New Report: Food for All or Feeding the Data Colossus? The Future of Food in a Digital World

Blog post by AGRA Watch Intern Connor Nakamura

“The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the global resource grab in our food and agriculture systems. The encompassing digitalization of the core ecological and social components of these systems is the new means of making vast profits. Approaches that claim precision through efficient utilization of resources are, in fact, forms of power grab by the data colossus – the world’s largest corporations such as Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Alibaba – from the fields and fishing grounds of farmers and fisher folk. In response to these incursions, some groups of smallholder and peasant farmers have been either struggling to benefit in the fringes of digitalization or attempting to create their own open source alternatives. Ultimately though, the principles of food sovereignty can only be protected by democratic processes that challenge the monopolistic powers of these corporations. To develop alternatives to a corporate-controlled ‘fourth industrial revolution’ and regain control over our food and agricultural futures, we need to assert peasant farmers’ sovereignty over their data, promote agro-ecology and bottom-up technologies, and build a comprehensive global system of participatory technology assessment.”


A recent report published by the ETC Group (Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration) analyzes the burgeoning relationship between agriculture and big data. The Gates Foundation is playing a major role in this digitalization of food systems. Bill Gates has deep ties to various agricultural stakeholders and utilizes his wealth and tech-connections to further the privatization of farmers’ data.

One of the most direct connections between Gates and agricultural digitization is Microsoft’s investment in AGRA. In September 2020, Microsoft entered into a “Memorandum of Understanding” with AGRA to help them better utilize big data and artificial intelligence building on the Microsoft 4Afrika initiative. Microsoft cites the Digitization of African Agriculture Report which found that “90 percent of the market for digital services that support African smallholders remains untapped, and could be worth more than US$2.26 billion.” The company’s imposition of big data into African agriculture is yet another ploy to extract profits — a clear case of data colonialism (generalized in the ETC report).

Bayer Crop Science, which acquired Monsanto in 2018, is promoting digital farming technology under the guise of crop protection, characterizing these solutions as “Digital Plant Doctors.” Bayer highlights Plantwise — an organization connected to bodies that prioritize industrial agriculture solutions — to facilitate an exchange of information between farmers and agronomists. The reliance on remote “plant clinics” is no substitute for farmer-driven agroecological networks, which rely on intensive knowledge of local conditions and farmer-to-farmer communication. Bayer is also pushing for the use of drones in agriculture to map out pesticide sprays. They claim the term “sustainable” to describe this digitalization, but it is largely an extension of the industrial practices that depend on an agrochemical system that has endangered the lives of farmers across the world. In fact, both the Plant Clinic scheme and drones appear to be another top-down agricultural input pushed onto smallholder farmers — but this time, both money and data are stolen from farmers.

The Gates-funded CGIAR leads the “Platform for Big Data in Agriculture,” an initiative seeking to promote technology-dependent agriculture in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The same organization that led the disastrous Green Revolution in Asia and Latin America now seeks to privatize farmers’ data by consolidating what they consider a “valuable global commodity” in the hands of big tech analysts. This takeover of data falls in line with the “One CGIAR” initiative where the Gates Foundation, World Bank, and other funders are pushing to appropriate stolen seed knowledge.

Big data in agriculture threatens to eliminate what is left of farmer-generated knowledge and further entrench an unequal power dynamic between scientists/tech companies, and smallholders. The ETC group presents many alternatives to big data, such as the creation of shorter food supply chains, peasant farmers’ sovereignty over their data, and democratically-created open-source platforms to share agroecological knowledge.

Read the full report here.

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