Friday, February 14, 2014

Monsanto buying companies to collect data on farmers; what will it do with the information?

By Tim Mandell
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

It seems every business wants customers to sign up for a store card, which often offers discounts, but allows the company to keep track of your purchases. Advertisements on sites like Facebook pop up to let you know the new book by an author you 'liked' is available for purchase. It's a constant stream of information collection. Monsanto, the world's biggest seed producer and a leading chemical manufacturer, is leading this field in agriculture, spending billions to buy up companies that have data on farmers. But why does Monsanto need all this information, and what does it plan to do with it?

In October Monsanto "spent close to $1 billion to buy Climate Corp., a data analytics firm," and last year bought Precision Planting, "another high-tech firm, and also launched a venture capital arm geared to fund tech start-ups," Lina Khan reports for Salon. Other corporations are following suit, with John Deere and DuPont Pioneer (another chemical/seed combine) announcing plans in November "to partner to provide farmers information and prescriptions in near-real time. Deere has pioneered 'precision farming' equipment in recent years, equipping tractors and combines to automatically transmit data collected from particular farms to company databases. DuPont, meanwhile, has rolled out a service that analyzes data into 'actionable management strategies.'”

The concern is that many farmers "are wary that these giants could use these tools to win unprecedented levels of insight into the economics and operational workings of their farms," Khan writes. "For farmers, the risks of big data seem to pierce right to the heart of how they make a living. What would it mean, for instance, for Monsanto to know the intricacies of their business? For farmers, the most immediate question is who owns the information these technologies capture." That information is unclear, but there's growing fear that corporations will use the information for "price discrimination, in which they charge some farmers more than others for the same product." There is also concern that conglomerates will have "more power to compel farmers to buy other lines of products."

Some farmers "worry that the information may end up being used against them in ways that dull their particular competitive edge," Khan writes. John McGuire, a former Monsanto technology developer, told him, “If you inadvertently teach Monsanto what it is that makes you a better farmer than your neighbor, it can sell that information to your neighbor. It opens the door for Monsanto to say, ‘We know how to farm in your area better than you do.’” (Read more)

The data issue was addressed Thursday during a meeting of the U.S. House Committee on Small Business. "One of the most important issues related to 'big data' goes directly to property rights and who owns and controls farm-level data that may be collected," raising issues of privacy concerns," said Brian Marshall, a farmer and Missouri Farm Bureau member, who testified on behalf of the American Farm Bureau Federation. "For years, farmers have used technology advances to better match varieties of seeds, production inputs and management practices with specific field characteristics. While farmers have been experimenting for well over a decade, only now is the industry starting to consider all the uses of this transformative technology. Farmers should have a say in and be compensated when their data is sold." (Read more)

The problem with Monsanto owning Climate Corp. goes back to the data, and what Monsanto would do with it. "Historically, farmers have relied on federal crop insurance to protect them against the costs of their inputs—fertilizer, seed—during hard times. This setup, though, leaves farmers at a break-even point and does not address the profit they may have made from the crop," Ashlee Vance reports for Bloomberg Businessweek.

"Climate Corp. stepped in to offer insurance that would cover the profit, and it did so in a very innovative way," Vance writes. "The start-up turned the U.S. into a grid and used weather data to measure temperature and rainfall and other factors. If a farmer bought a policy that covered drought and his land didn’t receive the specified amount of rain covered by the policy, he was paid out automatically by Climate Corp. based on the measurements—no need to file a claim." The new Farm Bill makes crop insurance the main part of the federal safety net for farmers.

"The takeaway here seems to be that Monsanto sees Climate Corp. as a data and analytics service arm that will aid farmers in what’s being hailed as the Era of Precision Agriculture," Vance writes. "Start-ups have arrived delivering cheap sensors that constantly monitor the moisture and nutrients in soil, while others have started using satellite images to measure the yields of crops. All this information needs to be pulled and analyzed by someone who knows what she’s doing." (Read more)

Climate Corp. CEO David Friedberg said in a Jan. 31 teleconference that "data created by a farmer or generated from equipment the farmer owns or leases, is owned by that farmer," Sarah Gonzalez reported for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. He said "services provided by his company should be free of cost, and a farmer should be able to share his data easily across different systems. He also said Climate Corp. will use third party audits to make sure it is following the guidelines. If a farmer uses a Climate Corp. free service that simply collects, stores and provides access to that data, the company will not view or use. Friedberg said the company needs to get explicit consent from the farmer to use the data for specific activities and research." (Read more)

But that still brings us back to the question of why Monsanto wants the information. Some farmers, like Jonathan Quinn, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on a large farm in northeast Maryland, believe sharing the information will help their businesses, Dan Charles reports for NPR. Quinn keeps all of his information on a GPS receiver. Until now, he was the only one with access to it. Now that he's participating in Monsanto's sharing plan, "They're going to be able to see everything this [GPS] monitor does. So they're going to be able to look at my field all the time. They'll be able to look at my information, and they're going to just watch that field," Quinn told Charles. "I've had people ask me, 'Why should Monsanto have all your information?' My theory is, if they have my information, and they're out there working with me, I'm hoping that they're going to bring me a better product. And them having my information doesn't bother me."

Others aren't so sure. Mary Kay Thatcher, the American Farm Bureau's senior director for congressional relations, "says farmers should understand that when data move into the cloud, they can go anywhere," Charles reports. "For instance: Your local seed salesman might get the data, and he may also be a farmer — and thus your competitor, bidding against you for land that you both want to rent." Thatcher told Charles, "All of a sudden he's got a whole lot of information about your capabilities."

Charles adds: "Or consider this: Companies that are collecting these data may be able to see how much grain is being harvested, minute by minute, from tens of thousands of fields." Thatcher told him, "They could actually manipulate the market with it. They only have to know the information about what is actually happening with harvest minutes before somebody else knows it. I'm not saying they will. Just a concern." That's a concern that will have to remain unanswered, as farmers wait to see how the data is used. (Read more)

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