Harvesting Data: Monsanto’s new business? 

Monsanto is already world-wide known as the nightmare of farmers, and the developer of the polemical glyphosate-based Roundup herbicide in the 1970s. What the company traditionally does is called genetical and bio-engineering, using gene improved plants to better off the profits and efficiency of agricultural production. It is specialized in herbicides, crop seeds (hybrid and genetically modified), and row crops. Sold to Bayer in 2016 – approved in 2018 by the European Union and the US- for 66 billion of dollars, the giant until now is listed on the stock exchange at a negative, making the buying investment null. The reason behind lies in all the controversies that the company faced, among which is the latest glyphosate cancerogenic probability. Despite the existence of poor proves, and only one international scientific organization, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has made claims of carcinogenicity in research reviews; in October 30th 2019, there were 42,700 plaintiffs complaining that glyphosate herbicides caused their cancer. In a huge bad shape, the company has back then bet on new agricultural technology to ensure its uphold on the market, realizing that big data had the potential to revolutionize agriculture engineering, as much as it could represent a threat to business if it was to get beyond their control. 

All along its history, since its creation in 1901, Monsanto had evolved and modelled its sector expertise and products. From artificial sweetener, laundry detergent, insecticide, chemical components for nuclear bombs, LED lights, oil, plastic, to biotechnology, the company has adapted to change, and know how to do so. Today, it managed to build an empire based on an evil combination: a monopoly on aggressive herbicide, combined to a monopoly on transgenic seeds resistant to it. Selling a poison and its antidote could not be a more efficient business model, as today the company is responsible for the 85% of corn acres planted in the US and the 92% of soybeans, knowing that 70% of all seeds are recognized to be resistant to Roundup. 

In a world in constant demographic growth, where the UN estimates that farmers would have to boost the production by 60% per year by 2050 to meet the future food demand, Monsanto is at the front of the stage to take responsibilities in the issue. For now specialized in GMOs, however forbidden in Europe, the company has difficulty to prove the relevance of genomics in terms of production. Indeed, taking one of its biggest markets, corn, we observe that in the US, using as we stated at 85% exclusively Monsanto transgenic seeds, the production growth rate of the last 30 years was of 31%. On the other hand, in a country where GMOs are unused and forbidden by law such as France, the growth rate of the same period was of 30%. 

Why moving towards Big Data, then? Computer Science and Data Science, as the company has understood, allows to optimize time and space by modelling, predicting, and analyzing the information rather than simply collecting them. Having a Data Science and software part allows for simulations and experiences on software genomics, modelling genetic lineages through graph databases, applying a particular algorithmic observation to a large dataset, gathering and analyzing data about customers behaviors and environment, etc. According to Tim Williamson, data scientist in the company, few engineers are creating a cultural shift in Monsanto, using software pipeline. Having this huge evolution of scale to which we have to adapt and raise food production, and an evolving diversity of environments on which to do so, precision and fertility are concepts that can be optimized. Data Science, among others, allows to model the already existing agricultural knowledge on combining factors to optimize the result: soil, seeds, weather, and care. The company indeed estimates that a farmer makes in average 40 very key decisions during a year or season, that could be summarized by answering the following questions : what to plant, where to plant, when to plant. Each of these decisions implies an opportunity to save inputs (water, fuel, seeds, chemical herbicide), and maximize outputs (production, from which derives money). 

Data Science, for Monsanto, also means the possibility to make a public and apparent step towards understanding the unpredictability of the climate change effects on agriculture soil and practices, and strengthen by the same occasion the entanglement already exercised upon farmers. In its 2013 annual report, Monsanto accused the loss of profits due to knowledge gaps about both the climate, and its customers’ farming behaviors. In the same year, the company made a major investment in big data analytics by paying 930 million of dollars the Climate Corporation tech firm, specialized in selling crop insurances to farmers with rates set by some of the most detailed weather data available anywhere. The firm, indeed, possessed a very valuable app, “Climate Basic” (and all the data collected from it), where all 30 million agricultural fields in the US were mapped, soil and climate data included. If one were to input data about what kinds of seeds he planted, where and when, taking into consideration Climate Data and forecast, it could tell exactly when to expect to harvest, and for how much, keeping in mind the ultimate goal is for the giant to always make more profits from an apparent care for ecology and humanity. 

Credits: CEMA – European Agricultural Machinery

Since 1980 and its shift towards bioengineering and genomics, Monsanto has gathered one of the world’s largest agricultural databases, from field tests and experiments. Today, it tries to further this collection by investing in Smart Farming and Big Data Program in the Precision Agriculture field, meaning the equipment of sensors on planters, machines, combines and other tools. This new technological and digital farming is spreading across the US, as it allows farmers to invest in optimizing their efforts, improving their life conditions. It is also seen, of course, as a solution to increase productivity, answering to a growing demand and a concurrence issue. Monsanto has indeed started in 2013 FieldScript, an on-farming program allowing farmers to use data tools, satellite mapping, technology and Ipads, to optimize their production by gathering photos, soil samples and results. This is called precision planting, or precision agriculture. Precision planting and seed selection are processes that typically can be enhanced by data: let’s say that each seed sold by Monsanto has an optimal range of placement depth and interval, as well as an optimal soil composition and humidity. Using Data Science and its analytical, forecasting and deductive qualities, Monsanto could allow farmers to create a complex seed map that their planting tools and machines could understand how to execute, keeping track of the models generated to improve prediction and tracking. And the idea is quite simple: farmers agree to use the connected equipment, thus to send data to Monsanto, and get a feedback of recommendation on their activity in return, aiming at helping productivity to increase. But… who’s productivity? 

Plus, the data collection from this equipment is then in stake: what does Monsanto allow itself to do from all the information collected about the farmers, their customers? What is exactly being collected? Who controls it, and where is it stored? What is the purpose of this Data Harvesting: marketing? Could the information be sold to subsidiaries or clients for marketing-driven motives, as we witnessed with Cambridge Analytica? As many questions that deserve an answer from Monsanto. Making a shift towards Data Science means indeed encountering a new aspect of ethics, and an area in law not well defined. Though, many organizations and politics today militate for data-ownership and respect of privacy in data-gathering, as Generation Libre, led by Gaspard Koenig. 

It is to note that data influence as well the lobbying activity of the company. Indeed, in 2019 and as reported by Reuters back then, Bayer specially hired a law firm to investigate a complete database of potential stakeholders at multi-levels of governance and influence -politicians, journalists- to understand how to exercise a pressure on their position and decision about the Roundup scandal. The French newspaper Le Monde had made leaked that Monsanto had kept a file of 200 names, hoping to model their positions. 

The company, indeed, has made a striking shift toward Data Science, combining biotechnology and bioengineering to make the most from the digital age and its potentialities. Gathering data through all the new process we demonstrated, the ethics behind its acts is however to question. Farmers must be aware of their privacy rights before using these Data Programs, and revendicate their autonomy into reaching common goods’ goals such as food security and sufficiency. After all, and as the Roundup scandal underlined, the Giant is not infallible. 


Clémence Maquet

Leave a Reply

Recommended Posts

%d bloggers like this: