Who owns farm data?

Digital technologies and data applications are being adopted on farm at a rapid pace, supporting farm management decisions and enhancing precision agriculture. But as the Australian agricultural industry passes through a digital revolution, Cox Inall’s Account Executive Jacqui Grellman asks who really owns and is profiting from farm data?

Jacqui GrellmanIt is clear Australian agriculture is in the midst of a digital revolution with the uptake of new technology by farmers on the rise and ‘AgTech’ an increasingly crowded, noisy and exciting space in the market.

A reduction in the cost and adaption of digital tools in farm machinery and monitoring applications has seen the proliferation of data rich technologies over a range of Australian commodities.

For example, electronic livestock identification systems, traceability and tracking devices, genomics, carcase measuring and automatic livestock weighing systems are just some of the way digitisation is being rolled out across the livestock sector. The grains industry has a track record of early adoption with sensing technologies, GPS units and water management systems widely used by growers.

With these digital technologies comes a mountain of data on soil, climate, stocking rates, seasons, market trends, finances, chemical use and the movement of products through the supply chain. This supports farm management decisions and boosts productivity in a big way.

However, this also raises the question: who owns, and who is profiting from the data being collected?

Recent research from The Australian Farm Institute (AFI), (http://www.farminstitute.org.au/publications/research_report/big-data-report.html) says data generated from machinery or technologies used on-farm is owned by the farmer. But loop holes in the ‘Conditions of Use’ agreements signed by computer software users generally restrict the user’s data ownership and give the software provider and other third parties access to the information.

Furthermore, the report suggests that farm machinery manufacturers typically reserve ownership rights to machinery performance data, and have some degree of control over farmers in terms of ownership and the use to which digital farm production data can be applied.

It’s evident farm data is sought by many.

In the United States, the issue of who pays for data is igniting increasing concern and has led to the strengthening of privacy regulations, and the creation of certain codes of practice,  which aim to put the farmer in control of who can use information.

AFI discusses a new structure that has emerged in the US, which is an open access data arrangement where data can be used on multiple platforms and readily transferred between these. This has produced competition between software providers in the market.

But perhaps the real issue lies in the ability of commercial service providers or agricultural firms to use available data to take advantage of a farmer’s good year. By analysing yields, inputs and rates, companies can adapt their prices accordingly and charge different farmers different amounts for the same product, such as chemical, based on knowledge of how different producers performed over the season.

Digital technologies and data applications are more advanced in cropping sectors in the US, and platforms in Australia may not reach this point. However, after thorough research, the AFI has developed a range of initiatives that can be adopted by the agriculture sector in Australia to enable a more rapid development of digital agricultural systems.

Three major recommendations, as outlined by AFI, that I believe are crucial to the success of digital and data application in Australia farming focus on:

  • Australian agricultural industries, research agencies and IT, telecommunications and software organisations collaborating to establish a forum which aims to advance the development and adoption of digital agricultural applications and systems in Australia.
  • Australian agricultural industries, technology providers, and digital agricultural platforms and software system providers adopting a key belief that the farmers who own the land or livestock from where the data is retrieved maintain ownership rights to that data.
  • The idea that digital agricultural applications and platforms present the possibility of dramatically changing the way farmers access production and other information relevant to farm management decisions, so these systems should become the principal information supply chain and principle extension pathways for farmers in the future.

The adoption of productivity improving technologies by Australian farmers is not new. What is new is the immense amount of data generated. This data, if held and examined in an aggregated form can be very powerful, possibly leading to significant productivity gains for agricultural producers.

However, there is potential for this data to be exploited by suppliers and service providers to agricultural industries to gain comparative advantage. Agricultural producers need to take ownership and control of the data that they generate so it can be used for the most constructive purposes.

The adoption of the AFI recommendation by Government and industry would be a good start towards the constructive use of agriculture’s data reserves.

Jacqui Grellman is an Account Executive with Cox Inall Communications, based in Sydney.

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