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Prescriptive Planting

Big data is bringing big changes to "stick-in-the-mud" farmers, reports The Economist (5/24/14). Known as "prescriptive planting," and pioneered by "two former Google employees," Monsanto’s FieldScripts uses "remote sensing and other cartographic techniques to map every field in America (all 25m of them) and superimpose on that all the climate information that it could find. By 2010 its database contained 150 billion soil observations and 10 trillion weather-simulation points."

Originally, the idea was to "use these data to sell crop insurance" but when Monsanto bought its developer, Climate Corporation, for "about $1 billion" last year, it combined the data with its own "library of hundreds of thousands of seeds, and terabytes of data on their yields," producing "a map of America which says which seed grows best in which field under which conditions." Monsanto is now using the data "to run machines made by Precision Planting," which it also acquired, to plant fields for maximum results.

Some farmers are wary, however, because the technology "reduces the role of discretion and skill in farming — their core competence." They also "fear that the stream of detailed data … might be misused," their secrets sold or leaked "to rival farmers." The American Farm Bureau "is drawing up a code of conduct" to address this, but not all contracts comply. This tension over privacy "affects big data in all its forms," in that the future of prescriptive planting rests on "service providers persuading users … to trust them."