GRAIN | Digital control: how Big Tech moves into food and farming (and what it means)

The world’s biggest technology companies and distribution platforms, such as Microsoft and Amazon, have started entering the food sector. What does this mean for small farmers and local food systems?

  • It leads to a strong and powerful integration between the companies that supply products to farmers (pesticides, tractors, drones, etc) and those that control the flow of data and have access to food consumers.
  • On the input side, agribusiness are joining the trend of getting farmers to use their mobile phone apps to supply them with data, on the basis that they can give ‘advice’ to the farmers.
  • On the output side, big e-platform corporations can be seen buying their way into the sector and taking control of food distribution.
  • Together, they favour the use of chemical inputs and costly machinery, as well as the production of commodities for corporate buyers not local markets. They encourage centralisation, concentration and uniformity, and are prone to abusing their power and monopolisation.

A few years ago, the Japanese tech company Fujitsu erected a pilot, vertical farm on a parcel of land outside of Hanoi. The high-tech farm, which looks more like a factory, produces lettuce on stacked shelves in a completely enclosed high-tech greenhouse managed by central computers in Japan. The computers are connected to a cloud that Fujitsu operates in partnership with one of Japan’s largest food retailers, Aeon. The farm is at once impressive and confounding– such an enormous amount of resources and energy going into the production of a few trays of low-value lettuce.

The unlikely economics of vertical farming has not diminished its appeal in Silicon Valley. Since 2014, vertical farm start-ups have raked in US$1.8 billion from tech investors like of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Japan’s SoftBank. This is an amount larger than all annual foreign direct investment flows into agriculture. Yet, despite the huge cash inflows, the high-tech farms these companies have built only occupy the equivalent of a measly 30 hectares of land worldwide.1 Hardly a game changer for global food production.

Just down the road from its vertical farm on the outskirts of Hanoi, Fujitsu is piloting another farm that offers a different and more realistic vision for how technology companies are moving into agriculture. This farm is located on an ordinary, outdoor field, indistinguishable from neighbouring farms. The only significant difference is that all workers on the Fujitsu farm carry smartphones supplied by the company and their movements are being monitored. The hours they work, their productivity, and the inputs they apply are carefully logged and registered in Japan on the company’s cloud. Fujitsu is deploying the latest in digital technology to the age-old corporate imperative of maximising labour exploitation.2

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