How big businesses are using robots on the farm

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How big businesses are using robots on the farm

Self-driving tractors and the internet of cows - welcome to the new world of agriculture. Jim Thomas writes about why the big companies are merging.

In 2012 the big agriculture company, Monsanto bought a new data company for just less than one billion dollars. It bought the Climate Corporation, which gives digital weather and climate information. It did not seem to have anything to do with genetically engineering seeds, mixing pesticides, or the other activities for which Monsanto is famous. So why did Monsanto pay a billion dollars for a weather forecaster?

The answer may be in the biggest technological changes in industrial agriculture since the end of World War Two. Today Monsanto says they are less of a seed company and more a data company. The Climate Corporation now stands at the centre of a very important change at Monsanto and in all of agribusiness. And this is starting a big number of business deals. As Monsanto merges with Bayer, DuPont with Dow Chemical, and Syngenta with ChemChina, the $400 billion agricultural market is suddenly only three big companies. These new big companies do not see seeds, soil, or crop sprays as their most important product. It is now big data, with artificial intelligence (AI) and new automation. This is changing farming and the food system.


Aerial drone and combine harvester in a French wheat field. Photo: incamerastock/Alamy'

Algorithms on the farm

This new change is called ‘precision agriculture’ (or as Monsanto prefer: ‘digital agriculture’). It is about big mechanization on the farm, with algorithms using big data. Growing food on a farm is the perfect kind of problem for which tech companies are now using AI to make money in Silicon Valley. Machine-learning algorithms use records of weather, soil, pests, and crop history as data for automated farming machinery. Now the farmer walks through the fields and looks not at the corn but at an iPad.

Self-driving tractors and agricultural robots work with data from satellites, sensors, and drones that give the farmer information about every square centimetre of earth And they tell the farmer what seed, fertilizer, fungicide, or pesticide is best. Fields on The Climate Corporation’s software are maps in bright colours which show which corner of which field needs work. Monsanto says it has maps and data on all of the 30 million agricultural fields in the US – and that’s just a start.

It’s not clear that big companies like Monsanto will be the future leaders of this new automated farmscape. The big companies are merging partly to win against the traditional agricultural equipment makers such as John Deere, AGCO, and Case New Holland (CNH). In the last few years, they have bought a lot of data, sensors, drones, and robotic partnerships.

Nearly every day there are new robotic lettuce pickers or self-driving combine harvesters. Since at least 2001, the world’s biggest tractor-maker, John Deere has connected GPS to every new tractor. And it has placed sensors in fertilizer machines so that as they go through the fields, they get data about growth, weather and soil conditions for the computers.

Giving more power to John Deere and Monsanto is the opposite of the ‘food sovereignty’ movement led by small farmers. It also brings the food movement into new arguments. Supporters of robots in farming say it will bring a big decrease in the use of chemicals in agriculture and even be ok for organic certification.

The use of robots to take away weeds is an easy answer for industrial farmers who want to stop using chemical weedkillers. But when algorithms decide everything, it means giving up what farmers know about seeds, soil, and ways of farming. It also means hoping the algorithms will not give more help to Monsanto’s profits. It means a future of fields without people where only drones and robots know the land – or they think they do.

Robots pick fruit

A lot of money is going into automating the farming of high-value crops such as berries, vegetables, fruits, and spices that now need workers often from small farms or low paid, migrant workers. Tech analysts Lux Research showed how Driscoll’s, the big US berry company, could use one agricultural robot to check the colour and ripeness of berries and then pick the right ones. This would replace up to 10 workers. That has a human cost. In the US, Driscoll’s berry pickers are usually vulnerable Mexican-American migrant workers. Farm workers in the US and Mexico started a boycott of Driscoll’s in 2015 because they did not support workers’ rights, fair pay, and healthy conditions. ‘Erik Nicholson is national vice-president for United Farm Workers. He said,’ If the plan is to bring machines into the field, that’s worrying. I want our food produced by people who know about it and can earn enough money.’

This may explain why Donald Trump feels good about plans to build a wall and stop immigration, which means fewer workers to look after US agriculture. American robots can replace Mexican farmworkers.

Livestock too is getting automated. Meat and dairy farmers are following agricultural robotics - shepherding by drone and putting sensors on animals to check their health. Fujitsu’s connected cow project fits dairy cows with 3G or 5G wireless so that a farmer can check cows for artificial insemination. The ‘internet of cows’, a data system from Brazil, gives every cow its own webpage with data checked by a mobile phone app. And in factory farms, sensors check growth so that we are seeing animals as data.

Now the big companies have mostly large Northern farmers as customers. But this is just the first step. Later there will be small farmers. The new technology may make it possible to move onto land which before we thought was uneconomic. Here smallholder peasants still produce 70 per cent of the food for the world. Companies like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are looking at possibilities here for more mechanized, data farming. That may be a mistake. If a drone and a robot can farm it, why would a big company not move the peasants off the land, take their lands, and bring in the robots? Another land grab.

Jim Thomas is Programme Director of ETC Group:


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).