Monsanto has plumped for services, big data to expand in India. Will farmers trust it?
When Monsanto, agri-tech company the world loves to hate, bought the weather data company Climate Corps for $930 million last year, few believed it would start peddling its data services in India any time soon. Less than a year from that acquisition, Monsanto India’s new chief executive Shilpa Divekar Nirula, who took charge in August, says the company would bring its new, integrated approach to India and sell services and solutions to farmers instead of just seeds and herbicides.
Just as the line between software, hardware and services is blurring as technology firms jostle to deliver an “experience” to customers, agri-tech companies are attempting to do the same. Before buying Climate Corps in 2013, Monsanto bought Precision Planting in 2012 which uses advanced agronomic practices, seed genetics and new farm technologies to help farmers achieve optimal yield – grow more with less. The Big Ag in general, and DuPont (with Encirca Services), John Deere and Dow Chemicals in particular, is making their way to the farms and individual farmer’s (trade) practices to access a variety of crop data.
Integrated services in farming were always needed especially since Indian agriculture universities and govt departments, which were supposed to provide extension services in better agronomic practices and new farming technologies, abandoned it. When Tata Chemicals acquired Rallis India in 2009, which later acquired the biotech seed company Metahelix, the idea was to offer a suite of services to farmers. The purpose of Tata Kisan Sansar network was to do precisely what the Big Ag is doing now. But I don’t think Tata Chemicals and Rallis have gone much further in using sophisticated data tools to parse the crop, weather and soil fertility data to deliver precision farming services to Indian growers.
In any case they can serve only a section of the community; the scope for such services is very large. The question is given Monsanto’s reputation will farmers trust it with their data? Who will ensure a farmer’s data remains within its owner’s control and is used for his benefit? We’ve seen how BT cotton adoption has run amok in India in terms of its side- and after- effects. Monsanto itself has faced several litigations, including one where Andhra Pradesh state government took it to the Monopoly and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission for inflated seed prices. (A lot of other allegations are mentioned by Vandana Shiva on her site in response to a New Yorker article on her. Take all her comments with a big pinch of salt “ that’s activism at its best; it can’t be equated with journalism.)
The point is Monsanto has shot itself in the foot in India. It now needs to tread carefully”in changing the perception as well as the distorted reality of Indian farming. In the past, especially in dealing with Bt cotton seeds, it worked closely with the government which for known and unknown reasons was not transparent about its field trial data and regulatory clearances. This time around hopefully Monsanto would be far more transparent and open about its moves and objectives as it embarks on its services journey.
A lot of academic groups in India are working on precision farming technologies including remote sensing data and are building crop models. They should come out in the open with their solution and standard operating procedures so that the users have a handful of neutral benchmarks.
The open source community can fill yet another gap: teach the farming community how to capture and store their data so that even if they choose to form a cooperative to deal with private companies on farm data, they know what they are getting into and how they could push back should any private or for-profit entity uses their data.
Monsanto may have bet its farm on data crunching, farmers in India can’t afford to do that, for historical as well as futuristic reasons. (Monsanto already varies its seed prices by location “ where farmers harvest bumper crops they get charged more for its seeds.) When ex-Googler and Climate Corps founder David Friedberg was selling out to Monsanto last year he wrote to his employees: The people of The Climate Corporation are going to lead the world to revolutionary solutions to historic problems… Those revolutionary solutions are welcome but at the farmer’s terms, not by any arm-twisting.
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