Grains Research and Development

Date: 31.08.2015

Data harvest – our next agricultural revolution

Author: Rebecca Jennings

Data is king. It has the capacity to rule everything we do, so learning how to use, manage and secure data is the challenge facing Australian agriculture, says US grower and agricultural lobbyist Mary Kay Thatcher.

She speaks of the ‘big data revolution’ and the need for growers to participate or be sidelined.

“‘Big data’ is information generated by technologies such as precision-agriculture software, crop and environmental sensors, and smart devices such as phones and tablets,” she explains.

As a powerful new tool ‘big data’ can be harnessed to reduce inputs and increase efficiency and yields, but is not without pitfalls, including unauthorised use (such as by extremist environmental or animal rights groups) or databank security breaches.

Ms Thatcher, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s (AFBF) senior director of congressional relations, shared her insights into navigating farm data use hurdles at the recent Soil, Big Data and the Future of Agriculture Conference in Canberra.

“Growers need to know who controls their data: if individual or aggregated data will be shared with other companies, or if it could be accessed by government agencies, or even used to speculate the commodities market,” Ms Thatcher said.

Although 81 per cent of US growers believe they own their farm data, it can be complex. For example, who owns soil data when land is leased or share-farmed? Do contractors or growers own input records? How much data can technology companies collect from in-cab software?

Ms Thatcher said the AFBF was first approached by growers two years ago, querying contracts that gave companies access to input and yield-monitoring data. They worked with growers and technology providers to develop principles around data transparency, now signed by 37 companies including Monsanto, John Deere and DuPont Pioneer.

The AFBF also produced a ‘read before you sign’ guide, outlining what growers should ask including what information is collected, what control growers have over data and if the company will notify them of policy changes.

Ms Thatcher said growers still need to read contracts: “We want to equip growers to understand the terms and conditions so they don’t have to hire a lawyer to interpret a contract.”

She advised Australian growers and technology providers to work together to ensure contracts are explicit about data ownership, use and security.

The AFBF is developing a tool to evaluate the transparency of data use policies and is creating a data portal with Ohio State University where growers can ‘click and choose’ who to share data with.

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A time of grower-focused change

Region National