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Digital disruption on the farm
Managers in the most traditional of industries distrust a promising new technology
INNOVATION is a word that brings to mind small, nimble startups doing clever things with cutting-edge technology. But it is also vital in large, long-established industries—and they do not come much larger or older than agriculture. Farmers can be among the most hidebound of managers, so it is no surprise that they are nervous about a new idea called prescriptive planting, which is set to disrupt their business. In essence, it is a system that tells them with great precision which seeds to plant and how to cultivate them in each patch of land. It could be the biggest change to agriculture in rich countries since genetically modified crops. And it is proving nearly as controversial, since it raises profound questions about who owns the information on which the service is based. It also plunges stick-in-the-mud farmers into an unfamiliar world of “big data” and privacy battles.
Monsanto's prescriptive-planting system, FieldScripts, had its first trials last year and is now on sale in four American states. Its story begins in 2006 with a Silicon Valley startup, the Climate Corporation. Set up by two former Google employees, it used 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.

The Climate Corporation planned to use these data to sell crop insurance. But last October Monsanto bought the company for about 1 billion—one of the biggest takeovers of a data firm yet seen. Monsanto, the world's largest hybrid-seed producer, has a library of hundreds of thousands of seeds, and terabytes of data on their yields. By adding these to the Climate Corporation's soil- and-weather database, it produced a map of America which says which seed grows best in which field, under what conditions.

FieldScripts uses all these data to run machines made by Precision Planting, a company Monsanto bought in 2012, which makes seed drills and other devices pulled along behind tractors. Planters have changed radically since they were simple boxes that pushed seeds into the soil at fixed intervals. Some now steer themselves using GPS. Monsanto's, loaded with data, can plant a field with different varieties at different depths and spacings, varying all this according to the weather. It is as if a farmer can know each of his plants by name.
FieldScripts 使用所有的这些数据来运行由Precusion Planting制造的设备。该公司在2012年被孟山都收购,专门制造位于拖拉机后部,同步运行的播种机和其他设备。比起原先简陋的盒子结构和等间距播种功能,到如今播种机已经发生了翻天覆地的变化。其中一些能够利用GPS来引导自己。孟山都的产品经过数据加载,能够根据天气的变化进行不同深度、不同间距以及不同品种的播种活动。其准确程度很高,如同一位农夫能将各个作物熟记于心。
Prescriptive planting is catching on fast. Last November another seed producer, Du Pont Pioneer, linked up with a farm-machinery maker, John Deere, to beam advice on seeds and fertilisers to farmers in the field. A farm-supply co-operative, Land O'Lakes, bought Geosys, a satellite-imaging company, in December 2013, to boost its farm-data business.
规范性种植正在迎头赶上。去年十一月份,另一个种子生产商杜邦先锋同农场机械制造商约翰迪尔联手给农民提供种子和化肥方面的指导。名为“Land O'Lakes农场供应合作社于2013年12月收购了卫星成像公司Geosys以提高其农场的数据业务。
The benefits are clear. Farmers who have tried Monsanto's system say it has pushed up yields by roughly 5% over two years, a feat no other single intervention could match. The seed companies think providing more data to farmers could increase America's maize yield from 160 bushels an acre to 200 bushels—giving a terrific boost to growers' meagre margins.
其中的好处显而易见。那些试用过孟山都系统的农民交口称赞,声称过去两年的产量因此而上升了5%左右,这一成就无可匹敌。种子公司认为给农民提供更多的数据能够把美国的玉米产量从160蒲式耳每英亩( 10吨每公顷)增加至200蒲式耳—这对于一向薄利的农民来说是个大好消息。
But the story of prescriptive planting is also a cautionary tale about the conflicts that arise when data entrepreneurs meet old-fashioned businessfolk. Farmers might be expected to have mixed feelings about the technology anyway: although it boosts yields, it reduces the role of discretion and skill in farming—their core competence. However, the bigger problem is that farmers distrust the companies peddling this new method. They fear that the stream of detailed data they are providing on their harvests might be misused. Their commercial secrets could be sold, or leak to rival farmers; the prescriptive-planting firms might even use the data to buy underperforming farms and run them in competition with the farmers; or the companies could use the highly sensitive data on harvests to trade on the commodity markets, to the detriment of farmers who sell into those markets.
不过,当熟识数据的企业家们遇上传统的生意人,规范性种植这一传奇也会因其中的火药味变得扣人心弦。农民们对于这项技术本来就是喜忧参半:虽然产量有所提高,但是这却使得他们的核心竞争力—用于种植的判断力和技艺变得无足轻重了。不过,更大的问题是农民对于兜售这项新技术的不信任。他们担心自己所提供的收成的详细数据可能会被滥用。他们的商业机密可能会被出售、或者泄露给竞争对手;这些指令种植企业甚至可能利用这些信息去收购那些表现欠佳的 农场,使其成为不可忽视的竞争势力;它们还有可能利用这些高度敏感的数据在大宗期货市场上交易,从而给在此市场中作为卖方的农民造成损失。
Looking a gift horse in the mouth
In response to such worries, the American Farm Bureau, the country's largest organisation of farmers and ranchers, is drawing up a code of conduct, saying that farmers own and control their data; that companies may not use the information except for the purpose for which it was given; and that they must not sell or give it to third parties. The companies agree with those principles, though so far their contracts with farmers do not always embody them. Also, once data have been sent and anonymised, farmers might be said no longer to own them, so it is not clear what rights to them they still have. For this reason and others, some Texan farmers have banded together to form the Grower Information Services Co-operative, to negotiate with the data providers.
Another worry is that, since the companies have not yet made the data fully “portable”, farmers may become locked into doing business with a single provider. To assuage all these concerns, the Climate Corporation has set up a free data-storage service for farmers, which others cannot access without the farmers' permission. New niche data-management firms are entering the market, which should help make it more competitive.
另外使人担心的则是由于这些公司还未使数据完全“便携化”,农民们可能只能和单一供应商进行交易。为解决此问题,气候公司已经为农民建立了免费的数据存储服务,访问者必须具有农民的授权。新的利基数据管理公司正在纷纷涌入市场,从而使其拥有更多的 竞争性。
For the time being, though, the biggest companies will dominate prescriptive planting. They collect the most comprehensive data and make better use of them than anyone else. And that raises a problem which affects big data in all its forms. Prescriptive planting could boost yields everywhere, just as mass, anonymised patient records could improve health care. But its success depends on service providers persuading users (farmers or patients) to trust them. If the users think they are taking a disproportionate share of the risks while firms are getting an excessive chunk of the benefits, trust will remain in short supply.
重点单词   查看全部解释    
distrust [dis'trʌst]


n. 不信任 vt. 不信任

code [kəud]


n. 码,密码,法规,准则
vt. 把 ...

traditional [trə'diʃənəl]


adj. 传统的

emerging [i'mə:dʒ]


vi. 浮现,(由某种状态)脱出,(事实)显现出来

permission [pə'miʃən]


n. 同意,许可,允许

response [ri'spɔns]


n. 回答,响应,反应,答复
n. [宗

essence ['esns]


n. 本质,精髓,要素,香精

precision [pri'siʒən]


n. 精确,精密度
adj. 以精准的执行而著

unfamiliar ['ʌnfə'miljə]


adj. 不熟悉的

mass [mæs]


n. 块,大量,众多
adj. 群众的,大规模




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