1. Introduction

In May 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, India’s biggest retail chain Reliance launched its online grocery store in 200 cities under the JioMart brand. Since then, it has been growing exponentially. Between July and December 2020, JioMart’s customer base grew by 25% to half a million. By the time of the launch, JioMart’s parent company Reliance Jio had already raised funding worth USD 10.4 billion, including from social media giant Facebook Inc. and KKR, the Wall Street investment firm that invented “leveraged buyouts” in the 1980s.

This is only one instance of how the pandemic opened up unprecedented opportunities for tech companies, making their bosses unfathomably rich. Now in its third year, the pandemic has reinforced over and over again how dramatically our relationship with technology has changed, including in the food and agriculture sector. Many of the already dominant Big Tech corporations have gained further momentum during this time due to the peculiarities of the pandemic, as multiple lockdowns and physical distancing mandates confined people within their homes and forced them to turn to e-commerce to get food and other daily supplies, enabling corporations in this space to grow faster and bigger than ever before.

In an era when a handful of corporations have unprecedented control over data, communications, and the food system, digital agriculture will evolve in ways that reinforce their power and profits, unless we organize to actively prevent this from happening. In this essay, we focus on the state of Big Tech and agricultural digitization in Asia, where the sector is growing faster than any other continent. We examine the factors that enable this unprecedented growth, and spotlight the resistance being put up by small-scale farmers and food producers who find themselves trapped in an unequal and unfair competition with powerful Big Tech corporations.

2. Big Tech in Asia’s Small Farms Landscape

With 420 million small farms producing 80% of the region’s food, Asia is a land of small farmers. Even though the concentration of land under large-scale plantations, agro-industries, and farm factories have increased over the last two decades, small-scale farmers, fisherfolk, pastoralists, and food vendors still dominate the continent. As governments in many Asian countries grapple with the current and future challenges of the world food system, from growing populations to the climate crisis to the generational turnover of farmers, Big Tech companies in partnership with large agribusinesses have been positioning themselves as the solution to all these problems. In reality, the emergence of these companies poses new and urgent challenges for the millions of small farmers and food producers across Asia and the world.

The ever-expanding digitalization of our agricultural and food systems has blurred the traditional classification between food production, processing, and distribution services which have for long served as sources of livelihood for millions of people in Asia. Digital agriculture has created a concentrated food system by bringing millions of small-scale farmers, food producers, and traders under corporate capture and control. This corporate incursion is dangerous in and of itself, but it becomes fatal when Big Tech gets involved at a global scale and begins to control essential needs like food, dictating how it is produced, shipped, retailed, and delivered.

The ever-expanding digitalization of our agricultural and food systems has blurred the traditional classification between food production, processing, and distribution services which have for long served as sources of livelihood for millions of people in Asia. Digital agriculture has created a concentrated food system by bringing millions of small-scale farmers, food producers, and traders under corporate capture and control.

While some see the digitization of agriculture as a means to introduce new technologies that can benefit farmers, farmworkers, consumers, and the environment, it is crucial to remember that technology does not develop in a bubble. It is shaped by money and power, both of which are highly concentrated in the tech industry. For corporations investing in digital agriculture, the objective is to integrate millions of small farmers, food producers, and small traders into a vast, centrally-controlled digital network. Once integrated, they are heavily encouraged — if not obligated — to buy products (inputs, machinery, and financial services) from the same corporations and, in turn, supply them with agricultural commodities that they can then sell further up the supply chain.

Big Tech corporations such as Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Facebook may be new to agriculture, but they are already investing heavily in it, especially in the digital information platforms connected to their cloud services. In 2020, investment in agritech more than tripled to USD 31 billion from USD 9 billion in 2016.

Agribusiness companies, especially those that sell seeds, pesticides, and fertilizers, have adopted digital technologies at a rapid pace. The last few years have seen an explosion of mobile apps being offered to farmers by pesticide and fertilizer companies, ostensibly to “help” them decide what crops to plant, how much pesticide to spray, how much fertilizer to use, and when to harvest, amongst other things. Almost all prominent agribusiness players have collaborated with global technology companies to create apps that now cover millions of hectares of farms. Bayer, the world’s largest pesticide and seed company, says its app is already being used on farms covering over 24 million hectares. In exchange for the “advice” dispensed by these apps, farmers supply agribusinesses with a steady flow of data on soil and weather conditions, the prevalence of pests, crop yields, etc.

The strategy to get farmers to submit data in return for “advice” is all too convenient for any company that aims to sell chemical inputs to the same farmers. As part of this strategy, company ‘scouts’ help farmers identify weeds, diseases, insects, etc., in their fields, and predict when these might become a problem. The ‘field managers’ tell farmers when and how much pesticide and fertilizer to use, and — on the payment of an extra fee — let farmers leave the planning, implementing, and documenting of crop protection activities to them.1Based on the solutions offered by BASF’s Xarvio – https://www.xarvio.com/global/en/products/healthy-fields.html

However, despite the speed with which technology is evolving, the strategies deployed by Big Tech and agribusinesses remain disconnected from the realities and needs of the millions of small family farms that produce most of the region’s food. High-tech applications, such as driverless tractors and pesticide-spraying drones, are clearly not being developed for small-scale farmers. The quality of the information that digital platforms provide to farmers is only as good as the data collected. In many developing countries in Asia, small farms tend to be located in areas with minimal to no extension services and hardly any central collection of field data. Besides, none of these small farms can afford the high-priced data-gathering technologies that bigger farms use to feed information to the cloud. As a result, the data that tech companies collect on small farms is inevitably of poor quality, and the advice that small farmers get from simpler digital networks via text messages on their cell phones is far from revolutionary.

But good advice to farmers is not the intention anyway. The objective is to establish digital data and communications platforms that can be used by pesticide companies and other actors to influence farmer choices in the field, and urge them to buy more inputs.

3. Facilitating Corporate Control

Governments across the Asia Pacific region are embracing digital technologies with open arms. Especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, some of these technologies have found cult-like followers among governments, which have relied on them to set up physical distancing and mobility restriction policies. Digital technologies have also become synonymous with advancement, with policymakers prescribing a data-driven digital economy as the ultimate panacea to all ills, thus allowing tech companies to achieve within a surprisingly short time what might otherwise have taken years or been impossible in the first place.

Notwithstanding the backing of governments and policymakers, the data-driven digital economy is characterized by large imbalances and divides. According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), developing countries risk becoming mere providers of raw data to global digital platforms while having to pay for the digital intelligence obtained from their data. Already, these imbalances have led to a concentration of wealth in the hands of Big Tech companies. In 2020, four major platforms — Alibaba, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft — alone accounted for 67% of revenues accruing from global cloud infrastructure services.

The agriculture sector in particular, is both a significant consumer and supplier of data, and farm data can be critical in facilitating supply chain integration across borders. Little surprise then that multinational agricultural and tech companies are either competing against or joining forces with each other to get a bigger share of these important new resources. Without proper regulation, this could lead to a situation in which a few companies acquire enough power to influence decision-making on global agriculture, to the detriment of small producers.

Thus far, government and public institution policies like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) have failed to acknowledge and address this issue which could well intensify corporate control over the food system. According to the FAO, “The profile of the farmer is changing. It is more digital. You have to understand the new tools. They don’t threaten farmers, they empower them.” The FAO’s support is evident from the agricultural digitalization guide it has developed and the action plan it has put forward for the development of these technologies.

Governments and policymakers rarely ask how the data gathered by service providers is used, and who has the right to access and use such data. Even voluntarily entering an agreement with Big Tech companies is to furnish them with agricultural data. The Indian government’s Agristack program, for which it has entered into an agreement with Microsoft, is one such example. This program, under which Microsoft will conduct a pilot project in 100 villages, will effectively open the gates for the technology company to access vast troves of information, including personal data and details of farm conditions from hundreds of thousands of farmers across these villages. As one media report points out, “The formation of ‘Agristack’ also implies commercialization of agriculture extension activities as they will shift into a digital and private sphere.” In the absence of public agriculture extension on the ground, farmers will have to rely on private companies that will charge for their services, and those who have limited or no access to the technology will be left out.

Besides Microsoft, India has signed Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) with other Big Tech companies, including Amazon Internet Services. As the above-mentioned media report points out, these agreements raise “serious concerns about information asymmetry, data privacy and consent, profiling of farmers, mismanaged land records, and corporatization of agriculture”. They are particularly worrying because the deals were made even before India had any data protection and data localization measures, thus facilitating the free flow of farmers’ and farm data. Needless to say, such data flows mean that those who have the ability to collect the data become its owners, and those who have the capacity to process it get the first-mover advantage on the collected data. The ability to collect, store, and process a large amount of data is the very basis of digital platforms’ dominance.

Table 1: Government and International Institutions Involved in Digital Agriculture
India’s Agristack The Indian government entered into an MoU with Microsoft to start a pilot project in 100 villages in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Haryana, Rajasthan, and Andhra Pradesh. The MoU requires Microsoft to create a Unified Farmer Service Interface through its cloud computing services.
CGIAR CGIAR created a Platform for Big Data in Agriculture, bringing the work of all its partner organizations on digital farming together. It is working with Microsoft to get Big Data to small farmers.
FAO Google and FAO launched a new Big Data tool for all. “I am convinced that transforming our food systems to feed the world will be achieved with digital agriculture,” FAO Director-General QU Dongyu said.
World Bank The World Bank funds multiple digital farming initiatives and digital land registries. Their take on the issue is that “[D]igital technologies can significantly reduce the costs of linking sellers and buyers; reduce inequalities in access to information, knowledge, technologies, and markets; help farmers make more precise decisions on resource management by providing, processing, and analyzing an increasing amount of data faster; and potentially reduce scale economies in agriculture, thereby making small-scale producers more competitive.”

Source: GRAIN, 2021

4. Digital Land Grabbing

One area where digital technology is used a lot is in the financialization of land and natural resources. There are ongoing efforts in many places for a digital redesign of land use that focuses on individual private property — and land regularization — based on individual titles to consolidate property rights. The outcome is that millions of hectares are injected into the land market in global value chains and in the stock market, since it is now possible to sell and use land for debt collateral.

A good example of how this takes place on the ground is the digital land registry project promoted by the World Bank. In 2018, the World Bank provided Indonesia with loans worth USD 200 million for the One Map Policy project, a geospatial reference system that would digitize land governance and natural resources, and untangle permits allocated for plantations, forestry, mining, housing, etc., that often overlap with each other. The project is part of a joint undertaking by the Indonesian government and the World Bank to accelerate agrarian reforms in the country.

Indigenous communities and civil society organizations (CSOs) have voiced concerns that the project has been launched without acknowledging and addressing the problem of land concentration and commercialization, while also restricting public access to relevant information. Concerns over data access arise because the project prohibits anyone other than access holders and mandate holders from accessing data and geospatial information through its platform, thus putting it out of the reach of the general public. Yet, the government and the World Bank insist that the project serves as a point of reference for land-use planning for all government institutions and the general public.

In principle, localization technology and the measurement of property limits — which constitute the digitalization of land governance — can contribute to the identification of public, vacant, collective/community, and private lands. This, in turn, can help people reclaim illegally-held properties. However, digital land registration in the cadastre without verification by those who live on the land could validate historical and ongoing land grabs like the ones that exist in Indonesia. The problem appears particularly worrisome in light of government reports that, of the total landmass that has been mapped thus far under the One Map Policy project, about 40% — over 77 million hectares — constitutes disputed land.

The digital land governance process has also failed to acknowledge the territories of indigenous people, which could end up being classified as vacant land, open to exploitation by investors. In an effort to include indigenous territories, CSOs, led by the Indonesian Community Mapping Network, have undertaken a participatory mapping of these territories.

They are now demanding that the government acknowledge the over 11 million hectares of land they have mapped as customary regions. This includes over 112,000 hectares of land that would be subject to agrarian reform. But to date, customary areas have not been included in the map.

The problem is not unique to Indonesia or Asia. The five countries where the bulk of agribusiness expansion in South America has taken place, namely, Brazil, Colombia, Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia, have witnessed widespread individual titling in favor of those who can access digital precision systems on public, vacant lands and on lands traditionally occupied by traditional peoples and communities. Geospatial reference systems should not give instant credence to titles in the public registry offices, or legality to land tenure. Beyond individual property rights, customary territory and collective community management need to be acknowledged. Otherwise, these systems will reproduce digital land grabbing.

5. One Click Away: Integrating the Supply Chain

In 2018, Beijing-based JD.com, one of the world’s biggest e-commerce companies, promised Chinese customers that they would be able to get fruit delivered to their doorsteps from anywhere in the world within 48 hours with just one click of a button. As convenient as such initiatives may be for consumers, making them happen requires a lot of infrastructure and integration along the supply chain. Essentially, what JD.com and other emerging digital platforms promote through these initiatives is the benefit they can bring to producers and consumers by eliminating the dependence on ‘middlemen’.

But even in cases where farmers use digital platforms to sell directly to consumers, people still need to do the ‘middle’ work of collecting, distributing, and selling food produced on the farm. This is especially the case when the goods are sourced from anywhere in the world, as JD.com and many other e-commerce companies do. This is because a simple act on the part of the consumer, namely, placing an order on the website or mobile application of an e-retailer such as JD.com, Alibaba, or Amazon sets in motion a process of massive integration across the supply chain that these companies manage. They use their digital platforms to increase their pricing power over farmers and induct laborers into the extended ‘middle’ of the food system. The laborers then work under the control of invisible command centers of these companies.

The increasing shift towards online commerce also takes a toll on workers in the ‘middle’ chain. Numerous cases have been reported about the precarious conditions that delivery workers have to endure. In January last year, Alibaba came under scrutiny after one of its food delivery drivers Liu Jin set himself on fire to protest against unpaid wages.

Amazon and Walmart are known to use predatory pricing, deep discounts, and other unfair business practices to lure customers toward their online platforms. In 2019, the two companies generated sales of over USD 3 billion in just six days during a Diwali festival sales blitz, prompting India’s small retailers to call for a boycott of online shopping in desperation.

TaniHub, an Indonesia-based agritech startup that aims to disrupt the conventional agricultural supply chain, shows a different side of this story, encapsulating how digital agriculture platforms are blurring the traditional classification between food production, processing, and distribution services. Set up in partnership with the World Bank and Microsoft, TaniHub has managed to raise USD 69.5 million since it started operations in 2016, and works closely with several of the country’s government agencies, including the Ministry of Trade, Ministry of Agriculture, and the Ministry of Cooperatives and SMEs. In 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the world, the agritech startup’s income grew nearly sevenfold compared to the year before, as consumers turned online for their groceries.

Currently, TaniHub operates 12 agriculture distribution hubs, with fresh produce being supplied by 50,000 farmers under a contract farming scheme. It partners with the banking system to provide loans for inputs, thus acquiring pricing power over farmers, and acts as a distribution hub for big retailers and supermarkets. Turning over the public agriculture wholesale market to companies like TaniHub, thus disrupts the conventional agriculture supply chain by creating greater market concentration.

In countries like Indonesia, this could well mean eliminating a crucial source of livelihood for 12.5 million stall owners operating in 13,450 fresh markets registered across the country. This figure does not include many other informal workers whose incomes also depend on these markets. For every job created on digital platforms, anywhere between three to five jobs, and sometimes more, disappear elsewhere from the food web.

The increasing shift towards online commerce also takes a toll on workers in the ‘middle’ chain. Numerous cases have been reported about the precarious conditions that delivery workers have to endure. In January last year, Alibaba came under scrutiny after one of its food delivery drivers Liu Jin set himself on fire to protest against unpaid wages. “I want my blood and sweat money back,” he said in a widely shared video. According to an investigative media report published last year, 21 online food delivery couriers died from overwork in South Korea.

The big food distribution platforms are also using artificial intelligence (AI) software to predict consumers’ food preferences and get them to buy more. Right now, more than three-quarters of large retailers around the world either have AI systems in place or plan to install them shortly. The pandemic is helping accelerate this trend, having dramatically changed consumer habits. Every time consumers swipe their smartphones to buy something, the AI software stores these preferences in giant databases and uses this data to nudge them towards future consumption decisions. According to market analysts, customer experience is fast becoming the new currency. But as convenient as it may be for consumers to purchase their food online, it’s even better for corporations as people tend to buy more due to personalized nudging. This also raises serious concerns about what happens when personalized profiling linked to e-shopping goes mainstream. Who controls the massive amount of data being collected, who owns it, and what is being done with it?

6. Digital Technology for a People’s Food System

There is no denying that farmers and other food producers are already using new digital technologies, and are likely also deriving certain benefits from them. Who could be against farmers learning more about the fertility of the soil and the health of their crops through an app on their phone? Or selling their products through services that directly connect them to markets and consumers? These benefits, however, come with the associated and worrying questions of who controls the data and who gives the advice. This is over and above other important questions such as how secure these evolving systems are for users, and how they might facilitate corporate collusion, tax evasion, and other crimes. Besides, we also need to address the impact of digital technologies on small farmers’ knowledge and practices, as well as on people’s food sovereignty.

All stages of the agribusiness chain are being increasingly reorganized to facilitate massive data capture. That further weakens public services in the food and agriculture sector for farmers, consumers, and everyone in between by decreasing the availability of public information and space while creating greater room for private platforms and Big Tech infrastructure.

All stages of the agribusiness chain are being increasingly reorganized to facilitate massive data capture. That further weakens public services in the food and agriculture sector for farmers, consumers, and everyone in between by decreasing the availability of public information and space while creating greater room for private platforms and Big Tech infrastructure.

Extreme examples of such weakening public services can be seen in India, where the government in September 2020, adopted new laws to privatize the public wholesale agriculture market. Instead of the state paying a fair price for peasants’ produce, the new laws would open and deregulate the market, allowing big retail and technology corporations to replace and eliminate small retailers. This would mean that large corporations that already integrate vertically across the supply chain would organize food and agriculture production and consumption. After a year-long protest by millions of farmers and people across India, the laws were repealed in November 2021.

Such attempted corporate takeovers of digital agriculture must be resisted everywhere. For this to happen, food producers, including farmers, fisher people, small retailers, street food sellers, and farmworkers, need to work together with others to destabilize the power of Big Tech and its billionaire owners, and fight for a different vision of the food system that emphasizes democratic participation in producing and sharing knowledge and information.

Several initiatives aim to break the dependence on Big Tech and corporate-controlled digital services that are now being pushed upon farmers. One such initiative is FarmHack, a worldwide community of farmers that build and modify their own tools and freely share information around this online. Some new information technology (IT) companies are driving a shift towards crowd-sourced, non-proprietary exchange of information and research, not only within local communities, but also with small producers and processors facing similar conditions around the world, for example, on pest control techniques.

The Covid-19 pandemic put fresh markets and street vendors at a disadvantage compared with online digital platform delivery services that not only continued to operate but also took precedence during this time. One instance of resistance to such Big Tech dominance was put up by traders from a fresh market in Jogjakarta, Indonesia. They maintained their livelihoods during this uncertain time by joining forces with traders’ cooperatives and collaborating with district trade agencies, universities, and activists to create Pasar ID, an online platform which was managed by the traders themselves and enabled them to reconnect with their customers. Everyone who earlier worked in the physical market was now responsible for operating different parts of the platform, from taking orders to managing the online system to delivering orders to customers. This collaborative effort helped the traders sustain their livelihood while ensuring that customers’ needs were met by them directly.

Similarly, in Brazil, with the closing of open-air markets and the concentration of food distribution in big supermarkets where small farmers do not have direct entry, the small farmers’ movement Movimento de Pequenos Agricultores (MPA) organized a distribution system with a taxi drivers’ cooperative and a group of consumers. The program, called infobasket, operates digitally via a chat group and a website that displays a weekly menu of available items. Currently, it delivers an average of 300 food baskets each week to about 3,000 consumers in Rio de Janeiro and its surroundings. Around 40 peasant production units organize the logistics (GRAIN, 2020).

These locally-driven initiatives offer a blueprint for potential mobilizations against the onslaught of platforms and services being developed and rolled out by big corporations. As such, they need and deserve the full support of governments and civil society. This support should take the form of envisioning ways to regulate digital and data-driven agriculture, and tracking the medium- and long-term impacts of digital technologies on small farmers, including indigenous communities who remain among the world’s major food producers. It is also crucial to put together a collective and objective analysis of the role of data and technology companies in weakening public services in the food and agriculture sector. And finally, there is a need to build stronger collaborations between small farmers, traders, consumers, digital activists, and technology experts in order to continue defending food sovereignty.