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Privacy and big data discussions have now extended to the farmers, via Monsanto and John Deere

I considered applying for a job with Monsanto last year in grad school — let’s be honest, I wouldn’t have gotten it because it’s a St. Louis-based ag company and I’m some ridiculous douchebag from New York City — and a couple of people told me “it’s the most evil company in the world.” I know very little about the agriculture business sector, so I wondered why. Here’s one article on why. Let’s pull-quote the beginning, shall we?

Biotech giant Monsanto has worked for at least the last 20 years to use genetically modified organisms to replace nature and eliminate billions of years of evolution, all for their greater profit and control, author Jeffrey Smith, told RT.

Jesus, that sounds bad.

Now here’s a wrinkle: this company called the Climate Corporation, which was essentially a way to use big data to help farmers cope with weather changes, ultimately sold itself to Monsanto for about a billion dollars. Here’s some more about how evil Monsanto is, with some awkward pictures, but let’s talk about this Climate Corporation deal for a second.

Here’s where we are now: farmers are considering giving their data to Monsanto or someone like John Deere, as detailed by NPR. Like everything, there’s two sides to this discussion. Side 1: the positive —

“I’ve had people ask me, ‘Why should Monsanto have all your information?’ ” Quinn says. “My theory is, if they have my information, and they’re out there working with me, I’m hoping that they’re going to bring me a better product. And them having my information doesn’t bother me.”

Side 2: the negative —

For instance: Your local seed salesman might get the data, and he may also be a farmer — and thus your competitor, bidding against you for land that you both want to rent. “All of a sudden he’s got a whole lot of information about your capabilities,” Thatcher says.

Or consider this: Companies that are collecting these data may be able to see how much grain is being harvested, minute by minute, from tens of thousands of fields. That’s valuable information, Thatcher says. “They could actually manipulate the market with it. They only have to know the information about what is actually happening with harvest minutes before somebody else knows it. I’m not saying they will,” says Thatcher. “Just a concern.”

Companies like Deere and Monsanto claim that privacy would be of the utmost importance to them with these deals; for example, they view farmer data as akin to bank passcodes. That seems like a good thing, but Monsanto has clearly bucked the trend before in the interest of making a few more bucks (honestly, most companies have), so it’s a broad concern that something could go wrong here, to be sure.

There are articles all over about this dance between privacy and potentially high farm production, including here, here, here and here. From that last link, via Salon:

For farmers, the most immediate question is who owns the information these technologies capture. Many farmers have been collecting digitized yield data on their operations since the 1990s, when high-tech farm tools first emerged. But that information would sit on a tractor or monitor until the farmer manually transferred it to his computer, or handed a USB stick to an agronomist to analyze. Now, however, smart devices can wirelessly transfer data straight to a corporation’s servers, sometimes without a farmer’s knowledge.

“When I start storing information up on the Internet, I lose control of it,” said Walt Bones, who farms in Parker, S.D., and served as state agriculture secretary.

I don’t know a ton about farming — like I said, I’m a ridiculous Northeastern d-bag — but I do know that no one really knows what to do with ‘big data’ anyway and it might be one of the most uselessly lobbed-around buzzwords of the 2010s. I don’t really mean that in a bad way, per se: see, I think data has a ton of value. I just think the problem is that higher-up-sitting people don’t get it, and they see news articles about wonderful things Google or Facebook is doing with targeting data, and goddamn-it-I-want-that, but to get that requires hiring people who know how to do that, and that’s where the idea falls apart — because those same guys saying I-want-it-I-want-it-now probably aren’t willing to pay the “data analysts” more than about 70K, and you won’t get the right people for that. Anyway, I digress. The thing with this discussion is that farmers and data and companies should be working together; states are running out of water and the more “hands on deck,” so to speak, the better. The issue is really Monsanto’s track record of saying one thing while doing something else. That part should scare people — like I said above, it should scare people about any company, because the point of a company isn’t really to make others happy. It’s to make money for those who invest in it. (Honestly. That is mostly the point, although a civic commitment is obviously nice.)

As such, I have no idea where I come down on this. If there were staunch provisions in place about what could happen to the data once it hits “the cloud,” then … it seems fine. If those provisions are loose, well… then this could turn into a free-for-all, and that’s the last thing we need among the people producing our food.

Ted Bauer

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