Big data: a friend or foe for small farmers?


Technology is rapidly expanding in the agricultural sector, with the digital farming market expected to reach the US$15 billion mark in 2021, according to PA Consulting, three times more than the US$5 billion generated in 2015. Included in this growth is the value of the software, algorithms, platforms and links between farming and technology hardware. And one of the keys is big data, the gathering of vast amounts of information, in this case about crop characteristics, growing conditions and processes.

New technologies may help many farmers escape poverty and provide people with cheaper food, but they also carry risks. Even in the richest countries the use of digital agriculture is still limited, however, as showed by the United States where, according to a study by consulting services firm Accenture, less than 20 per cent of acreage is managed using the technology, due to the high cost of gathering precise field data.

For Kartini Samon, part of the Asia team of GRAIN, this technology risks widening the ‘digital divide’, as access to these tools will be more difficult for small farmers. This type of technology is also likely to encourage monoculture-based agriculture, where data collection is much more efficient than on smaller farms with crop diversity. One of the main risks attached to the advance of technology in agriculture is, according to Duncan McCann, the fear that when data becomes one of the industry’s key assets, more and more power will be concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer players.

For small farmers to reap the benefits, big data needs to be regulated, something only the Chinese government is doing at the moment, and political space needs to be given for farmers to make their voices heard. “There is no space for farmers at the moment. And yet it should be the farmers themselves who decide which elements of the technology are beneficial for them,” concludes Daño.

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