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<nettime> Precision Farming: The Marriage Between Agribusiness and Spy T
Soenke Zehle on Tue, 8 Oct 2002 12:38:13 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Precision Farming: The Marriage Between Agribusiness and Spy Technology

I knew that biology has been in the process of turning into an information
science for quite some time - that's after all what Lily E. Kay and others
have been describing as the 'molecular vision' growing out of cold war
military techno-culture (for a brief historical account in the field of
bio-medicine that stresses the role of IT/hardware rather than 'discourse'
in this process, see Lenoir, Timothy; Shaping Biomedicine as an Information
Science, URL:
http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/TimLenoir/shapingbiomedicine.html). But the
stuff below was news to me, pretty much the kind of 'neo-biological'
techno-fantasy Kelly et al talked about way back when.


URL: http://www.corpwatch.org/issues/PID.jsp?articleid=4208

Precision Farming: The Marriage Between Agribusiness and Spy Technology

Flipping the Genetically Modified Tortilla, or Turning the Biotech Critique
on its Head

By Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero
Special to CorpWatch
October 2, 2002

"Flip the tortilla" ("virar la tortilla") is a common Puerto Rican
expression. It describes the act of taking someone's argument and turning it
on its head. This is precisely what the biotechnology and agribusiness
industries are now doing to confound their critics.

The corporations that brought us genetically modified (GM) crops fought a
pitched battle against labeling and segregating their products from non-GM
counterparts. Activists called for such measures because of concerns about
the safety of genetically engineered foods.

Corporations countered that GM crops were perfectly safe, and that labeling
and segregating them would be impractical and would create a cumbersome and
prohibitively expensive regulatory apparatus.

Now, the GM corn tortilla is certainly being flipped as major biotech
corporations begin to soften to activist demands to label and segregate GM
crops. Far from being a sincere expression of corporate responsibility,
critics say corporations are pushing for these measures in order to tighten
their hold on farmers.

They charge that agribusiness hopes to extend its control over the food
industry from the farm to the retail store. This unprecedented degree of
corporate control will be made possible by a package of new surveillance
technologies, which when put to agricultural use, are known as "precision

Precision farming "benefits from the emergence and convergence of several
technologies, including geographic information systems (GIS), automated
machine guidance, infield and remote sensing, mobile computing,
telecommunications and advanced information processing", according to GPS
World magazine. The global positioning system (GPS) is a key technology used
in precision farming that provides highly accurate geo-spatial information.

Which corporations are involved? Joining forces to promote precision farming
are farm equipment manufacturers like John Deere, agrochemical companies
like Monsanto and DowElanco, pharmaceutical/biotech companies like
Rhone-Poulenc, Novartis and AstraZeneca, as well as information
brokering/data management firms.

Not surprisingly, corporations with a long history of service to the
military-industrial complex and intelligence agencies, like Rockwell and
Lockheed Martin, are also jumping onto the precision farming bandwagon.

For example, in a 1,000-acre potato farm, aerospace behemoth Lockheed Martin
can place meteorological stations that measure 13 different weather
parameters every 15 minutes and telemeter the data to a computer base

"More than 430 gauges measure irrigation. Yield measurements are taken every
three seconds during harvest. Crop quality samples are analyzed" Lockheed's
promotional material boasts. What's more, "Soil is tested for 18 nutrient
parameters Microbial communities in the topsoil are studied."

The Downside

An interesting historical parallel comes to mind. Just as World War Two
military contractors developed the chemicals and machinery that fueled the
Green Revolution of the 1970's, precision farming is, to a large extent, an
outgrowth of the space-age surveillance technologies used in the Cold War.
The tight relationship between the military industries and industrial
agriculture continues well into the twenty first century.

Some observers fear that these new technologies bode ill for sustainable
agriculture and democratic governance, and could impose new forms of
dependence on farmers. "Precision farming has less to do with mitigating
agricultural pollution than with advancing industrial modes of production",
according to social scientists Steven Wolf of the University of California,
Berkeley and Fred Buttel of the University of Wisconsin.

Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC Group) Research
Director Hope Shand agrees. "Precision farming is about commodification and
control of information and it is among the high-tech tools that are driving
the industrialization of agriculture, the loss of local farm knowledge and
the erosion of farmers rights", she told CorpWatch.

"With precision farming, farmers increasingly depend on off-farm decision
making to determine precise levels of inputs. For example, dictating what
seed, fertilizer, chemicals, row spacing, irrigation and harvesting
techniques are used, and other management requirements," Shand explained.

Precision farming seeks to legitimate and reinforce the uniformity and
chemical-intensive requirements of industrial agriculture under the guise of
protecting the environment and improving efficiency, according to Shand.

How it Works: Remote Sensing

Remote sensing is an important component of precision agriculture. For
example, NASA is a partner in Ag 20/20, a long-range research project that
involves remote sensing. A satellite-mounted sensor looks down on farm
fields, distinguishing as many as 256 light wavelengths. Similar systems
that work with land-based and plane-mounted sensors are also in the works.

With the right hardware, software and know-how, the precision farmer can use
this spectral information to find out a crop's health status. Does it need
irrigation? Is it under attack by pests? Are weeds gaining ground? Are soil
nitrogen levels OK? A great number of quantifiable variables can be

The use of satellites in agriculture is already a reality. The government of
the southern Pacific island of Tasmania is using GPS technology on some 600
farms as part of an identity protection pilot program, which it plans to
extend to all of Tasmania's farms by 2005. In Argentina, satellite
surveillance is being used to catch farmers who cheat on their taxes by
underreporting the size of their fields, and to prevent them from saving
seed, which is illegal there.

Who Will Benefit?

Will farmers want, or be able, to understand the advanced gadgetry of
precision farming? In Puerto Rico, for example, only 14% of farmers have
college degrees, and a higher percentage might be illiterate altogether. The
average Puerto Rican farmer is 55 years old, according to the US Farm
Census. Many are probably too traditional to embrace advanced software,
satellite imaging and other new technologies.

To get around this obstacle, precision farming contractors plan to offer
farmers a plethora of consulting services. Critics fear that these services
will exacerbate farmers' dependence on the purveyors of agribusiness even

Of course the more fundamental question is what farmer will be able to
afford precision farming technology, whose basic packages start at $15,000
to $20,000? How can American family farms, facing extinction by economic
strangulation, afford these dazzling technological advances?

What will happen to rural America and farming communities worldwide if food
processors, retailers and other major purchasers of agricultural produce
start requiring suppliers to use precision farming and identity protection
technology? Large American industrial farms, heavily capitalized and
subsidized by the US government with tens of billions of dollars a year,
will easily afford the technology. But struggling family farms could be put
out of business.

Suing the Victim

These remote sensing technologies can also be used to distinguish GM from
non-GM crops, and trace genetic pollution. Runaway pollen and seeds from GM
crops like soy, corn and canola have been a great concern since the
commercial cultivation of GM plants began in 1996. Last year, GM corn was
found to be aggressively proliferating in Mexico, causing farmers,
scientists and environmentalists to worry about potential consequences for
the environment, biodiversity and world agriculture.

Agribusiness corporations can use satellite imaging to find out what farmers
have had their crops contaminated with GM pollen and sue them.

This actually happened to Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser of Saskatchewan.
When he complained that his organic canola crop had been genetically
contaminated by a GM canola field somewhere upwind, Monsanto's lawyers sued
him for illegally planting the corporation's patented seed. Kafka could have
hardly thought of a more bizarre scenario.

Monsanto didn't accept Schmeiser's argument that the corporation's GM canola
had blown downwind to his farm, and neither did the judge, who ruled that
how the GM seed got there is irrelevant. In September 2002 Schmeiser lost
his appeal and now intends to take his case to Canada's Supreme Court.

Unfortunately, Schmeiser's ordeal is not an isolated case. Monsanto is suing
farmers all over Canada and the United States for allegedly planting its
patented GM seeds without authorization. Many of them claim they never
knowingly planted Monsanto's patented seeds, and that their fields were
contaminated by upwind GM plantations.

Once again, the tortilla gets flipped. The same corporations that vehemently
denied that GM pollution by pollination would ever take place, may soon be
eager -- too eager-- to believe every report of such contamination.
Especially if the information can be used to sue the victims.

Precision Agriculture and Global Trade

This type of persecution can reach global proportions through the
Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights agreement (TRIPs) enforced by the
World Trade Organization (WTO). Under TRIPs, the WTO can impose economic
sanctions against countries deemed guilty of illegally using patented
products, like seeds. The intellectual property rights provisions of NAFTA
are even more draconian, since the agreement allows private entities to sue

Given this possibility, one can visualize a scenario in which Monsanto sues
Mexico under NAFTA for illegally planting its GM corn. The corporation could
conceivably demand a compensation ranging in the hundreds of millions of

What are advocates of socially responsible and environmentally sustainable
agriculture doing about precision farming? Many in the movement against
corporate globalization hold that this and other new agro-technologies, like
biotech, must be addressed within the context of a broader critique of
industrial agriculture.

"The reality is that farmers do not control precision farming," notes Hope
Shand of ETC Group. "Rather, precision agriculture is more likely to dictate
decision making, control and management of the farmer."
Shand compares precision agriculture to a kind of high tech feudalism:
"Precision farming reinforces bioserfdom and the role of the farmer as a
"renter of germplasm."

Carmelo Ruiz-Marrero is a Puerto Rican journalist. He is a Fellow at the
Society of Environmental Journalists and a Research Associate at the
Institute for Social Ecology.
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