Facial Recognition for Plants: Individual Optimization in the Age of Surveillance Farming

Authors: Summer Sullivan*, University of California, Santa Cruz
Topics: Cultural and Political Ecology, Food Systems
Keywords: Ag-Tech, Artificial Intelligence, Surveillance Farming, Agroecology
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/7/2021
Start / End Time: 11:10 AM / 12:25 PM
Room: Virtual 38
Presentation File: No File Uploaded


Founded in 2011 and acquired by John Deere in 2017, Blue River Technology (BRT) is a Silicon Valley agriculture-technology start-up. BRT’s mission is to “optimize every plant” and reduce herbicide use through targeted spraying. Their newest machine, See and Spray, uses a combination of robotics and a Facebook-developed deep learning program as it glides over row crops while identifying weeds. Along with implementing facial recognition for plants, BRT’s approach exemplifies an individualizing form of crop management that claims each plant as unique capital waiting to be optimized. Drawing mainly on a discursive analysis of BRT’s public content through an STS lens, I argue that their individual optimization framework ignores the collaborative nature of weed culture and continues to entrench capitalist agricultural practices. Further, the increased use of surveillance technologies in agriculture, a process I call "surveillance farming," should receive the same scrutiny generated by their implementation in other spaces. There is a well-documented tendency of surveillance technologies like facial recognition to discriminate and a potential to further concentrate power within an already-uneven food system. I conclude by engaging with agroecology as a rhizomatic, world-making movement actively refusing surveillance farming by cultivating food sovereignty outside of the technoscape.

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