depends on a single entity, we will be a world of hurt.

Monsanto is, in every respect that I can see, the epitome of the large, abusive corporation willing to harm anyone and everyone who stands between them and total domination.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

I doubt there is any dispute that Monsanto is creating a monoculture in several plant species used as a food source worldwide. Whether this is intentional or not makes no difference in its potential for catastrophe. If you are unaware of this, I suggest reading up on it.

Whether their products are superior to that which preceded them is debatable. There are scientific studies not funded by Monsanto & friends which claim the advantages are small and will be short lived, followed by many inferior traits.

Do Monsanto products add value? It depends. They certainly add value to shareholders portfolios, however it is not sustainable. If you are referring to consumer value, I think they do not.

Are there legal and abundant alternatives? Used to be. Seems short term benefits outweigh long term planning

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

The problem is that once the seeds in the seed banks are actually used to grow crops, they are likely to be infected with Monsanto genes due to cross-pollination, at which point Monsanto will require their destruction and will punish the farmers so foolish as to not use Monsanto seeds.

The value of seed banks is that they can potentially allow reintroduction of species if Monsanto (or any future versions of Monsanto) no longer exists. Until then, the seeds pretty much have to stay in the banks.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Are there legal and abundant alternatives?

Kinda-sorta. The alternatives are useless if your neighboring farms start using Monsanto seeds. Lots of farmers have been forced to use Monsanto seeds, or have been destroyed, because their crops were cross-pollinated with Monsanto crops by neighboring farms.

Monsanto tries to do good

Monsanto ruthlessly tries to maximize their profits. I don’t think that “doing good” is actually a priority of theirs.

weneedhelp - not signed in says:

This is bad

Ok PPL indulge me if you will please. (Forgive me if my html is a little rusty)
Iran’s FARS:Snowden Documents Finally Detail That The US Government Is Run By Aliens

Anne O’Nemus made a comment to which I replied, and she responded talking about Sorcha Faal which I had never heard of, nor did I ever hear about whatdoesitmean.com. So having nothing to do on this Friday night I ended up reading:
Obama Plan To Depopulate Montana Raises Crisis Fears In Moscow

One particular thing that peaked my interest:
States ? or in this case, the tribes ? must monitor up to 50 miles beyond any boundary demarcating land monitored under the Clean Air Act. Because the Wind River Indian Reservation surrounds Riverton, the Obama regime found that the city falls under the jurisdiction of the tribes.
Wyoming State Senator Leland Christensen in response to this unprecedented Obama ?land grab? stated ?This is an alarming action when you have a federal agency step in and start to undo congressional acts that has really been our history for 108 years, with the stroke of a pen without talking to the biggest groups impacted, and that would be the city of Riverton and the state of Wyoming.?

Here is where I get to something close to the topic:
***Warning infowars link***
Having the most to gain from this unprecedented land seizure, this report warns, is the Obama regime protected biotechnology giant Monsanto whose genetically modified crops are currently grown on these millions of acres set to be taken, but under a US Supreme Court ruling titled Montana v. United States would nevermore face lawsuits due to their dangerous and defective foods.

So I started looking for a respectable source to confirm this and found another tidbit:
Monsanto Protection Act

And we have this confirmation on 1-8-2014 that Barry Sorento did in fact override congress, second Story.
EPA overrides Congress, hands over town to Indian tribes

Lastly… we have this little gem:
We are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we are providing Americans the kind of help that they need. I?ve got a pen and I?ve got a phone,” Obama told his Cabinet Sounds like Barry thinks he is The Decider too.

Apply what you have read above with Mike’s write-up’s and what we already know… its scary.
What are we seeing happen here over the past 13+ years? [puts on copper hat] Sure as hell seems “they” whoever “they” may be… are trying to control food production through land grabs and aggressive patent enforcement via giant corporations like Monsanto.[Takes off hat]
One thing for sure is our government is out of control, and since Bush 1 every Pres after takes more and more power. Where are we going to be in the next 13 years? Its sad what we are letting happen. Our Government has been purchased by the highest bidder. Have a great weekend everyone.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m picturing farm tractors with built in satellite uplink modems, which automatically uploads information on a farmer’s harvest yields in real-time, and without their knowledge.

Similar to that CNC machine mill that has built in geolocation lockout DRM mechanizes built into it. Who would have though Richard Stallman would turn out to be 100% accurate in his predictions of the future.

If the machine isn’t running free and open source software, than the machines are no longer servants to their owners. Indeed, the owner are now the servants of the manufactures who produce the machines.

I'm_Having_None_Of_It says:

Re: Re: Re:

Is ANYONE surprised?

The way they’re trying to strangle food production so they own it all while the BBC cheerleads GM crops like they’re the second coming (and forget about where the commercially available ones come from) and writes off all protest as Luddite annoys me.

Professor Brian Cox, I’m looking at you, mate. And those science documentaries that also never question the GM menace. I’m not afraid of my cabbages turning into Triffids and eating me, I’m afraid of receiving a nastygram demanding money with menaces because some GM pollen blew into my allotment.

Anonymous Coward says:

monsanto have already been limiting what crops can be grown by dictating what seeds farmers are allowed to purchase and sow. i sure hope this isn’t going to progress because it will obviously mean the loss of a multitude of different crops. giving farmers special deals when buying seed is one thing, forcing them to only buy what one massive, self-serving corporation dictates is a no-no

kenichi tanaka (profile) says:

What these farmers should do is hire a hacker to develop a virus so that if someone like Monsanto tries to access tha6t information that it would simply upload a virus back to their servers.


I'm_Having_None_Of_It says:

Re: Re: Re:

I understand that this is due to an anti-regulation faction in the Republican party, which believes in total deregulation of businesses ON PRINCIPLE, forget the consequences.

I’ve had a lot of conversations with certain hardcore Libertarians over this and the upshot is they refuse to accept that private enterprise can do wrong. Apparently, when there is foul play, it’s the government’s fault. Given that they’re currently running the government (there’s a reason I’m afraid of what would happen if Hillary Clinton ended up as President), I’m afraid I disagree.

We need regulation to protect the public from bad actors. You can’t vote with your wallet when there’s a monopoly on the item in question and “take it or leave it” is not always an option. It’s not a real choice, either.

E. says:

Big Brother Monsanto

Heck no. Don’t like Monsanto in the slightest. I remember seeing a documentary awhile back where a man got in trouble for trying to plant plants and somehow some of Monsanto’s engineered seeds got blown over onto his farm and he wasn’t able to do what he wanted to do.

I don’t need some BIG corporation telling me what I can or cannot plant. Thanks, but no thanks.

And this whole digitization, just screams 1984 imo. Don’t need them watching over farmers like Big Brother.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...