Farmers up in arms over potential misuse of data

While big data application can make agricultural practices more efficient, the benefits come at the potential price of privacy

The American Farm Bureau is drawing up a code of conduct, but farmers are concerned the data on their individual farms might be misused, sold or leaked to rival farmers. Photograph: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

The American Farm Bureau is drawing up a code of conduct, but farmers are concerned the data on their individual farms might be misused, sold or leaked to rival farmers. Photograph: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Mon, Jul 14, 2014, 01:10

Monsanto is facing public ire again. By recently acquiring a Silicon Valley start-up called Climate Corporation for $1 billion, Monsanto gained access to detailed information on every tillable field in the Unites States.

Climate Corporation, set up by two ex-Google employees, uses remote sensing to map every field in the US and superimposes that data with all relevant climate information available.

Monsanto is using the info for a novel agricultural approach called “prescriptive planting”. This is where planting machines can – sometimes remotely – plant a field with different varieties at different depths and spacing. FieldScripts, as it is called, can also tell how some varieties will work better in poorer soil, or put in more seed per hectare, if needed. FieldScripts will only work with machines built by a company called Precision Planting, which is – surprise, surprise – also owned by Monsanto.

FieldScripts had its first trials last year and is now on sale in four American states. Other companies, such as Du Pont Pioneer, having hooked up with John Deere; and farm-supply co-operative, Land O’Lakes, bought satellite-imaging company Geosys, in 2013.

Distrust

Data entrepreneurs are drooling with excitement. American farmers, on the other hand, are not as enthusiastic. Farmers are traditionally labelled as conservative, particularly when it comes to new technology. But in this case, they have a point. They distrust many of the companies involved in this new technology and are concerned the data on their individual farms, now owned by the likes of Monsanto, might be misused, sold, or leaked to rival farmers.

There is also the danger that prescriptive-planting firms could use the data to buy farms known to be underperforming and directly compete with smaller farmers. What’s more likely, however, is the concern that the data on harvests could be used to trade on the commodity markets.

In response, the American Farm Bureau is drawing up a code of conduct. But while a fair playing field might be aspired to, there’s no fighting this new big data/agriculture symbiosis. “It’s amazing, a brilliant vision,” says Enda Keane of Treemetrics. “Even though Monsanto are the most hated company in the world, their vision is without doubt the future of farming. The technology being used in the US is mainly for the production of corn and soya. So it’s not applicable as of yet, to Ireland in any huge way.”

Keane is co-founder of Treemetrics, a Cork-based outfit using similar technology to provide detailed information for those involved in commercial forestry. Their sensor-based platform, uses algorithms to help make tree farming more productive through assessing variables, such as the straightness and “branchiness” of the trees, as well as local soil and climate conditions, threats from disease etc.

“Our technology works in real time by helping the supply chain linkage,” says Keane. “We reduce a lot of the waste in commercial forestry currently caused by poor connectivity between forest satellite communications.”

The company is involved in a project with the European Space Agency to develop a global mapping platform. “We aim to start using drones placed onto our global mapping platform, which can monitor for illegal logging, storm damage, disease, etc.”

Tactics

Despite being located in Ireland where commercial forestry is on the rise, 95 percent of Treemetrics’ customers come from elsewhere. “We are becoming a global marketplace for timber and saw mill buyers,” he says. “We help both owner and buyer do business together.”

Is there any danger of Treemetrics being accused of the same tactics as Monsanto in the forestry industry? “Unlikely, as we only have access to data on forests owned by farmers who have bought into our business. We won’t make any data available unless the owner wants us to.”

But the same issues rear their ugly head every time big data is discussed – privacy, ownership, individuals’ rights – and agriculture is no different. “When collecting data – whether it’s for predicting the winner of the US presidential election, measuring how much energy is being used in individuals’ homes, societal health and wellness, or data on forests – the same challenges arise,” explains Prof Alan Smeaton from DCU’s Insight Centre for Data Analytics. “Who owns this data and how should they be allowed to use it? Monsanto’s use of data analytics is just another new technology, no different from the steam engine or the internet. There are potential benefits and potential threats. The question is finding a balance between the two.

“That being said, the questions raised by farmers in Texas are very prescient and a wider public debate needs to begin around this issue. We may have regulation but our laws are completely outdated,” he says.

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