Are farmers becoming more vulnerable as agribusiness advances data technologies?

Thanks to movies like Food, Inc., the public is largely aware of agribusiness' dominant role in the past, present and future of farming. Not just farming is affected; society and the environment see impacts as well, and production of crops like soy are changing the face of the countryside. There's a general understanding that perceived evils, such as patented seeds, "drive the consolidation of the seed industry". By some accounts, seed patents reduce farmers' autonomy, contribute to environmental degradation, and damage food security in the longterm. By other accounts, they're critical to food security and reduce the need for spray-on agricultural inputs. 

But a recent article in the Business Insider suggests that agribusiness is shaping farmers' lives beyond the seed. Data collection and synthesis technologies are advancing at a rapid-fire pace, and our abilities to process what this means for farmers' privacy and how it could make them vulnerable to multinational corporations are lagging far behind. 

The article talks about big data. A data so big that "sensors can tell how effective certain seed and types of fertilizer are in different sections of a farm." Clearly there are benefits to a farmer knowing this information. Collection and synthesis of this accurate, detailed, micro-level data helps producers make decisions that increase the productivity and resilience of their crops. 

But multinationals like Monsanto want to cross-compare data at a macro-level as well. 

The appeal is relatively clear. If companies cross-compared data across multiple farms, it could generate information that might help prevent disease outbreaks, or highlight geographically-based trends present on multiple farms. Shannon Ferrell, professor of agricultural law at Oklahoma State University, asked "What if we took that level of data we have on individual farms and analyzed it across tens or thousands of farms? What macro-level trends would we see?" 

The questions on ethics arise, however, in regards to farmers' privacy and potentially increased vulnerability. Who owns farm data if producers allow Monsanto to analyze it in these new ways? According to Ferrell, many feel they have not been given a clear answer. Given well-publicized incidences of the company taking farmers to court over seed-saving, producers' concerns about ownership of their data can be seen as quite well-founded. What happens if producers allow Monsanto access to private farm data before these grey areas are cleared up?

The article cites the Climate Corporation, a subsidiary of Monsanto, as saying farmers own their data and can input and remove it as they see fit. However, when we couple the relinquishment of private farm information with agribusiness' historical adeptness at pushing legislation in its own interest, farmers' tepid enthusiasm is not surprising.

But a key issue emerges in this article: technology is currently moving faster than our ability to understand, react to, and mitigate its potential consequences.