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Digitalization of agriculture : what are the risks for farmers and populations in the Global South ?

In March 2019, an international meeting of social movements was held in Bangkok, Thailand, devoted to digital justice [1]. About sixty activists and academics from all over the world participated. Cédric Leterme, researcher at Centre Tricontinental (CETRI), interviewed Kartini Samon, researcher and regional representative for Asia at GRAIN, who also participated at the international meeting.

CETRI : How does an association supporting small farmers and peasant struggles in the Global South find itself participating in a meeting on « digital justice » ?

Kartini Samon : In Asia, a majority of people still sell their own production directly in open markets or on the streets. In India, for example, these traditional markets are the second most important source of livelihood after agriculture. However, in recent years, we have noticed that these markets are facing increasing competition from new forms of retail trade, sometimes called « e-commerce » or « e-grocery ».

At the same time, we are involved in a regional network dedicated to free trade issues, where we saw how the digital giants were trying to impose their agenda in terms of « e-commerce » and services in the context of the new free trade agreements.
We were therefore contacted by the organizers of this meeting to bring our experience, because the links that are being forged between digital technology and agriculture in many fields are not yet very visible, even though their implications are enormous. A very positive discourse sees them above all as progress. On our side, we try first and foremost to document and make intelligible what these links mean in practice.

CETRI : In your opinion, what are the main impacts of the digitalization of the economy on agriculture ?

Kartini Samon : It starts with the seeds. Digital technologies allow, for example, new forms of bio-piracy that bypass existing regulations to the detriment of local communities, indigenous communities, etc.

Secondly, I have already mentioned the threats linked to the development of online sales of agricultural or food products. Beyond the problems that this poses for small producers or sellers who find themselves in competition with a growing number of actors, including foreign ones, there is also a more general problem of regulation or rather the absence of regulation. For example, when you order food from Alibaba, who is responsible for its quality ? For the time being, no one knows.

A third aspect refers to the vertical integration of the agri-food sector. Indeed, an increasing number of companies are turning to new technologies to develop their own sources of supply, their own farms for example, to minimize the economic and social risks associated with contract farming. They want to ensure that they have farms that produce for them in an efficient and safe way, without having to face wage demands or better redistribution of their profits.

This market is increasingly being invested by technology companies outside the agricultural sector, such as Panasonic and Fujitsu, which have developed pilot projects in this area. These projects range from renting devices and machines to detect changes in the weather or to measure pesticides, to setting up real « farmerless farms », such as the one I visited in Hanoi, Vietnam, which is managed by Fujitsu on behalf of a Japanese company.

They call it « precision farming » because they claim they can optimize all the parameters (quantity of water, pesticides, etc.). In doing so, they sell it as a solution to climate change, in a context where farmers are accused of wasting water, or as a way to deal with the increasingly uncertain climate. But these are extremely expensive technologies that only the largest companies can afford.

These new technologies often aim to supply a relatively well-off clientele that is more attentive to health issues or environmental protection, by playing on a feeling of guilt that is becoming more and more widespread in these upper-middle classes. They are led to believe that they are helping to protect the environment by buying these products that are sold at a much higher price because they are « organic », « healthy », etc. This « precision agriculture » therefore plays a major role in eco-intelligent agriculture, which has been increasingly promoted on a global scale in recent years. And it’s really impressive to see what people are willing to pay for these products, while at the same time we keep pushing small farmers to lower their prices... That’s why we saw Amazon buy Whole Foods, one of the biggest acquisitions in the organic market, which overnight transformed Amazon into one of the largest, if not the largest organic marketer in the world. E-commerce seeks to capture any market in the world that can be profitable, including in the agricultural sector.

CETRI : In this regard, you talk about economic and social threats, but also cultural threats. Can you clarify ?

Kartini Samon : For the moment, this type of « precision agriculture » exists mainly for small areas where vegetables or fruit are grown. Technology is not yet available to grow staple crops such as rice, maize or soybeans. To do this, we still need huge areas of land. But it is certain that this type of agriculture is a threat not only to the living conditions of small farmers, but also to their culture, their relationship to the land, etc. This was obviously already the case with intensive and mechanized agriculture, but here we are aiming at an agriculture without farmers ! An agriculture where an increasing number of decisions are made by machines, based on parameters provided by machines, which leads to a really extreme stage of dehumanization and disconnection between human beings and the earth.

At the same time, it is also noted that as the food market becomes more concentrated and globalized, the options available to consumers in terms of food diversity tend to decrease. Since the green revolution, the main focus has been on developing high-yielding crops that are often less nutritious and resilient than traditional varieties. Obviously, it is easier for the industry to control a small number of varieties, but as a result the general population is losing more and more food diversity and options.
In this context, the global platform for food sovereignty remains relevant because it recognizes not only the right of farmers to produce what they want to produce, but also the right of the general population to consume healthy, culturally appropriate and sustainably grown products. These are all elements defended by peasant movements and civil society in general, but which are increasingly threatened by the agro-industry both in its traditional forms and in its new technological forms, through « precision agriculture », e-commerce, etc.

CETRI : What is the role of data in the field of agricultu
re ? Do we find the same logic of appropriation and exploitation as in other fields ?

Kartini Samon : Yes, of course, there are many examples. One of the most emblematic was Monsanto’s acquisition of the weather forecasting and insurance company The Climate Corporation for nearly a billion dollars. Everyone wondered why it was putting such an exorbitant price on it. This is because this company had a huge database of climate information that was extremely useful for the agricultural sector. But who owns this climate information ? From our point of view, it is a common good that should be made accessible to all farmers to help them in their choices of cultivation, rotation, etc.

Another example is the proliferation of applications that allow, among other things, the purchase of pesticides online by sending photos of infected plants to determine the most suitable product. For many farmers, it is a very useful tool that helps them in a concrete way. Few of them realize that it is also a way to target them much more effectively than with traditional marketing methods. In addition, the data generated by these exchanges and the information provided by farmers are also captured by the owners of these applications and resold or used for their benefit.

Another example is the use of tracing devices and applications in plantations. We know that plantation workers are already among the most exploited and vulnerable workers. There are many migrant workers, who are generally not covered by social security or labour law. More and more often, they are given a smartphone as soon as they start working, in which there is an application to measure their effectiveness and efficiency. Basically, it is the same principle as personal development and sports training applications that measure the number of steps taken, the distance covered, etc. This is obviously extremely biased and dangerous, because the application does not take into account, for example, the reasons that may explain why a person suddenly goes slower, because they are sick, because something unexpected has happened, because they are pregnant. However, if they do not meet the standards set by these applications, these workers can be fired. In addition, again, the data generated by these devices (on rhythms, routes, etc.) are also appropriate for owners to maximize their profit and increase their control over the process.

Finally, take the example of platforms like Uber Eats and similar. They do not only detect consumers’ eating habits (what do I like about restaurants, supermarkets, shopping lists, etc.), but also narrow the options available. First, because a lot of options are not there, and second, because these options can be organized and presented in such a way as to favour some of them. This is a huge market that can have equally huge implications, especially in the South.

CETRI : A final word on the policy of the States of the region in this field, for example in Indonesia where you are based ?

Kartini Samon : The Indonesian government is still at the stage of trying to understand what is going on. They think that e-commerce only concerns the sale of goods and services on the Internet and they see this as a good thing, especially because it is supposed to benefit small and medium-sized companies, which will now be able to sell their products online and reach many more customers. But recently, a government report threw the pie in the bud by explaining that 90% of the goods traded on the Internet in Indonesia were imported goods, only 10% coming from local production. And then there is also a lot of foreign investment in this sector. One of the country’s largest online sales platforms, Lazada, is owned by Alibaba. Another, Grab, is based in Singapore. And Indonesia is one of the fastest growing markets for e-commerce. However, the government realizes a little late that it does not have appropriate regulations to ensure, for example, a balance between the exchange of imported goods and local production or to determine who is responsible in the event of a dispute. The boom in Indonesia is linked to the emergence of a fairly large middle class, especially in large cities, which are attracted by the extremely low prices offered by these platforms. But how do they manage to offer such low prices ? How can we fight this competition, knowing that these new consumers will have difficulty accepting that we are attacking a form of trade that allows them to consume a lot for very little ?

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.