Farmers Suspicious of Monsanto Data Operations: Report

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In the “Shockingly Obvious But Someone Had to Say It” category, a subset of farmers are concerned that the world’s biggest agriculture companies could use data to intensify competition and increase seed prices.

The Wall Street Journal reports that Monsanto and DuPont, along with other “Big Agra” firms, are pushing “prescriptive planting,” which leverages datasets generated from crops, soil, and machinery to increase yields and generate more revenue. Representatives from Monsanto told the newspaper that data analytics could boost crop production by roughly $20 billion a year.

On the surface, that yield increase would help farmers who contract from Monsanto and DuPont for seeds and equipment—but many think the companies will use the data to push their own interests. “There’s a lot of value to that information,” Missouri farmer Brooks Hurst told the Journal. “I’m afraid, as farmers, we are not going to be the ones reaping the benefit.”

Monsanto and DuPont insist they don’t use data collected from farming operations to help set seed prices, but that’s not farmers’ only concern: they’re wondering if rivals, neighbors, and even equipment manufacturers could use the data collected from the fields to make competitive moves, such as buying up adjacent land.

Farm operations aren’t the only focus of Monsanto’s data-collection efforts: for years, the firm has stored huge amounts of bits as part of its genomic efforts, which include recording the phenotypes of millions of DNA structures that determine the biological properties of each plant. That need to store and analyze several tens of petabytes has led Monsanto to become a major user of Hadoop, H Base and other tools.

Monsanto’s “prescriptive planting” project also goes back years. In 2012 it acquired Precision Planting, which used software to support farming techniques, and combined those assets with its FieldScripts software, which uses proprietary algorithms to recommend where best to plant crops.

“Just like Amazon has its recommendation engine for what book to buy, we will have our recommendations of what and how a grower should plant a particular crop,” Jim McCarter, Entrepreneur in Residence for Monsanto, told an audience in St. Louis last year. “All fields aren’t uniform and shouldn’t be planted uniformly either.”

Most farmers would likely agree with that latter assessment, but a few (according to the Journal) are either turning to smaller analytics firms, in an effort to keep their data away from the Monsantos of the world, or discussing ways to warehouse farming data on their own terms.

So what’s the moral of this story? Just because a technology vendor (or major agriculture company) can collect a particular dataset or mine insight from it, doesn’t mean the client is necessarily onboard with those plans. The key, as with so many things, is transparency and communication.

 

Image: Ozerov Alexander/Shutterstock.com