Does data mean power for smallholder farmers?

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Data is power—whoever controls data has the power and means to create services and products, allowing them to benefit from business insights and providing them distinct market advantages. Tools that collect, store and share data along the agricultural value chain—known as digital agriculture—can contribute to exponential income growth, better decision making and better services and products, as well as greater efficiency, productivity and profitability. But many farmers, particularly smallholder farmers, do not benefit from this sharing and exchange of agricultural data, leaving them feeling disempowered. Farmers are often reluctant to share their data because they feel it might be unsafe due to privacy and security issues, or because they are unaware of the value it could offer them.

While laws and regulations that govern personal data (such as The European General Data Protection Regulation or GPDR) are becoming increasingly common, there is a dearth of legislation covering the collection, sharing and use of data in agriculture. As a result, farmers face challenges due to a lack of transparency on issues such as data ownership, data rights, data privacy, data security and definitional issues such as whether all (or some) farm data should be considered personal.  Moreover, the contracts and licensing agreements that currently govern data transactions are complex, leaving smallholder farmers with very little negotiating power.

 

The good news is that codes of conduct have emerged to fill the legislative void, setting common standards for data sharing contracts and providing fair and transparent governance structures for agricultural data. Today, there are three main agriculture data codes: the US American Farm Bureau Federations’ Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data, the New Zealand Farm Data Code and the EU Code of Conduct on Agricultural Data Sharing by Contractual Agreement.

These codes cover central issues such as terminology, data ownership, data rights (including right to access, data portability, and the right to erasure/right to be forgotten), privacy issues, security, consent, disclosure and transparency. In addition, they all attempt to harness the benefits of agricultural data while protecting producers’ privacy and security. While they are not legally binding and rely on self-regulation, these codes are building awareness around the importance of transparency in agricultural data flows, changing the way agribusiness views data and making data producers (primarily farmers) more aware of their rights.

Although these farm data codes are a promising first step, more needs to be done to ensure that farmers benefit from data sharing. One key issue is that the existing codes do not have farmers or Farmers’ Organizations (let alone smallholder farmers) as their primary target audience, but rather the agribusinesses and ag tech companies that work with farmers and use their data. The codes are thus an instrument for these companies to ensure data sharing by gaining the trust of farmers through transparent documentation of good practices. Moving forward, a customizable code of conduct that provides basic and general guidelines based on farmers’ needs and interests will be critical.

Including farmers in the code of conduct decision process offers several benefits. For one, it will help farmers become more aware of the value of data sharing. Agribusinesses will gain farmers’ trust, as farmers can be sure of their benefits, knowing they have been equally engaged in the development of these guidelines and principles. Farmers’ associations could play a key role by representing farmers and negotiating the code based on their interests. From the farmers’ perspective, the main elements that should be included within the codes of conduct concern:

  • Data ownership
  • Terms and definitions
  • Farmer’s rights
  • Farmers’ advance notification of data collection through a clear briefing
  • Farmer’s informed consent of data collection and use, and access control
  • Clear and understandable contract
  • Contract termination
  • Disclosure, use and sale limitation
  • Liability and protection of intellectual property rights
  • Enforcement certification schemes and their effective implementation by an independent and participatory administrating entity
Agricultural codes of conduct

In this context, it is worth mentioning the recent EU Regulation on the free flow of non-personal data, and its relevance for digital agriculture. Just one year after launching the General Data Protection Regulation, the EU launched a new regulation about the control of non-personal data, which defines data on precision farming as non-personal data. This highlights the need for more analysis to achieve a clearer distinction on personal versus non-personal farm data, which would help alleviate privacy concerns going forward. Appropriately, the new regulation emphasizes the importance of self-regulation within the data economy: it encourages the development of industry-specific codes of conduct, allowing for transparent, structured and seamless sharing of data between service providers.

One advantage of industry-led self-regulation in the field of agriculture is that it ensures the involvement of experts and facilitates sustained relationships between farmers and agribusiness. By developing digital agriculture codes of conduct with inclusive participation, power imbalances and data asymmetries can be more effectively handled. Specifically, the co-creation of these codes by farmer’s associations can ensure that farmers’ perspectives become central. Additionally, farmers’ associations could play a role in making adherence to codes mandatory, for example by requiring accreditation for any agribusiness dealing with their farmers.

Ultimately, our hope is that these codes of conduct will usher in a more ethical and responsible approach to data use and management in the agricultural sector—one that is focused on farmers’ perspective and concerns, and enhances trust and transparency in an increasingly digitized world.

We hope to crowd-in some of the world’s best minds to participate in a global conversation on food and technology through the “What’s Cooking? Rethinking farm and food policy in the digital age” blog series. We invite people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives to join us and comment below.

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