Example of a driverless tractor.
Example of a driverless tractor. Credit: Engsoares / Wikimedia Commons

“We have a food system that is broken in so many ways — and this is even recognized by the larger corporations that have broken it.”

So begins a podcast interview on the series Tech won’t save us with Paris Marx.

The interview is with Jim Thomas, Director of Research with the ETC. Group. During the 55-minute podcast, Thomas discusses how digital technologies are being integrated into the industrial food system, how this empowers agribusiness firms and major tech companies, and the implications for farmers, farmworkers, and consumers.

This podcast is definitely worth a listen. It’s an eyeopener.

Thomas dissects the industrial food chain and how it is creating hunger, harming health and the environment, and equity and justice more generally.

“It’s a pretty grim picture,” emphasizes Thomas. He goes on to explain that many believe the reason people are hungry is because there is not enough food. In fact, Thomas emphasizes, there is plenty of food to go around, but the problem is that people cannot afford it.

Thomas goes on to explain that if precision agriculture and the use of artificial intelligence is allowed to take over food production, many more will not be able to afford food, and the risks to health, environment and community will grow.

“People can’t access food for political reasons; they can’t access food because society is broken in all kinds of ways, and usually it is about human rights. So anytime we are told that tech is going to improve food production, or that what we need is to up (increase) food production, that is entirely the wrong set of answers, but it suits agri-business corporations. They want us to believe that hunger is a technical problem that they are working on,” he explains.

The ETC. Group recently published its report Food Barons 2022, summarized in a recent column. That report covers concentration in the food industry and includes a section on big data. This podcast interview goes into far greater detail.

The ETC. Group recently protested the role of the tech billionaires, such as Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, in the Montreal COP15 Conference on Biodiversity, noting biotech firms are promoting financialization and corporate takeover of nature.

The interview with the ETC. Group’s Jim Thomas progresses to detailing how corporate concentration is pushing the use of new bio-technologies as the solution to food issues, and how “precision” agriculture will be touted as the new magic bullet. Thomas explains a model of digital industrial agriculture that is already underway and is largely based on artificial intelligence designed to continue concentration and removal of family farmers and farmworkers from the land.

Digital agriculture includes the use of data to steer driverless tractors and trucks, to collect and use data for seeders and harvesters, to gene-edited seeds manipulated to respond to certain inputs or amenities (i.e., fertilizers, sprays, etc.), right through to the use of drones to monitor crops.

This next-level digital industrialization of the food system also includes the creation of new markets and “niche” foods by promoting “hyper-processed foods” tailored for unwary consumers seeking alternatives to, for example, meat.

Thomas adds that this model of agriculture is extremely risky and will be worse for the environment, will reduce food affordability, and further concentrate food production, distribution, and wealth —  unless it is challenged.

Digital and precision agriculture is based on gene-manipulation, artificial intelligence and, via data collection, design and promotion of the use of inputs that “the farmer becomes locked into” to grow their crop.

In addition, Thomas explains how the agri-business corporations are now peddling these new robotic data-driven technologies as an easy way to determine carbon credits — with a premium going to the corporation managing the credits in the name of mitigating climate change.

The podcast underscores the many, almost unfathomable, issues that need to be faced head on related to the global food system, including unmasking the belief that agriculture and farming, driven by big data, will solve hunger and deal with climate change.

Another key point is the tremendous amount of energy that is used to gather and access this data. Behind this so-called precision agriculture, notes Thomas, are the massive amounts of energy — weather data, soil data, agricultural data — needed to gather this information. To claim that somehow using data and artificial intelligence will help to make agriculture more sustainable is an “incredible fallacy” emphasizes Thomas.

Thomas explains the new role that tech giants are now playing in agriculture. From the Gates Foundation and Microsoft, through to Amazon, Google, Alibaba, IBM, and others, there is a keen interest by these corporations to control part of this new agricultural digital frontier.

“The Gates Foundation is deeply invested in the digitization of food and agriculture,” says Thomas, “…and has stated that it wants half of the small farmers in the developing world to be on digital platforms by 2030.”

Thomas adds that Microsoft has been undertaking contractual agreements with India and other governments so that it can handle food data.

As Thomas notes, the energy required to power data is a huge issue. There is an increasing number of data centres being created to try and meet the needs of ever increasing data collection and storage via the internet and the co-called “cloud”. The energy required for this infrastructure is putting an additional burden on an already climate challenged world.

As noted in this CBC podcast, Digital data has an environmental impact, a major issue surrounding data usage is the energy required to power these so-called “cloud” systems; the potable water used to cool the servers; the tracts of agricultural land taken-up by the construction of these huge facilities; and the e-waste that is generated. Data driven systems do not live in the clouds…they live on earth and have a very real impact. The podcast notes that calling the storage data using the metaphor “the cloud” hides the true environmental cost of digital data.

Linking agricultural systems to digital data through precision agriculture and hyper-processed foods need to be very carefully questioned in terms of sustainability. Afterall, as Thomas notes, when a driverless Uber runs off the road, unfortunately some people will be killed. But if a digital industrialized model of agriculture runs amok, entire populations will be at risk.

Awareness is part of the challenge — and to that end, the ETC. Group has also created a printed and audio story for young people called Jack and the Cloud Giant. Indeed the cloud replaces the beanstalk… and Jack struggles and learns how digitalization works as he follows a giant data-vine. It is worth a read (available in English, French, Spanish or Italian) whether you are young, or just young at heart.

Afterall, the first step towards creating a more just food system is understanding and being educated on the issues at hand. A graphic story full of information can make a lesson memorable.

BW Lois Ross - Version 4 (1)

Lois Ross

Lois L. Ross has spent the past 30 years working in Communications for a variety of non-profit organizations in Canada, including the North-South Institute. Born into a farm family in southern Saskatchewan,...