The Black Box of Ag Data in the Supply Chain

Guest post by Emily Duncan

New technologies in agriculture are collecting massive amounts of agricultural data.  Drones, robots, sensors, and satellites are generating more data than farmers know what to do with.  Take for example, Climate Pro sensors, which are said to generate up to 7 gigabytes of data per acre, and with the average farm size in Canada being 820 acres – that’s a lot of data!  While these technologies have been hyped to increase sustainability and productivity, a key question still remains: how does all this data get turned into information – and – information for who?

Farmers are still learning how to use this data to make decisions to improve their farms.  When I interviewed farmers for my Master’s thesis, many of those using these technologies had taught themselves how to interpret the data. Others were beginning to make use of a new line of services being offered by a growing number of agricultural companies providing data management assistance.

While we are starting to understand the impacts of data and new technologies on the farm, there are still a lot of questions about what happens to the data once it leaves the farm. Companies have a lot to gain by collecting this data, and according to many data sharing agreements, farmers don’t necessarily own the data that their technologies are generating. According to one report by the American Farm Bureau, 82% of farmers said that they had no idea what companies were doing with their data.  Additionally, some companies are even starting to pay farmers for their data, such as Farmobile, who sells their sensor technologies to farmers, the sensors collect information such as harvest data, and then Farmobile finds buyers for this data and pays the farmer.  Who is buying this data though? Are other companies selling these types of technologies also selling farmer data but not paying farmers for it?

Most of us are well aware that social media companies, like Facebook, share information to third parties in order to make overwhelming profits through targeted advertising.  Yet, in the agricultural industry with the collection of all types of new data, are farmers facing the same type of exploitation?

The farmers that I spoke with were a bit divided over what the outcomes of all this big data collection would be for the industry – some were hopeful that it would lead to new innovations that could benefit their farm, while skeptics believed that this data would lead to new regulations and monitoring.  Some organizations have attempted to create more transparency in agricultural data governance, such as Ag Data Transparent, which is a third-party that provides a certification to companies who are practicing best management principles for handling farm data. The Ag Data Coalition is another non-profit organization that is working to create a neutral place for farmers to store and share their data in an attempt to give farmers more control over their data.

Still the black-box of how agricultural data moves from the farm through the agricultural supply chain remains, as large processors (such as Mondelez International) are increasingly starting to require the type of data that is generated by precision agriculture technologies in order to make sustainability claims.  As these new technologies continue to be adopted by farmers worldwide, the agricultural industry is in need of effective policy around data management. 

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