Catégorie : Dossier

The Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) has been tracking corporate concentration in food and agriculture related sectors using the market share of companies for the last four decades.

The agrifood sector is more heavily concentrated and consolidated than ever. 25 years ago, the top 10 companies in the seed sector controlled 40 percent of the market, today it is just 2 companies. The top 4 companies in the agrochemicals sector control 62.3 percent of the market share, with Syngenta controlling 24.6 percent of the global market. The top 6 companies in the commercial seeds sector control 58 percent of the market share, with Bayer holding 23 percent.   The top 6 companies account for half of the global ag machinery market, with even more consolidation in some regions and countries. Mahindra & Mahindra controls more than 40% of India’s farm equipment market. This trend has been steadily going on since the mid-90s with fewer, bigger and more consolidated companies emerging from a series of mergers, acquisitions and in more recent years, mega-mergers.

Hyper concentration and consolidation are consistent trends over the past four decades in the agrifood industry particularly in the seeds and agrichemicals sectors. What makes the current trend different is the key role of digital technologies deployed by Big Ag and Food companies to reinforce their control across sectors, and the increasing involvement of Big Tech in the industrial food and agriculture chain. Happening alongside the horizontal integration of companies is the vertical integration of major input firms and tech services where Big Ag companies are acquiring, collaborating with, or entering into partnerships with tech and tech-related companies like satellite data companies, drone companies, AI/ML digital agriculture platforms working on pest and weed detection, plant health, input recommendations, among an array of agriculture-related tasks.

Big Tech entities such as IBM and Amazon, whose business originally had nothing to do with agriculture, are now advancing their role in food and agriculture. Amazon has emerged as a top food retailer through its e-commerce operations and even has brick-and-mortar presence since it acquired Whole Foods in 2017. Big Ag companies are also partnering with Big Tech companies to process and analyse data on their digital platforms to promote digital agriculture or precision agriculture. The enormous amount of data collected on seeds, soil, water, weather, sales and agricultural practices will need to be stored, collected and analysed somewhere - which is where Big Tech comes in in a huge way. Microsoft has its own platform Farmbeats that is particularly targeting smallholder farmers in the global South over the coming years. It has already signed MoUs with the government of Indonesia and India. Companies like Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft and others sell their cloud services to Big Ag companies and startups to store and process the data collected through digital platforms. BASF and Bayer, for example, use AWS to store and process the data collected from their respective digital platform. While Amazon is usually associated with e-commerce, 74 percent of the company’s 24.8 billion operating profit comes from its AWS commercial cloud services.

Digital Platforms as Farm Managers

Most Big Ag companies have developed their own digital platforms or acquired theirs from start ups. Bayer has Climate FieldView (inherited from Monsanto), Corteva has Granular, Deere and Co. has John Deere Operations Centre, and numerous others that allow the companies to collect valuable big data on and off farm. These companies also enter collaboration with each other through their digital agriculture platforms. In 2021, John Deere collaborated with BASF’s digital platform xarvio “to help European farmers optimize crop production and reduce environmental impacts this season,” and Deere, CLAAS, CNH Industrial and 365FarmNet formed a data interface project called DataConnect that will enable farmers operating machinery from these different cooperating brands to view and exchange machine data. These collaborations involve the sale or exchange of data which is analysed to deliver technical prescriptions to farmers on how to manage their farms, yet they are opaque on whom the data is being shared with and sold to, what it is being used for and to what end. The company that controls farm data will use its platform to promote its own preferred products (i.e., its own and those of its partners). Instead of just selling seeds plus herbicides, digital platforms allow these seeds/agrichemical firms to sell seeds-plus-herbicides-plus-data-driven input recommendations. This further undermines farmers’ rights and autonomy in decision-making by creating technology lock-ins.

The promised precision of the technical advice that digital platforms are supposed to provide farmers is even doubtful as they only focus on a few commercial crops and can be based on inaccurate GPS systems, sensors and other hardware and software components, especially algorithms. The ability of digital-based technologies to gauge complex farm realities, practices, micro-climates and on-farm biodiversity can be seriously questioned. Moreover, the unequal digital access across the world and within countries which mirrors the development divide, underscores who gets to actually benefit from these technologies.

Precision and Regenerative Agriculture

Big Food and Ag companies have all jumped on the climate bandwagon to push for their digital platforms. Their key sales pitch for digital agriculture is that it will make agricultural activities more precise by telling farmers exactly what to plant, how and when to apply water and agrochemicals, and so on, which they claim will benefit the climate. This so-called precision, according to industry, will make agriculture more climate-friendly as digital ag will purportedly reduce water requirement and the use of the agrochemicals and synthetic fertilizers which they have heavily promoted all along for decades.

As part of their pitch to save the climate, food and ag bigwigs like Cargill, Pepsico, Walmart, Unilever and General Mills have directed money into “regenerative agriculture.” As defined by these corporations, regenerative agriculture is a set of agricultural practices that they prescribe to farmers that supposedly sequester carbon. According to its promoters, soil-based carbon sequestration in agriculture through “regenerative agriculture” can be achieved by adopting a mix of specific farming practices like cover cropping, reduced tillage, crop rotation and “precision” agriculture. Bayer graphically prescribes no-till (achieved using herbicides), cover cropping and “high quality seeds” (referring to genetically modified seeds or proprietary commercial seeds sold by Bayer), as regenerative agriculture practices along with digital farming as the solution to address the climate crisis.

Carbon Farming

Big Ag’s push for regenerative agriculture is accompanied by carbon credit schemes, such as the Bayer Carbon Program, which is advertised as an additional revenue stream for farmers. The glorified objective of addressing climate change hides the fact that farmers need to sign up to the digital platforms to share all their data with the company, deploy practices prescribed by the company, and only then will they be eligible for having supposedly sequestered carbon. Cargill under its RegenConnect Program offers one-year contracts for farmers to “sequester carbon through implementation of new or expanded regenerative agriculture practices such as cover crops, no-till or reduced-till. Eligible acres must have a primary crop of corn, soy or wheat.” This is a blatant imposition of agricultural practises and an attack on farmers’ autonomy. It does not stop there: Cargill buys the carbon credits generated by the farmers to meet its own net-zero goals. The entire scheme ensnares farmers end to end by collecting valuable data from them and their farms, generating carbon credits and buying the same credits from them while hailing the company as addressing the climate crisis. The companies define what regenerative agriculture practises are, impose the conditions for farmers to participate and stay in the scheme, harvest data from them and generate carbon credits that the companies themselves buy (which they can also sell to others if they decide) to meet their own sustainability goals. Furthermore, the veracity and quality of carbon credits from the carbon sequestration potential of soils have been questioned as based on shaky science and often exaggerated.

Environmental Costs of Ag Digitalisation

As Big Ag and Big Tech are heavily pushing the narrative that digital agriculture will help address the climate crisis, curiously none of them talk about the high energy dependence and resource intensiveness of digitalisation. It has been estimated that by 2025, data will use up to a fifth of global electricity use – a calculation from 2017, before the exponential increase in data use during the pandemic, and a large part of it could include agricultural and food data. Aside from energy consumption, it is also the vast amount of water needed by data centers for cooling down huge numbers of servers and computers that are part of the hidden costs of digitalisation. Large quantities of water are also consumed in manufacturing the semiconductors needed to run digital devices, which could compete with consumption and agricultural production. When Taiwan faced drought in 2021, the government prioritized diverting water to its giant chipmaking industries, halting irrigation in over 183,000 acres of farmland.

Just as the use of water and energy that enable digitalisation to happen has serious implications on overall resource use and on the climate, the extraction of minerals like cobalt and rare earths, which are key components in the production of many electronic devices and more efficient batteries, is linked to child labour and exploitation, worker injuries and deaths, pollution of drinking water, rivers and the air, and environmental destruction. Without acknowledging the environmental costs of digitalisation, Big Ag and Big Tech are propelling false narratives on the purported potential of these technologies to address the climate crisis, while they may actually be aggravating it, as they require the extraction of mineral resources to produce them, the consumption of so much energy and water to make them work, and the generation of toxic wastes.

Will Agricultural Digitalisation benefit the South?

Digitalisation is touted by its proponents as an opportunity for the South, and especially smallholder farmers in the South, to (finally) benefit from farming – the same claims that we heard before in a long line of techno-fixes in agriculture. The lofty claims are nebulous on how that promise can be achieved without addressing the structural problems in agriculture and the root causes of rural poverty. Moreover, how that can happen when the development divide that underpins the highly unequal access to basic infrastructures that enable digitalisation continue to widen.

Digitalisation as the (or a) solution to problems in agriculture heavily assumes that technological path is the only option for farmers and that digital technologies are the only possible means to make agriculture viable.   In many farming communities in the South, technology may or may not even be what is needed to address specific development challenges. The problem needs to be defined based on peoples’ lived experiences and the solutions should come from them too. Communities that decide to adopt digitalisation in response to their situation should retain control over their resources, their information and their data, ideally deciding collectively on appropriate measures and protocols for that. The decision to adopt or adapt digital technologies based on actual needs and capacities of the people who will use them should rest on them, not be imposed from outside particularly by companies that sell their wares, market their advice or are poised to benefit from the scheme monetarily or image-wise.


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