Governance and farm data – Who owns it and who profits from it?
Advances in Smart Farming and Big Data applications have great potential to help agricultural industries meet productivity and sustainability challenges. However, these benefits may not be realised if the social implications of these technological innovations are not considered by those who promote them.
Recent interviews with Australian grain farmers and industry also show that issues related to trust are critical. These include concerns about transparency and about who will benefit from access to and use of “farmers’ data”.
These concerns are creating scepticism about the value of ‘smart’ technologies amongst some farmers. There is concern about who is collecting data on their farms and if it is being sold to others. It’s difficult to be certain if the advice they are getting on everything from pest control to fertilizer is unbiased and objective or if there is profit involved.
What are the concerns over the collection of farm data?
There are threats from insufficient controls to prevent the disclosure of personally identifiable information (“PII”) to outside parties and inadequate agreements on the uses of data by parties to whom it is disclosed. There are real threats of conflicts of interest from companies recommending products that their affiliate provide. For example, farmers could be targeted by spam marketing for products based on their production patterns.
Large companies may also be able to manipulate commodity markets to their advantage. For example, equipment companies already have fleets of combines continuously uploading harvest data to their servers.
This makes excellent market intelligence data. John Deere has been a leading company in the deployment of precision agriculture and big data. When a farmer drives a Deere tractor, the data is uploaded to the cloud and shared with the company.
Deere tells customers that information is needed to troubleshoot machines and make accurate recommendations to farmers about how to use the land through a fleet of software developed by seed companies and embedded in the cabs.
US farmer David Seba believes Deere knows when he is planting and is convinced the company sells that data to weather companies and commodities traders.
All this incredible technology that everybody’s come up with, that everybody talks about—are we making any more money? We’re making less.
Deere denies that it sells aggregated farm data. Nevertheless, it is data collected by the company that allows it to enter into business partnerships with companies, such as Dow DuPont, which depends on soil information to make nutrient and seed planting prescriptions.
Who owns farm data?
Issues around ownership of data generated through new areas of agriculture technology remain unclear. Once an individual farmer’s data is aggregated with other farmers’ data in many cases, they are considered to be the property of the company or platform responsible.
The absence of legal and regulatory frameworks around the collection, sharing and use of agricultural data contributes to the challenges currently being faced by farmers in adopting smart farming technologies.
The fact that many large agri-businesses or technology providers are also foreign-owned is another important factor in terms of lack of trust. Farmers may not have the benefit of consumer or other legislative protections of their own country, where the dispute is taken to an overseas jurisdiction.
Who profits from farm data?
Big agricultural companies or Agriculture Technology Providers (ATPs) are beginning to offer prescriptions to farmers that allow them to better utilize their data and increase their output, for a fee. There is much potential for data to affect how the agricultural sector functions, but without a proactive, responsible approach, there is a very real risk of these changes benefiting only the most powerful actors within the supply chain. Farmers are often in a weak position buying many inputs from large companies, and in turn selling to larger more powerful companies.
Farm data has a value which is why one company is even suggesting farmers sell their data. Kansas-based Farmobile has created a platform to enable just that. The platform provides an opportunity for farmers who need a new income stream, but also for buyers who need specific, county-by-county farm data.
Why good governance is needed for farm data?
When it comes to data and technology, differences in resources mean stark power imbalances in data access and use. The most well-resourced actors can delve into new technologies and make the most of those insights, whereas others are unable to take any such risks.
Access to and use of data has radically changed the business models and behaviour of some companies. In contrast, those with fewer resources farm such as small farmers are re-receiving the same, limited access to data that they always have.
How can trust be built?
Building trust is critical to further developing the technology. There is a need to invest in building the capability of growers and farm businesses to be both informed data consumers as well as co-creators and curators of data. This can be done by involving growers and their trusted information and advisory networks in the cooperative development and trialling of these systems.
New data technology represents a fantastic opportunity for the agricultural sector to meet growing environmental, economic, and social challenges. Increased data is being collected on farms, but it is still unclear whether this is leading to better decision-making at the farm level. Building farmer trust will be essential to exploit the technology to the full.
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