Long before the social media scandal that rocked Facebook and bankrupted Cambridge Analytica, Kelly Bronson was looking into how data is collected, who uses it and how they are benefitting from it in Canada’s agri-food sector.
“For a couple of years, I’ve been doing qualitative research into the social scientific aspect of data collection in agriculture,” explains Bronson, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa.
In a piece she wrote with assistant professor Irena Knezevic for Policy Options magazine, Bronson said, “The data collected by many digitally equipped tractors — data that farmers are helping to collect in the first place — are accessible to the farmers only after being processed by corporations, ostensibly to protect the farmers’ privacy.
“So privacy and access issues are potentially at odds in the agri-food sector, just as they are in, for example, so much of the social media universe.”
The volume of data that can be collected just from farm machinery — let alone from drones, sensors and satellites — is staggering.
“The most sophisticated combines have as many as 256 values from air pressure to fuel status and consumption, temperatures, flow rates, rates of change in moisture and more,” says Mike Duncan. He’s the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) industrial research chair in precision agriculture and environmental technologies at Niagara College.
There’s a lot of optimism about how big data will bring serious dividends to people in agri-business. The federal government recently invested in the Protein Industries Supercluster, and one of its objectives is to “improve farm data collection and producer skills with data and knowledge management.”
But, according to experts, right now farmers are not reaping all the benefits.
“Farmers are doing all the work and others are making all the money,” Duncan says. His contention is that no company is going to spend tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars on collecting and storing data without expecting some kind of return.
“In general, storing and backing up data is a very expensive process,” Duncan says. “Why would a company spend the money if not to use it or sell it?”
Duncan says that for data aggregating operations like John Deere, Bayer or Monsanto, each $200 dollar disk is held in a $350 tray and is part of an array in an enclosure that costs $10,000 — double that if the data is being backed up.
Due to the requirement that it achieve economies of scale, Duncan adds, a company has to spend at least $20,000 before it can even store your name.
In her research, Bronson is finding out both the positive and negative implications of digitization. She’s also discovering the complexity of the issues and uncovering concerns harboured by many in the industry.
So far, Bronson has conducted about 60 interviews with farmers and software designers, as well as interviewing people in agribusiness and the public sector. Among her findings is the fact that farmers’ concerns about information privacy are very real, even among those who are incorporated businesses, have huge acreages, produce export commodities and use precision agriculture technology.
Some are concerned about spying, and one farmer she interviewed even talked about the “Big Brother” effect of having suppliers knowing everything about their family’s farm.
But Duncan points out that very few farmers have the information technology savvy or the financial wherewithal to devise their own data storage systems, so they need to depend on service providers to do that job. Which, in his mind, puts the data collector firmly in the driver’s seat.
“Once the data is collected, the farmer loses control over it,” Duncan says, adding it can take weeks or months for farmers to get the ‘crunched’ data back from the companies that collect it.
Inaction in Ottawa
There are no laws or regulations specifically aimed at agricultural data protection in Canada or the U.S. Some U.S. companies and organizations — including John Deere and DuPont Pioneer — have received the Ag Data Transparent certification, which includes a robust set of standards, but remain voluntary.
By contrast, the U.S. does have specific data protection legislation in both the financial technology and health industries.
Canada recently reviewed its Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA). A report in February 2018 by the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics outlined some recommended changes related to consent, right to withdraw consent, destruction of personal information, and equivalence to Europe’s new General Data Protection Regulation, which went into effect on May 28. But nothing has so far been done to update the legislation.
Attorney Jody Ferris wrote a paper published recently in the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science and Technology that argued there should be laws put in place to specifically meet the needs of agriculture.
While precision agriculture technology is a definite boon to modern farming, she wrote, current federal and state legislation “may not be sufficient to ensure that companies in the agriculture industry are keeping in place adequate privacy and security measures.”
However, both Bronson and Duncan say that in a world where consumer loyalty points cards and debit and credit cards feed data on a daily basis to companies about people’s most personal habits, having agronomic, yield and other data rolled up, used, available and potentially sold on should not be surprising.
In the end, decisions about getting into high-tech agriculture basically come down to the farmers, and how comfortable they are in providing the data in the first place, how much trust is put into the collecting company, and whether trading data for technological advances is deemed a cost of doing business.
Next time: The possible future of farm data collection and protection in Canada.