THE "Big Data" revolution has helped farmers make great strides in better understanding the potential that improved knowledge offers and how it helps the bottom line, but it also bears important considerations for privacy and data rights.
In an Oct. 28 hearing, House Agriculture Committee members heard from a panel of experts, including those who have been actively involved in the very quickly developing new wave of technology.
Today's technology affords farmers the ability to instantaneously collect data about almost every facet of their cropping operations, from planting through harvest. Farmers are reporting higher yields, more efficiency and higher profits while using fewer inputs, thanks to technology.
House Agriculture Committee chairman Michael Conaway (R., Texas) opened the hearing by noting that Big Data has been called a "game changer for agriculture." However, at least one of the reasons potential benefits have not been fully realized yet is because farmers and ranchers are getting lots of information from lots of different places.
Missouri Farm Bureau president Blake Hurst told the committee that farmers and ranchers see tremendous benefits with technology but can't turn a blind eye to the privacy concerns that remain.
While farmers are eager to adopt these groundbreaking tools, they are not willing to simply hand over their sensitive business information — nor should they have to. Farmers have the right to know what information is collected, how exactly their information is used and who else has access to it. "It's then up to farmers to determine whether the benefits outweigh the privacy and security risks associated with usage," Hurst said.
The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) and its partners are currently developing tools to help farmers evaluate privacy agreements and data storage options.
When farmers and businesses work together, Hurst told the committee, they can "expand their return on investment and unlock the power of ag data."
Shannon Ferrell, associate professor at Oklahoma State University, explained, "Many agricultural producers have concerns about their rights in this data and their privacy if they choose to share their information to take advantage of the numerous tools afforded by the Big Data revolution as they struggle with how to balance the advantages of automatic and continuous uploading of that data to other parties — such as equipment dealers, input vendors and consultants — with the potential loss of confidentiality in such transfers."
The law protects the privacy of most producer information collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but it does not cover information gathered by private entities. Conaway said this has enormous implications that can affect commodity markets, land values and how farm policies operate, among other things, and potentially can expose producers to frivolous and costly environmental litigation.
Current federal privacy laws do not directly address an individual's rights with respect to information like agricultural data, Ferrell explained. He said one way Congress can directly address such privacy issues is to "enact legislation clearly and narrowly define the circumstances under which production of agricultural data can be compelled by federal agencies and the circumstances under which agricultural data held by federal agencies can be disclosed."
It is also key to strengthen safeguards that prevent the inadvertent disclosure of agricultural data held by federal agencies or the unauthorized access to the data by outside parties, he added, citing previous mishaps such as the Environmental Protection Agency releasing livestock producers' personal information under a Freedom of Information Act request and the Environmental Working Group publishing farm subsidy information.
Billy Tiller, co-founder of the Grower Information Services Cooperative (GiSC), testified about how data generated from the farming operation has tremendous value and said farmers should be in the best position to harvest this value.
"Farmers need a data aggregator and data integrator to help them reap all the benefits of Big Data and its implications to agriculture," Tiller said in his written testimony. "We cannot just sit on the sidelines and wonder how it will all turn out, trusting that the tremendous for-profit agriculture technology providers will use our information only for our good rather than returns to their own shareholders. We need to be proactive by joining forces with groups such as GiSC to give farmers a voice."