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Use of ‘big data’ in agriculture yields potentially big benefits for producers, but privacy concerns as well

by Carolyn Orr ~ July/August 2014 ~ Stateline Midwest »
For farmers and ranchers, the promise of “big data” to vastly improve operations is hard to ignore. Take, for example, the idea of “prescriptive production.” By merging a decade’s worth of fertilizer, climate and yield data with advanced soil maps and existing conditions, a producer can make more-informed management decisions — down to the fertilizer used and seeds planted on each acre of land. Evidence shows that this approach can increase yields by between 10 and 25 percent.
“Big data” is the term applied to the sorting and processing of enormous quantities of data. And the ability to crunch massive amounts of data may be as important to the future of food production as the development of the tractor was for 20th-century agriculture.
But it is also hard to ignore the myriad policy and privacy issues arising from increased use of “big data.”
Imagine, for instance, the value of yield data from 1,000 combines or 1,000 cattle ranches across the country to the traders of agriculture futures.
Should farmers have a say and be compensated when their data are used by others? What type of data should state and federal regulators — and private companies, for that matter — have access to on specific farmland and producers’ agricultural operations?
These policy questions remain largely unanswered. The implications of “big data,” of course, extend well beyond the agriculture industry, and state legislatures across the country are taking notice.
In Minnesota, Sen. Scott Dibble says he wants lawmakers to better understand the topic and gain the expertise they need to make informed policy decisions. This year, he introduced and helped pass SF 2066, a bill that creates an eight-member legislative commission whose charge will be to “review legislation impacting data practices, data security and personal data privacy.”
Dibble says enactment of SF 2066 “will provide legislators the time to focus on the thorny, complicated issues related to privacy” — everything from the use of drones to the use of medical and financial data.
“Technology is taking quantum leaps ahead of state legislatures,” says Sen. Warren Limmer, a sponsor of SF 2066. “We just can’t keep up, so this specialized commission focusing on data privacy is definitely needed.”
Current state laws offer some limited protections.
Thirty U.S. states have laws requiring businesses to destroy personal information after it has been used, and all states except South Dakota require individuals to be notified if a security breach exposes their information.
This year in Iowa, lawmakers passed SF 2259, which strengthens notification requirements when a data breach occurs. Minnesota’s HB 183, meanwhile, limited unauthorized access to data by public employees.
For the most part, though, state and federal laws are silent on how agricultural data can or cannot be used.
Several agriculture companies and farm organizations are working on policies to clarify the control and dissemination of data related to farmers’ agricultural practices and operations — for example, soil type, the use of fertilizer, herbicide and seed, and the resultant yield.
One idea is to specify in farm-equipment contracts that data cannot be sold or given to others. And universal guidelines on data ownership and licensing would make data-services contracts easier to understand.
Another privacy concern involves the commercial use of unmanned aircraft in agriculture and forestry. The Federal Aviation Administration is set to approve the practice, but only one Midwestern state, Illinois, has passed legislation requiring consent when gathering data about a landowner’s property below navigable airspace.


Article written by Carolyn Orr, staff liaison for the Midwestern Legislative Conference Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee. The committee's co-chairs are Indiana Rep. Bill Friend and Minnesota Rep. Rick Hansen.