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Sat, May 25

Cantlon: Monopolies and your home becoming a closed system

Smart fridges

Monsanto/Bayer merger

Life is becoming one big set of monopolies and near-monopolies: Facebook, Twitter, Google, whichever phone service covers your area best, single-source pharmaceuticals, Amazon.

I’ll tell you about a coming near-monopoly in agriculture, but then I’ll come back to how this affects your home.

Monsanto, the giant seed maker, and Bayer, a giant in agricultural chemicals want to merge.

They say it would help farmers be efficient, which is true, but only half the story. It would work something like this. A farmer could put a Monsanto/Bayer computer and sensors on their tractor. Yes, such things already exist. In fact, having them on the tractor could be required in order to contract to buy the supplies.

The sensors could tell, even before the farmer is aware of it, that the soil is a little low in some nutrient, or the first signs of some pest or weed are detected. That info would get sent to the Monsanto/Bayer headquarters, which would automatically message the farmer’s phone that just by tapping OK the necessary supplies would be charged to their account and shipped.

Of course the farmer can’t really shop around for herbicides anyway, because the seeds have been genetically engineered to only work with the approved herbicide, and it’s probably locked into the contract as well. Still, now it’s a completely closed system with no entry for competition.

It’s efficient for the farmer, but might bite them later if the company decides to jack up prices, or its seeds turn out to be weak in the face of some unforeseen blight. And since it’s a monoculture, the problem would be catastrophic, or if they decide to hide evidence that their chemicals are harmful to farmers or consumers.

Your home may soon work similarly. There are already refrigerators that will sense when your supplies are low, and ones with Amazon Alexa built-in for voice ordering, and even ones with a camera inside that sees what products you have. Amazon could sell such fridges cheap to make them popular.

Then when you’re low on eggs, Alexa pipes up, or messages your phone, and with an “OK” more are on the way. When the ice cream is gone Alexa could prompt you to get more. You were hoping to forget about ice cream and avoid the calories? Alexa didn’t know that.

As clever as Amazon folks are -- they might come up with ways to lock you in. Like maybe only Amazon milk bottles would fit the convenient door-milk dispenser, or only Amazon ice cream cartons would fit the built-in cone dispenser. In any case it would be a closed system, with no way for Fry’s or Safeway or the local Mom and Pop grocery to also sense your need for eggs and say, “You know, you could get those from us, too?”

Unless, of course, the Mom and Pop succumb to sharing profits with Amazon and sell through Amazon. More likely, Mom and Pop will just close.

It would all be very convenient for you, unless the monopoly decides to jack up prices, or it turns out there are trade-offs they don’t reveal, like say the organic products you buy from them really aren’t as organic as you think. Hey, they’d be a monopoly. Monopolies tend to do those things.

All the advantages of monopoly life tied up with a neat little ribbon and offered at an initial discount, but with a hell of a price to pay down the road, as monopolies always extract.

Tom Cantlon is a local business owner and writer and can be reached at comments at


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