How Tech is Remaking the Food System
Paris Marx is joined by Jim Thomas to discuss how digital technologies are being integrated into the industrial food system, how it empowers agribusiness firms and major tech companies, and its implications for farmers and farm workers.
Jim Thomas is the research director at ETC Group, which has over 25 years international experience tracking the impact of emerging technologies on human rights, biodiversity, equity and food systems. Follow Jim on Twitter at @jimetc or follow @ETC_Group.
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Paris Marx: Jim, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Jim Thomas: Thank you. It’s lovely to be here.
PM: I’m really excited to chat with you. ETC group, which you are the Research Director of, has this new report out on the food barons in the food system. A big piece of that is the way that digital technologies and other technologies are being used in the food system and the impact of that. So there’s plenty that we can dig into — I’m really looking forward to it. But I want to start with a couple broader questions, and then we can start to dig into those specifics. So in the past few years, there have been numerous disruptions to the food system from the COVID-19 pandemic, supply-chain issues, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, and now, rising inflation. How has this affected the food system? And what has it meant for people’s ability to feed themselves?**
JT: Yeah, that’s really important. So, as you mentioned, there is particularly right now a food price crisis where hunger is skyrocketing. Unfortunately, that’s been happening not just since the Ukraine war, it’s really began to spike around the end of 2019. With a pandemic in 2020, I think one in 10 people were going to bed hungry around the world, and in many parts of the world, much higher than that. But that hunger — while it’s been exacerbated by some of what you mentioned before — it has long roots. We have a food system that is broken in so many ways. In fact, that’s just generally recognized even by the large corporations who have broken it, that we have a food system where not only do you have rising hunger, not only do you have this system driving climate change, I think somewhere between a third to half of all emissions are from the food system, and causing biodiversity loss. There’s also massive violence and harm to workers. There’s so many ways in which the food system has been completely broken.
Truthfully, what we actually have is not one food system, we have two food systems; we have the ways in which people have always fed themselves, which is particularly small farmers, peasants, small producers, producing food on the land, sharing it within their territories, and so forth, these kinds of webs of provision. And now for 100 years, we’ve had the growth of what’s called the industrial food chain. That food chain model, which extracts value, extracts calories from the soil, extracts labor from people, and destroys as it goes, is now way beyond breaking point. It’s harming not just the environment and our health, but people’s ability to live in justice. So, we have a system that is not just breaking under its own weight, it is breaking people, the land, the environment and our democracy. It’s a pretty grim picture.
PM: It is a grim picture. But I appreciate you laying it out for us, because we need to understand these things. We need to understand what’s going on in the food system, if we’re ever going to hope to rectify it and to build something better. You talked about the two systems that exist there. Are there any other major misconceptions that you think people have about the way that the food system works today that are important to bring up to set up our conversation?
JT: Sure, yeah. I talked about that sort of 100 year arc of the industrial food system coming together. And in that 100 years, especially in places in the Global North and more urban environments, I think we’ve become very inculcated with the idea that the food system is the industrial food system, and that it is these food chains, where food is a commodity that’s brought from the soil to traders to processes and to grocery stores. The food chain is presented as the way in which we get food. That’s simply not true for most people on this planet. 70% of people around the world eat off of these local food webs; they grow their own food, or they grow with their neighbors, they hunt, they fish, they share within that community, they share seeds. That’s actually the way most people are fed — and it actually feeds people. So it’s really important to recognize that — that is the system that actually feeds people and works and always has done is being destroyed.
We will hear often that what’s needed is more food. If people are hungry, it’s because there’s not enough food. And that’s, again, simply not true. That’s more than enough food, particularly in these local food webs. The reason people are going hungry right now is a food price crisis. It’s that people can’t afford food; they can’t access food for political reasons; they can’t access food, because society is broken in all kinds of ways. And usually it’s about human rights. So anytime we’re told that a tech is going to improve food production, or the what we need is to up production, that’s entirely the wrong set of answers, but it suits the agribusiness corporations, now the tech corporation. So I think that’s a very important thing to keep in mind.
PM: It’s so fascinating, right? Because it just makes me think of how these tech solutions are presented in so many more areas as well, where it’s not really dealing with the root of the problem, the political problem, but saying: Let’s put in this technology, and it will address something that we perceive to be the problem, but then doesn’t actually solve even what it claims the problem to be.
JT: Yeah, or that we choose to present as the problem. Globally, we have movements for food sovereignty and food justice where billions of peasants, farmers, activists know perfectly well what the problem is. The problem is the power of large corporations that need to have access to land, that need to have their human rights defended — that’s the thing that makes sure people can eat, and do so in a way that supports the planet. But that’s not a story that the food barons, who we’re going to talk about in a moment, that’s not the story they want to tell. They want to say that hunger is a technical problem that they’re working on.
PM: Yeah, I think that’s really well-put. So as you said, there, you know, this report is about the food barons. And I think before we start to dig into the details of the report, it’s important for us to note who those food barons are, and how they operate within this industrial food system. So who are these companies?
JT: Etcetera (ETC) group has been tracking who were the largest players in all different sectors of food for about 35 years now. We look at what are the largest companies in seeds, what are the largest companies in pesticides, the largest companies in trading, and so forth. And what we’ve seen through that time is an amazing consolidation. In areas such as seeds for example, 25-30 years ago there were 10 companies that control 40% of the seed market — that’s already pretty terrible. Now, there’s two companies that control 40% of the seed market. And there’s basically four companies that control pretty much all the market, really. And you go across every single sector of the so-called food chain — these are links by which food is now commercially brought from seed to stomach — you see, at each stage, that there are a handful of companies that really control that.
It’s very clear amongst the input companies, seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, genetic traits, things like that. It’s also really clear among the traders, it’s really becoming clear, actually, among even grocery stores and food manufacturers and so forth. Increasingly, we can say that the food chain, this construct that agribusiness has created, in order to extract value continuously from food, is now being controlled by a smaller and smaller number of very powerful corporations. I did some calculations this week, where it looked at the top 100 food and agriculture related companies, the money that they bring in off the food chain is equivalent to all the money that all the farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, growers around the world bring in. It’s almost exactly the same, actually about $3.6 billion — and that’s just 100 companies. These companies are now literally controlling the direction of the small number of this industrial food system. That’s the food system that feeds us; that’s the food system that transforms our planet. It’s the food system that supposedly is responsible for our health, so forth. So it’s very serious.
PM: It’s very concerning, right. And certainly, we’ve seen this kind of increasing consolidation, not just in the food system, but throughout the broader economy. Now for decades, as you say, you know, you’ve been following this for quite a while, at the ETC group. So what are the consequences of the degree to which this system is concentrated? What risks does that put into the system? And also, the report is very much about technologies. How does the rollout of new technologies and the need to invest in these new digital technologies increased the pressure for further consolidation?
JT: Those are both very big topics. To the first question about what does this mean to have a massively consolidated food system or industrial food system — so again, I point out this is what only feeds 30% of the planet, even though it uses up 70% of the resources. It means that you have a small number of players who can determine and control markets. And so right now we’re seeing prices go through the roof, and people are really hurting because they can’t afford food. And some part of that, maybe a large part of that, is because you have these small number of companies who can control the prices, frankly, and engage in the form of price fixing, and pushing up the prices and speculation. Certainly it hands tremendous political control to these agribusiness food companies. When 100 companies have the same economic weight as every single farmer grower, and producer in the world, then those 100 companies get to call the shots and even more so on at local, regional, national level. So at the time when food systems are completely broken, and we need to be talking about a very different food system, they have the ears of government because they have the money, simple as that. So you know, it’s very perverting of any kind of fair decision making. What we know is that the way in which these companies have become powerful is through deeply damaging and harmful practices, socially damaging, environmentally damaging, and damaging to justice, and they are going to dig deeper into those directions. They’re not changing. They’re going deeper into that, often with technological means.
Your second question was: How does technology interact with this? In every way, actually. Agriculture and food is deeply intertwined with technology — it’s the technologies of agriculture that enable food to come to us, whether it’s the tractors or the hose, or the breeding of seeds, or pesticides or fertilizers or right through to cooking in the kitchen, and you know, all of this technology all the way through. And these companies have known this for years, they are technology companies, they’re hybrid seed companies, they’re fertilizer companies, they’ve been on the cutting edge of technological transformations in order to increase their power, and allied that with technologically-driven market strategies. Right now, they’re doing that again, and they’re doing it with a sort of breadth and transformational power that we really haven’t seen in the food system, maybe in 100 years.
What was incredible in writing this report was to see the hundreds of food companies that we looked at, in their annual reports, what they’re boasting about, every single one of them, almost to a tee, is saying: We are now employing digital technology to remake the food system in our particular corner, whether it’s in the farming on the field, and the breeding on the seeds, and how we deliver it to consumers, how we do the logistics. Whatever point of the food chain you look at, it’s being pulled apart and remade around digital and bio-technological tools in order to deepen their power and their grip over the food chain, in order to deepen their potential to extract value. That’s a transformation that I think many people aren’t even really aware of. We’re used to seeing it in other parts of media, and so forth, oh, a technology has been brought in, but the way it’s happening to the very stuff we live on, that shapes our health and our societies, I think it’s hidden to most people.
PM: It’s a really good point, right? Because I think that there’s been a growing discussion of the way that digital technology is kind of, escaping the internet escaping the computer in our mobile phones and moving out into the physical world over the past decade or so. Increasingly, there’s a push for our homes to be filled with smart gadgets, and our cities to be filled with smart sensors. But we don’t think about how that extends now to the farm, the food system, and what that actually looks like and the implications of it. And part of the reason I asked about how technology is also helping drive this consolidation is because, it seems to me as I look at the impact of technology and other areas, that as companies, traditional companies who operate in these spaces have to invest in digital technologies and keep up with what these major tech firms who are very highly valued, have easy access to capital are doing, that they end up having to consolidate in order to pay to kind of develop these technologies or roll out these technologies, because of what the tech economy is doing.
JT: That is true here. In 2013, what was then Monsanto and is now Bayer, the world’s largest seed company, and one of the world’s largest agro-chemical companies paid a billion dollars for a data company called the Climate Corporation. And at the time, people were scratching their heads in a way, they just spent a billion dollars on this tiny startup. And it was because the Climate Corporation had large amounts of weather and other environmental data that they needed. And it was the first step actually, in trying to defend themselves against what they saw coming, which was the big data firms, whether that’s Microsoft, or Alibaba, or Google and so forth, were going to step into the space. And they needed to become tech companies themselves, they needed to become data companies. And at the time, the Chief Technology Officer of Monsanto, Rob Fraley said, you know, in five years time, 5-10 years time, I could see us being more of an information technology company, then a seed company. And sure enough, that’s exactly what’s happened. They have transformed themselves.
They all have, not just Monsanto-Bayer, but all of them into being able to deal with and profit off large scale extraction of data, and connect that to strategies around automation around carbon credits and all sorts of things. You have people in Bayer-Monsanto now saying that they more sell information than chemicals. That’s not true; they still sell most of the world’s chemicals. They’re like the second largest chemical company in the world. But the fact that they see themselves that way, that they’ve had to turn themselves into these giant data companies in order to kind of be able to both partner with and defend against what was bound to happen, which was the real big data giants were gonna move into food because it’s a fifth of the global economy. And of course, that’s where they want to be.
PM: Yeah, of course. Just as they move into every other sector of society, they’re going to come here to, it makes perfect sense. And I was wondering why I hadn’t heard the name Monsanto in a while, of course, they changed the name. So in the report, you right, or, you know, the authors of the report, right, that every sector of the industrial food chain is in the process of transforming into a digital enterprise, as you’ve been explaining for us, you know, before we dig into the specifics of that, how does a typical industrial farm or food operation operate now? And how do these companies want to see that change in the future?
JT: Yeah. So it’s interesting when you say, typical food operation, because there’s different types of food operations, you know, whether it’s livestock or grain, and whether it’s in North America or whether it’s in Latin America. But actually, one of the things about the industrial food chain is the attempt to standardize and to try and push one model, and with a sort of technological package, push that everywhere. So a typical grain or row crop operation in North America, let’s say, does have the large amount of investment in machinery and tractors and combines, and so forth. A large amount of investment in pesticides and agrochemicals. It’s buying seeds every year, and it’s buying the specific seeds that are sold to them for their area by the companies who they have to pay every year for new seeds, and fertilizer, of course. These are systems that are about trying to extract calories from the soil, really, and having extracted calories and so you have to put it back in again, because it’s not working in a circular way as it should do. There’s a typical North American arable operation.
In the case of production agriculture, what the data companies and the agribusiness companies are saying is: We will sell you additionally, artificial intelligence generated prescriptions on how you can farm if you give us all the data that comes off of your farm. Tractors, for example, from John Deere are now tricked out with sensors. They’re picking up, n the same way an iPhone is picking up data in all kinds of ways, a tractor is like that. It’s picking up data from the soil, it’s picking up temperature, it’s picking up weather it’s picking up where seeds are put, and so forth. It’s combining that with other environmental data and planting data. Then all of that is being sent back to machine learning agents, who are rubbing it together with all the data streaming off of other farms and then generating these prescriptions.
That’s the same through platforms that the companies have like Climate Field View, which is the one that Bayer-Monsanto has, for example. John Deere’s Operations Center, they’re saying: If you do this, in exactly this way, you will get this outcome. It’s called outcome-based approaches. For example, Bayer-Monsanto says that there are 40 different points along the growing cycle where they can use machine learning to tell the farmer how to do it precisely, and that will lead to certain outcomes. They’ll even promise that if you follow their prescriptions, which of course includes buying their products, that they will guarantee you an outcome at market, or they will guarantee you a carbon credit or something like that. And if they don’t, they’ll split the difference with you. Or if you do better, you’ll split the difference with them. In this way, they’re tying the farmer into long agreements, which is the sort of thing agribusiness longs to do.
So, the agribusiness says: You do what we tell you exactly; we’ll take all of your data coming off of your farm (which of course they will use in all sorts of other ways), and we will have these agreements over you for several years in exchange for what seemed to be a sort of guaranteed outcome which farmers, particularly industrial farmers, are interested in, because there’s so much risk and fun. That, of course, comes along with another set of packages, which are about drones coming into agriculture, agricultural robots coming into agriculture, self-driving, or self-steering tractors coming into agriculture, so that increasingly, there is a promise made to the farmer that you won’t need labor. You could even just sort of sit back, drink your coffee, look at your iPad, let the machine intelligence decide how your farm runs.
PM: It’s an interesting picture of what these farms could look like. I guess based on that, these are some of the things that I wanted to talk about: the reliance on data, the increased push to automate the farm and what happens on the farm. What does this desire to collect more data about what happens on the farm, about how this whole process works? What does that mean for farming for the food system? But what does it also mean for the farmer and how they approach growing this food, making this food?
JT: Yeah, it has many implications. One thing when I when you asked me to describe what’s on the farm, one thing I forgot to mention that’s essential, are farmworkers. Farming system still require farm workers. Largely it’s migrant laborers who have very little rights, and who have been treated, honestly, as machines for years. It becomes very easy to increasingly replace them with machines. That’s been the way it’s been. We change these landscapes, the farm landscapes or work for machines rather than for people, what you’re doing is you’re increasingly taking people out of the system.
We’ve been talking with people through the food system and with allies and farm workers and small farmers, and so forth. The sort of concerns that they come up with are all about sovereignty and control over their own decision making. They either feel that this will entirely put them under the control of large agribusiness corporations which has been going on for a while, but now it’s going to be very directly algorithmically controlled. Just as workers in Amazon warehouses are algorithmically controlled or delivery drivers algorithmically controlled, the farmer becomes algorithmically controlled. In a bigger sense, they feel they have no choice. Having been pushed into this productivist idea that you have to produce and sell to what are actually very few grain traders, if they don’t invest and become quite indebted with the next set of kit, and they don’t go this way, then they’re just gonna be cast aside. The bigger the farms get, the more kit they have — those are the ones who are going to survive, and otherwise everything else is going to be consolidated. So this almost feels inevitable.
For farm workers, as I mentioned, what’s happening right now, the wholesale redesigning of the farm landscape to take them out and make the landscape work for robots, make the landscape work for self driving, automated, AI driven machines just feels catastrophic. Two years ago, these farm workers were being told that they were essential at the beginning of the pandemic, and now they’re being literally designed out of the system. They have deep knowledge, that sort of fine grained knowledge and how to grow food. And it’s being cast aside for AI prescriptions. Then of course, there’s a lot of suspicion, and rightly so. about where’s this massive amount of data being taken off of people’s farms going. What’s it being used for? How’s it being leveraged against farmers? We had an example a couple of years ago, where it turned out Bayer-Monsanto who had an agreement with Trimble, which is sort of Airbnb for land, seemed to be sharing data with Trimble. Then suddenly, farmers were being contacted by landowners to push up their rents based on all the data that showed them what the value of the land was. That’s just a touch of the sort of the ways in which this will be used against farmers, food workers, and so forth.
PM: There are a few things I want to pick up on from that answer. It’s fascinating to hear that how it works, the implications of what it’s all going to look like. Obviously, I’m sure there are people at the agro-companies, there are people in the tech companies who would say: No, but we are adopting these robots that can do this work, and then that ensures that people don’t need to do this, like hard, back-breaking labor. What’s wrong with that narrative?
JT: So I think the narrative that agricultural work is hard, back-breaking, something people want to get out of, doesn’t fit with my experience of talking with farmers and farmworkers. People like being close to the land. They are proud to produce food that feeds people; there is something very meaningful in that, and that work can be very meaningful, but it can only be meaningful if they have agency and respect and human rights. One of the things that some excellent work has been done by a scholar called Samir Doshi, where he’s talked with farmworkers about digitalization on the farm. And he’s looked at the way in which there’s a racial bias that’s being exacerbated here. So just as we know that there’s racial bias coded into AI systems, when they’re about media or management, and so forth, that’s obviously true when it’s about farming, and it’s almost doubly true. On the one hand, you’ve got not just racial bias, but other biases of people who do not understand the reality of the farm system, who are programming and building these systems, who are building them in ways that exclude and push out and override the interests and needs of farmworkers, most of whom are migrant.
Secondly, they’re building them for the owners. I think it’s something like 80 to 90% of farm owners, and certainly in the US, are white. So once again, these are being built for owners who have all sorts of systems of racism and biases built in by people who also have their own systems of bias. That’s going to inevitably drive through as you mechanize food systems. That’s nothing new — this has been true. The food system has been built on technologies that disempower and override the rights of marginalized people from the very beginning, including the cotton gin, and it’s the history of industrial agriculture. This is the next phase of it.
PM: I think it’s such a good point. Because when we talk about technology, we often think that it develops in one way, there’s only one way that technology can go, and we’re just waiting for it to take its next step. When in fact, technology can be developed in many different ways. Right now, the way that technology is being developed is in the interest of these capitalist agribusiness companies, and the owners of these increasingly consolidated farms, in many cases, who are able to afford to implement these technologies. However, if you had a different food system, where power was distributed in a different way, and decisions about how technologies could be implemented and developed, were made by people like the marginalized farmworkers that you’re talking about, it would probably look quite different, and the types of technologies that would be developed and implemented would also be quite different, I imagine.
JT: Yeah, I think that’s true. There is a movement that’s trying that. To me, one of the most insightful comments about technology came from Winston Churchill, of all people, who said: We make our buildings and then our buildings make us.But what he didn’t say, which he should have said, is we don’t make our buildings or most people don’t, it’s the powerful who made the buildings, they make the technologies, corporations make the technologies. But those technologies, in turn, then make us and then they shape us. And that’s what’s happening right now. And it goes back to the food barons, if if this small group of extremely powerful players are making the technologies, which in turn will shape us, and how we eat, and in fact, not just and all sorts of things. That’s an extreme exercise of power. So there are movements that are trying to very, very, very small push against that saying: Can we develop tools, including digital tools that are led by small farmers who care about food sovereignty? Can we develop tools, where the work is done by farmworkers? Those kinds of Farm Hack movements are just coming into place — they’re very interesting.
PM: I think that we’ll come back to that. I appreciate you outlining that, because I think it’s such an important point. I obviously completely agree with you. But going back to what you were saying about the implications of these technologies rolling out and what they mean for these farms, you were talking about how these companies want to lock these farmers into long contracts, and how this pushes increased consolidation on the farm, because you have to invest to be able to implement these systems in order to keep up with everything that’s coming out to remain competitive in the industry. What it made me think of is a continuation of a trend that already existed — companies like Monsanto pushing seeds and pesticides and locking the farms into these contracts as they have these genetically modified seeds, and if they get onto the farm, then all of a sudden, you get locked into this whole system. So to me, it feels like, and I’m sure you would agree, that it’s a continuation of things that have already been happening with technologies, because the seeds and pesticides are technologies. And now it’s kind of the next stage of this.
JT: Yeah, absolutey. This is how agribusiness and the industrial food chain has worked over the last 100 years. They created an entirely new sector, which is inputs. That’s something that agro-ecological farmers don’t even have, it doesn’t exist. They created that sector, and then they locked farmers into having to use those inputs. As we say, genetically modified seeds are one of the latest versions of this. Now, there’s a new input: it’s data, and it’s not data, it’s artificial intelligence. And they’re making that an essential part of being an industrial farmer. So yeah, that’s that’s definitely part of it.
PM: Is there any indication yet that, using all of this data and these AI tools actually does improve the farming, improve outputs, productivity, all these sorts of things?
JT: What you’re pointing to there — it’s important to look at what the actual claims they’re making are. Because of course, this is accompanied, not just by productivist claims that this is going to make more food, which has always been the claim of agribusiness, but other claims that this is going to make more efficient systems, systems that are better for the environment that use less energy that sequester more carbon in the soil, which is very important right now, and as you say, that there’s going to be less backbreaking labor — these are the kinds of claims that are being made. And they really have to be interrogated carefully. So, to give one example, one of the big claims for ‘precision agriculture,’ Ag 4.0, which are the terms for this, is that there will be less pesticides, because the algorithms will tell you exactly, and do tell you, where to spray the right thing at the right place at the right time, so that you don’t have to have this sort of broad spraying pesticide, and that will reduce pesticide use.
Well, of course, first of all, it locks in pesticide use. It actually means that you have to use pesticides, which is anathema to those who don’t use chemicals, and the sort of agro-ecological approach. But in fact, when you look at what the companies are saying more privately, they’re saying, overall, they can still sell as many pesticides, but it’s just that it’s used more specifically in the right place on the farm. In that sense, they’re getting a double-whammy. On the one hand, they’re continuing to sell and lock farmers into the use of these pesticides. And secondly, they’re selling them all of the services and getting back a tremendous amount of data that they’ll sell to other people will use to find new markets. So there’s no proof that there’s a real reduction overall in pesticides, but they’re claiming that maybe there’ll be an increase in yield. So we go back to these productivist things.
Probably the big claim that’s being made about these precision agriculture platforms is that the farmers, if they sign up for this, will be able to get carbon credits. So if you follow exactly the prescriptions that Bayer-Monsanto or John Deere give you they will be able to assure you that you have put more carbon into the soil and in return they will broker with the financial markets that you will get a carbon credit. Of course you will the farm won’t get much of that but you will get some sort of carbon farming payment and they’ll get part of it too. So they therefore are placing themselves these agribusiness firms as a major broker of carbon credits in the carbon market, at a time when the carbon market is desperately trying to find new places to bury carbon, because there’s nothing left in the forest and they can’t get into the oceans. And I can talk more about that. Whether you have actually sequestered more carbon is questionable — soil science is now beginning to say that these kinds of industrial ways of trying to use industrial farming techniques to put more carbon in the soil probably aren’t working.
But behind that, and this is really significant, is a massive amount of energy, because all of this is data and data is energy. The energy you require to run these systems is immense. This is the very biggest kind of data, agricultural data, weather data, soil data, and it’s continual. So I did some calculations where I looked at what it would take to just get the data from the US corn crop budgets, kind of what they’re doing, and get it to the servers of Amazon, and so forth where it goes. It’s about the equivalent of the electricity use of Senegal. But that doesn’t include the AI computation, that doesn’t include trying to run 5G and edge-computing to get it there. At a time when data is going to be about a fifth of electricity use, probably more, the big data coming off of farms and the food system is going to be a huge chunk of that. So to then claim that this is some kind of climate benefit is completely facetious.
PM: It’s just wild to hear that — to think about the implications of it. Certainly, listeners of the show will be familiar; we’ve talked about carbon credits and things like that, the issues with those, and then we’ve certainly also talked about cloud computing, and the real energy footprint of it, and how it’s so often left out of all of these discussions as the desire to collect data in more and more places is expanded continually. We don’t think about where all that data goes, the energy that’s required to collect it, to store it, to process it, all these sorts of things. I think it’s a really important point. A few more quick questions on these technologies on the farm, and then I want to talk about some bigger issues before we wrap up. We talked about the pesticide use, the GMO seeds that were pushed by these companies. In the report, you also talk about gene editing, and how this is kind of the next stage of this. Can you talk to us a bit about that and what the implications of it are?**
JT: Sure. Gene editing is where you’re redesigning the DNA of an organism by taking and removing single base pairs of DNA. So it’s a next step along the genetic engineering path, and it’s alongside a whole set of other techniques called synthetic biology as well. So there’s actually a broad area of that. The relevance of this data as well is two-fold. One is that whole area of genetic engineering and synthetic biology and digital breeding is a data enterprise. You are now designing seeds and breeds and so forth using machine learning. They’re coming up with the designs, and then robotic genetic engineering systems are trying to implement, they’re doing 10s of 1000s of different genetic changes every day to come up with them. This is what the industry calls bio-digital development, this idea that, increasingly, digital tools are being applied to and hard to disentangle from biotech and biological change. It’s really clear there where you’re using digital tools to design new organisms and then putting them out. But actually, in some ways, the whole food system is becoming a bio-digital system when you’re taking data off of the farm ecosystems, and then you’re using machine learning to reshape those ecosystems that is also a bio digital transformation of the living world. At the other end, it’s happening to consumers as well. The nudging of consumers using data is also a bio-digital transformation. So actually, the system is having this bio-digital transformation.
On the farm, the promise that is held out is that, as the companies such as Bayer-Monsanto, Corteva, and so forth, have very specific knowledge of your farm and your soil and your weather conditions, they will offer you very specific bio-technological interventions. It will be this kind of RNAi spray, or this specifically engineered seed. And of course, by claiming they can tailor it to your specific situation, they can charge you more. As they have control over at the moment, at seven and a half billion data points coming off of 180 million acres. That gives them a vast lab with which to experiment with all of this. So there’s a very close link between using all the data and these prescriptions that are being sent out and then trying to push these different bio digital into interventions, and you’ll see more and more of the bio-digital interventions being pushed on the farm.
PM: It’s kind of terrifying, right? Especially if you think about what if they get these interventions wrong?
JT: They will. One of the things I actually find most terrifying is we know that machine learning systems, because they’re sort of blackbox where we don’t fully understand how they make decisions, will go wrong — whether they crash an Uber or something else. It’s pretty terrible when they crash a self-driving car and somebody gets killed. If they crash a food system, many people get killed. This is literally the stuff that keeps us alive. So that brings us to a whole big question. If our food system is digitized, it’s run by machine-learning algorithms that we don’t understand how they’re making decisions, and probably they’re skewed for commercial reasons, then what happens when they get it wrong? Or they go wrong, or there’s an outage and all of this kind of stuff? There’s a tremendous vulnerability being put into commercial food systems.
PM: Just a final piece on that, I think connected to it. In recent years, there’s been a big push to embrace lab-grown meat, and the idea that this is going to solve a lot of the problems with the livestock aspect of industrial farming or industrial livestock production. What do you think of that? Will that ultimately make a big difference? Or are we being sold a bit of a fantasy here?
JT: It’s not even a fantasy, it’s just another business plan. The story is that — we looked in this report at the meat and protein sector — so the meat sector is reinventing itself as a protein sector. They’re interested in selling all kinds of protein that you just get in a molecular form. So they’ll sell industrial meat to one person, and they’ll sell organic meat to another and they’ll sell tofu to another and they’ll sell the Impossible Burger to another. These are all just different protein sources as far as they’re concerned. The proteins, of course, are being designed using big data; they’re saying that they’re going into databases, working out protein structures, and then designing them. They’re creating a new niche, creating particular markets that they can then push and particularly sort of urban markets, where they can then get new value.
But behind that is the same industrial farming systems. Something like the Impossible Burger — first of all, it’s made with genetically engineered blood substitutes, which have unknown proteins and all sorts of safety questions. But beyond that, what they’re doing is using pretty terrible large-scale industrial processes, and making hyper processed food, and then connecting that with really trying to narrowly psychologically target different populations, urban populations, vegan populations. And that comes to I think, another end of the food system has been digitized in a way that I find extremely alarming, is the sort of narrow psychological profiling and creation of new markets, such as plant based foods, and then sort of trying to mobilize people through digital targeting, to change their eating behaviors with stories that are very much targeted directly at them. The same way Cambridge Analytica was doing politically, of course. Cambridge Analytica was also working for CocaCola and InBev, and some of these food companies. It’s just beginning to be uncovered — there’s a vast amount of work going on by Big Food companies to try and manipulate, hype or nudge, use dark patterns to drive food decisions. So they’re not just taking data from consumers and farmers, they’re actually nudging and driving us as well.
PM: So wild. Obviously, it’s something that’s going on, but it’s just not something that you think about. I appreciate you outlining it for us, though, because there has been a lot of hype, I think around these ideas of lab grown meat and things like that. And I noticed recently that beyond meats share price has plummeted recently, as I think they’ve struggled to actually grow their market share in a way that they expected. So I want to end with a few bigger picture questions. I think we’ve talked a lot about what’s going on in the Global North with these industrial food systems, right? How have these systems been pushing into the Global South in recent years? And what role has the Gates Foundation played in pushing some of these ideas about agriculture and industrial agriculture on to other parts of the world?
JT: Yeah, so the first thing is to say the industrial food system is global. Of course, even within the South, there’s a North within the South, there’s the South within the North, in fact. Some of the places where the industrial food giants, the food barons, are most strongest are in middle-class, poor communities in the Global South, where they’re pushing cheap, junk food, and at the same time transforming whole agricultural sectors to become producers of industrial calories, basically — so places like Brazil, Mexico, and so forth. So the Gates Foundation is deeply, deeply invested in these technologies. It has been on the biotech side for some time, but it’s now really deeply invested in the digitization of food and agriculture. The Gates Foundation says that they want half of the small farmers in the developing world to be on digital platforms by 2030 — that’s an explicit aim of theirs. So, they are working through groups like AGRA, the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa, and other platforms, to push digital platforms, to push drones, to push automation into these places that previously, there’s much lower industrial agriculture. It’s about opening up large areas to large-scale industrial agriculture.
Obviously, this is not a million miles away from the fact that Microsoft is probably the most aggressive data player in this area. What was really stunning to me, as we looked through every sector of the food chain, I originally thought that Amazon would be the big player. And Amazon Web Services (AWS) is a big player throughout the food chain. Of course, Amazon has its own grocery store, Whole Foods Market, and is becoming, probably is going to be very soon, the largest grocery retailer in the world. So that says Amazon is important. But it was Microsoft who was making agreements with the Indian government, with Bayer, with the Alliance for the Green Revolution in Africa. Everywhere we looked, Microsoft was making agreements to handle the data coming off of food systems, especially on the farm. So for Microsoft, which is not a million miles away from the Gates Foundation, this is a big part of their strategies going forward. So it’s not even slightly surprising that the Gates Foundation is putting digitalization at the heart of their push for the food system.
The Gates Foundation, just recently, having become the major donor of the CGIAR. That’s the Green Revolution Centers that hold all the seeds and so forth, turned those into what they call one CGIAR around this idea of big data. So they’re getting themselves right into the heart of research and development in developing countries. They also push for the UN Committee on World Foods, which is the most important body on world food, to have a brand new report on data in agriculture and food, which just came out, and they tried very hard to influence it and is now about to move it into a work program on data in agriculture and food. What they were pushing really heavily, and they’re having some success, is saying that decisions around food and agriculture should be based on all of the data coming off of the self-driving tractors, the drones and so forth. They want that to be what drives decision-making. Our organization and food sovereignty movements are saying: No, we need governance over data. Data is not the thing that feeds people — what feeds people is farmers, it’s small farmers, it’s peasants. We need to govern and control data. But the Gates Foundation is in every place trying to push forward digitalization.
PM: Yeah, continue to marginalize the human knowledge, the knowledge that’s been passed from generation to generation on how to grow food appropriately, and things like that, and instead replace it with these artificial intelligence data collection systems. You mentioned Microsoft there. Are there other major tech companies who are really getting into this space and is their focus really on kind of the cloud data storage side of things? Or do they have other kinds of ways that they’re intervening in the sector too?
JT: ll the largest cloud companies are getting into this. So as I say, Microsoft, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Azure, Amazon Web Services, Alibaba, I’d say those are the three that just come up again and again, again. Google Cloud, IBM has got a very major push on food and agriculture, definitely, across those companies. You see, particularly they want to be handling the data, they want to be processing it, providing the machine learning that’s driving all of these systems. For us, that was one of the major conclusions that came out of looking at this report. It’s not just that traditional, big agribusiness firms are turning into tech companies or into data companies — it’s that the data companies are stepping heavily into this this area, and will become the major players if they haven’t already.
PM: I think it’s really important that we understand that. Especially when we think about, obviously how food is essential. We can’t survive without it.
JT: There’s also, I know on the show there’s been some discussion about Web 3.0 and blockchain, and so forth, and we’re seeing also an attempt to put the food chain on the blockchain. All the grain traders who really are maybe the most powerful people in the food chain, like Cargill and Costco, and Bunge, and Archer-Daniels-Midland, have all come together around a single blockchain they call Covantis, which runs on Ethereum network. They’re basically saying that the millions of trades that are done every day and the carrying of all the world’s grain will be sorted out through the blockchain. Then you have another big blockchain being put together by Bayer with others called the Trace Harvest Network, again on the Ethereum network. So from seed to stomach, everything’s being managed through the blockchain. So then the economy of Web 3.0 becomes very much entangled with the food chain, which I think is a terrible idea.
PM: Yeah, absolutely. When you said Ag 4.0, I was like: Man, the agriculture companies are ahead — they’re past Web3, they’re at Ag 4.0 already!
JT: So the World Economic Forum uses that term. It’s the idea of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and they therefore are talking about Ag 4.0. What they’re talking about, which is what you said earlier, is the way in which data, machine-learning and so forth is now moving into physical systems, and those are becoming cyber-physical systems. Whether that’s manufacturing or the food chain, or, education, each of these are becoming these entangled cyber-physical systems. And that’s what’s happening to the future.
PM: I don’t know, it’s not a great development, in my opinion. But, Jim, this has been a really fantastic and enlightening conversation. And I wanted to end with a bigger question, just to see your thoughts on where we go from here. So when we think about this report, what is the big takeaway? What should we learn from this? How do we push back? Or can we push back on these developments? And what would a better agricultural future look like?
JT: That’s a nice place to start. So we were involved in producing a report couple years ago called “The Long Food Movement” where we’re looking at, over a 30-year period, where the agrifood industry expects to go, which was all of this stuff. It was about digitalization, and so forth, and where the food sovereignty movement, with a long-term perspective could be going or is already going. In fact, what was nice as the global food sovereignty movement, which is billions of peasants, food workers, and environmentalists, and so forth, has a very clear idea of what a good food system looks like — mostly because it’s not speculative in the future. It exists. People have been feeding themselves in agro-ecological ways based on territories and cultures. As I said earlier, 70% of the world is still fed in this way. So these things already exist. It’s not some utopia — it’s true and it’s now. It’s being pushed aside by industrial agriculture, but it’s real. So defending that is actually very exciting, because it’s in place.
It’s important, therefore, for that movement to be able to really understand how these technologies are going to harm them, how they can expose that the impacts and that requires technology assessment. At ETC, this is for us so strategically important. Movements, whether it’s the food movement, or the health justice movement, or any other movements, need to be pushing for technology assessment led by people in a participatory way. That needs to be built into all of our decision making, so that it becomes really clear what these technologies are going to do to the world’s most marginal people, to our ecosystems, and so forth. What we’re finding is that, as we’re trying to pull together conversations across food movements, and we’re running a process called the Food Data and Justice Dialogues where in different regions and across regions we’re learning from each other. Trade unionists are talking with peasants are talking with animal rights advocates, and so forth to understand what what these technologies are doing from their perspective.
But that has to happen across sectors. Just as the food sovereignty movement is dealing with this digitalization, as you pointed out, so is the health justice movement, so is the trade justice movement, so is the gender justice movement, so is the climate justice movement. We need to have conversations between all of these movements about how this digital transformation — and I don’t like using that word transformation because it’s got all these positive meanings that have been given to it by the World Economic Foundation. It’s really more it’s like a digital ripping apart, upturning and disrupting, but disrupting also has been made to sound good. These things are happening in parallel in the physical economy, and in many places, and we need to be talking across our movements about this. People who’ve worked on digital issues around media have got to jump on this; they see what’s going on with this massive change in capitalism. Those of us who have been on the frontlines of the fights for food justice, and so forth, have got another set of things to bring to that conversation. So I think the linking up of movements to really take on the digital upturning is the number one thing that has to happen right now.
PM: I think that’s a great place to leave the conversation, a great place to have people think about how to push back on this and what a better food system would look like, and also the implications of all of these things that we’ve been talking about in this conversation. Jim, thank you so much for taking the time to chat. It’s a fantastic report. Thank you.
JT: It was a pleasure chatting. Thank you.