Farming is always being urged to modernise. Newer, bigger, faster tractors. Combines that almost drive themselves. GPS-driven precision sprays and robotics that don’t need a farmer but a geek in a white coat.
When I was at school, progress was painted as Jethro Tull inventing the seed drill (he didn’t), Turnip Townsend developing crop rotation. Much of this is myth. The big changes tend to come systemically not through single pioneers.
It’s the same with resistance to change. ‘Dog and stick farming’ was a term of genial abuse. Luddites were those who in the early 19th century fought the advance of new machinery even torching machines which made labour redundant. Slogans were written in the name of a mythic Ned Ludd or Captain Swing.
These cultural arguments about progress surfaced over genetic modification. Pro GM interests painted Europe as being luddite and risk-averse, and the USA as not. In fact there are fluctuations of position. But the really important issue is power. Who gains, who loses when a technology is shaped? Who owns the technology?
We need to ask these questions again today when farming is being urged to go hi-tech to resolve issues as diverse as labour shortages, agrichemical use, and knowledge transfer.
“The military see threats coming from the zone on which farming is being urged to be reliant – the cloud”
Big Data is the amalgamation and analysis of millions of bits of data at high speed by computers. Every move we make is tracked by our phones. Every call or purchase is logged into patterns. Whoever has access to data amalgamations has power. Big Data is owned mostly by US corporations and almost all on the Cloud is US-based. Logistics, just-in-time delivery, all the infrastructure of food systems is now internet dependent and mostly stored in giant regionally based energy-guzzling servers.
Who owns the satellites on which your new whizzo machinery depends? In January 2021, Russia had 176, China 412, USA 1897 and the rest of the world 887 circling Planet Earth.
The world is in a tense geo-political phase. US versus China. Russia versus Europe. Eastern versus Western Europe. The UK versus Europe. No wonder the military now see threats coming from precisely the zone on which farming is being urged to be reliant. The internet. The Cloud. Software. Robotics. The rise of ransomeware is rapid. Suddenly your system won’t work. And there’s a demand to pay up to unlock the lockdown.
The UK Government’s 2021 cyber security breaches survey found 39 per cent of businesses and even 26 per cent of charities had been hit by ransomeware, sometimes weekly. They often pay up.
Behind the supposed smooth running of the Cloud, clouds are gathering, says the latest SOPHOS report on the global situation. The financialisation of agrifood markets meant it was only time before criminals let alone political opponents saw food as a chance to disrupt and to make money. JBS the meat giant was hit this year. A Swedish supermarket chain too. Warnings about supply chain vulnerabilities were given this year by the EU Cybersecurity Agency (ENISA), and in September by the US FBI.
Growing cyber insecurity caused real concern at a NATO meeting I recently attended. This is an era of Technologies of Control: Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Hypersonics, Quantum Computing and Biotech. These technologies are ahead of democracy. Big Data may give power but also vulnerability and loss of accountability.
“The UK doesn’t take its own food security seriously enough”
For all the talk of taking back control, the UK is now at some risk of being caught between China, Russia and USA. Being seen internationally as a rule-breaker or inconsistent doesn’t help. The good news, however, is that the National Cyber Security Agency budget has been increased. But the fundamentals are that these new hi-techs are not controlled by us.
What’s at stake is dependency and defence. As I argued in my book Feeding Britain, the UK doesn’t take its own food security seriously enough. It was ducked in the National Food Strategy. In an age where modern warfare can one moment be almost mediaeval (think Taliban and ISIS) and the next moment is hi-tech (think drones or biotech), UK farming perhaps ought to take a long look at where power lies and ask: who and what protects the people on food? How much food should we produce, and what is ultimately most important: the Cloud or the Earth?
Where food defence is being discussed is at the big corporate level. Companies protecting their brands, reputation and finance. It quickly becomes a matter of investing in insurance against attack and continuity planning. Patents are the firewall. But brand protection isn’t the same as protecting food supplies. Big is not necessarily more secure. Decentralisation is better, also greener.
When shown the data on climate change or the big decisions looming about diet and land use, citizens’ juries tend to ask: why weren’t we told all this?
Dear Farmers, it’s understandable to get excited about AI, robots and the Cloud but you aren’t a luddite to ask: where do I fit in this?