The datafication of agriculture – the process by which agricultural assets and production processes are monitored, tracked, analyzed and optimized – has resulted in the concentration of corporate power. Simultaneously, the increasing use of digital technologies has lent urgency to questions of who owns the data, who can access and use it; the consequences for competition (or the lack of it), and the distribution of value added among stakeholders in the value chain. These uncertainties should give pause to the pace of datafication of agriculture.

When it comes to food distribution, 30 global supermarket chains control a third of the global retail food market, according to Kartini Samon, researcher at GRAIN, a non-profit that supports farmers in the struggle for community controlled and biodiversity-based food systems. The control becomes even more concentrated when e-commerce is brought into the mix. A handful of companies control regional and global supply chains, with Walmart, Alibaba, and Amazon are at the apex of this food chain, so to speak.

This lopsided competition from agritech and e-commerce companies means small food producers and small vendors are increasingly dislocated from the global food supply and distribution chain, Samon said in an interview with Bot Populi.

Here is an edited transcript of the interview:

What is happening with the datafication of agriculture and how is this impacting small farmers and producers?

Kartini: When you talk about the datafication of agriculture, you have to go back a little bit into intellectual property rights of genetic resources. That’s when it started – when communities were asked to map their own seeds, their own resources in the places where they belong and then this was put online through different international organizations. Now it has been captured by corporations which took that data and then patented it and made their own seeds and biodiversity. This process happens paralllely with the changes in regulations, with states rewriting regulations to prevent farmers from exchanging seeds with other farmers. So farmers are being obliged to buy seeds from corporates.

When Monsanto bought one of the biggest climate data companies, The Climate Corporation, in 2013, everyone was asking what the purpose was. Climate conditions affect agriculture directly. So you have to know the data on climate if you want to improve or increase your production, profit etc. So corporations are capturing what is public information about climate, that should be used for the benefit of small-scale farmers, fisherfolk, or food producers for understanding the changes in climate or soil and how they need to adapt to that situation using traditional knowledge. For example, communities know what kind of rice is more drought resilient or can take saline water. I have seen experiences in Java but people are also sharing what is happening in Phillipines. But this has been very much captured by corporations. When things that are public information are captured for profit, that is always a problem.

In agriculture in the recent years, we see more concentrated corporate power. Within food chains or food distribution chains, we are already being captured by corporations. Only 30 companies own one-third of the whole value chain, including supermarkets, minimarts etc. With the changes in e-commerce, this number becomes smaller and smaller. Now, there are only three companies which pretty much control all e-commerce in food – Alibaba, Amazon which has taken over Whole Foods and is creating a new trade war with Walmart. And they are also taking over online platforms like Flipkart or Rakuten in Japan. So they are becoming the big three of grocery retail merging between brick-and-mortar and online retail.

These corporations also need to maintain their supplies. One interesting example I read recently is saying that they can deliver any fruits and vegetables around the world at the doorstep of any Chinese citizen in two days. There is a lot of infrastructure related to that. It’s not just one click and you have food magically delivered at your doorstep. It’s the whole chain of warehouses, roads, ports etc., and now they are making sure that this is being integrated, so there is a whole process of integrating physical structures to serve digital trading. The question is who are being replaced in building ports, roads and other infrastructures to maintain this trade process happening, not to mention trying to regulate trade agreements in allowing that process to happen.

In 2008, there was a big scandal of milk poisoning in China. Food safety is a big issue for peope in China. At that point, Alibaba said we will make sure there is fresh produce. What they did was to buy their own dairy farmland in New Zealand and now they have around 29 farms in New Zealand, and fresh milk is being delivered to their stores in big cities in China. It’s not as though they are buying stuff from the locals. It’s not as though they are encouraging local production and farmers, but they set up their own supply chains. That’s why they can control the price and set it very low. If you see the competition between grocery retail and the actual market, the price can vary a lot. The question is how can that happen, and that’s because they own the whole supply chain, and that creates unfair competition with small scale producers, informal traders along the supply chain of food and agriculture.

How are local dairy producers in China responding to competition from agritech and e-commerce platforms like Alibaba?

Kartini: Small dairy farmers in China are facing a lot of losses since last year. A lot of farmers are suffering because of this unequal competition. When you reflect on other countries like India where a majority of the farmers are backyard farmers which means that they only have one or two cows, and you have the cooperatives that rely on small scale dairy farmers, and you have the cooperatives that rely on these small scale dairy farmers and you are faced with these tech giants that can go through all the different regulations.

For example, in retail where are the national regulations on food safety, for food that is being transported across the border. And the other question is, in terms of vertical integration farming, robot farms are increasingly being promoted, there is the automation of agriculture. We see in Vietnam and countries where almost 80 percent of the community is reliant on agriculture, they are heavily promoting digital farming, and this can be operated and controlled from Japan. For example, because Fujitsu owns the farm, what happens is not just the elimination of the source of livelihood for local people but there is also the question of how you can control something cross border. And so it’s creating what we see as a new form of land-grabbing. Now you don’t have to be physically present.

In the past, corporations would come, they take over the land, face tensions with local people. But now, how do you face an enemy that you cannot see. If somebody is sitting in Japan and taking over a huge tract of land without you knowing who owns that, who is behind that, and who you are challenging. And this is completely eliminating a lot of sources of livelihood for local people. So there are a lot of questions we face right now on how to reconcile growing technologies, the growing digital economy with basic livelihoods of small-scale farmers, informal traders, food artisans who basically just produce food and then sell it on the street. So those are the questions that we need to reflect in this era.

Is there any good that can come out of application of technology in agriculture? Any examples of digital platforms that work in favor of small farmers?

Kartini: I don’t have an answer to that right now. But within communities, farmers learn from other farmers. That’s the best way for them rather than someone from the university or agriculture ministry or companies going to them. But what you can think of is, in the context of climate change, for instance, what seeds are working better, what kind of local pesticides can be used that are not chemical based, how we can use the sharing of knowledge and information among different communities. It’s too bad that farmers now use Facebook to share information on sharing technology and practices of agricology, small-scale backyard farms, what to do if you have to deal with certain kinds of pests, I think we need to think of alternative platforms where those situations can be enabled in a way that cannot be easily captured by corporations. For instance, India is very rich in traditional knowledge, traditional herbs, Indonesia as well. Now we are fighting with the Japanese because they are taking over our traditional herbs – it’s called ‘jamu’ and it’s used in traditional medicines. And they want to patent that. We said no. This is something you should not be patenting. This is something communities should share as a part of solidarity.

How do we bring a platform in which solidarity is the key, as an alternative to corporate capture?

Kartini: One of the things that brings me here is how do we try to balance between the growth of digital technologies that we cannot avoid with protection of small scale producers, informal traders along the supply chain and work together. I have seen the experiences of informal traders in India challenging Amazon and Flipkart. Those things happened and you have to start talking with each other. Or else you don’t understand the problems and issues. Often digital activisms are restricted to urban areas and so there is the question of how you bridge between urban and rural issues of social justice within the scope of different activisms.

Kartini Samon is a researcher at GRAIN, a non-profit organization that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems. Previously, she has worked with the Indonesian peasant movement, SPI, and supporting La Via Campesina South East and East Asia Youth’s communication team.