BIOTECHNOLOGY has taken crop yields to new levels in the last decade, but the next technological advancement is data generated by precision agriculture.
For years, farmers have used technological advances to better match varieties of seeds, production inputs and management practices with specific field characteristics.
Now, farm groups are at a crossroads with the companies that offer the information, and industry standards are needed for the collection, storage and stewardship of the data generated by precision agricultural instruments.
"New technologies have advanced our industry so far in such a short period of time," American Soybean Assn. president Ray Gaesser said. "We rely on these solutions, but we also need to establish best practices to ensure that the data they generate is managed in such a way that respects personal privacy."
One of the most important issues related to "big data" concerns property rights and who owns and controls the farm-level data that may be collected.
Livestock producers got quite the scare when the Environmental Protection Agency released producers' private information such as home addresses and phone numbers. Farmers could face the same risks to privacy related to the release of information about their pesticide use or biotech crops, which are accepted farming practices that have become politically unpopular.
Brian Marshall, a farmer and Missouri Farm Bureau member who testified to the House Small Business Committee on behalf of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) in February, said farmers are right to be concerned about data privacy in part because the information collected is valuable to companies.
"Farmers should have a say in and be compensated when their data are sold," Marshall said.
With big data, however, there's also a concern about potential market manipulation. For instance, if yield data are instantly uploaded into hundreds or thousands of combines during the fall and then uploaded to the cloud, markets could have instant access to harvest progress and yields, explained Mary Kay Thatcher, AFBF senior director of congressional relations.
Thatcher said the big questions for farmers are deciding how the information will be used, who will be able to see it and how transparent the data are.
Another data privacy issue of concern to AFBF centers on the use of unmanned aircraft systems, also known as drones, for commercial purposes in agriculture and forestry.
Operators of drones should be required to gain the consent of the landowner or farmer if surveying or gathering data about the landowner's property below navigable airspace, Marshall explained.
Further, AFBF opposes federal agencies using drones for regulatory enforcement, litigation and as a sole source for natural resource inventories without the consent of the landowner below navigable airspace.
"If we're going to get these issues right between farmers and ag tech providers, it needs to be this year," Thatcher said, explaining that as time goes on, it will become more difficult to standardize the technology in a way that provides benefits but also protects farmers.
AFBF hosted a meeting April 10 with a handful of industry grower groups, equipment makers and seed companies to discuss some of the concerns, opportunities and challenges related to big data. This was the first of several meetings intended to identify and secure industry standards relating to on-farm data.
Thatcher said the meeting convened 13 farm and commodity groups as well as six agricultural technology providers: Monsanto, John Deere, Dow AgroSciences, Pioneer, Raven and Beck's Hybrid Seed.
She said the meeting provided the first opportunity to start a dialogue and come up with issues that the organizations and technology providers plan to take back to the boards or executives to seek out more input.
"We all agreed we needed to continue to work together on this issue and would do so, but (we reached) no firm idea for how we will do that," Thatcher said.