agriculture big data

Agriculture Tests the Ground for Data Provisioning Policies & Politics

Big data offers bountiful rewards for farmers, but concerns over data provisioning have led to strictly defined sharing models that could become the norm.

In the 21st century, the common tools of agriculture retain their outward familiarity while being fundamentally transformed within. The image of a farmer and a tractor remains constant, but that tractor largely drives itself now, as the farmer monitors an array of computer screens inside the cab.

Changes like these indicate the sweeping evolution of agriculture, sprouting from the multitudinous seeds of Internet technology, sensors, big data architecture and the computer systems that bring it all together. Many experts hold out the hope that data-driven techniques could help feed the Earth’s growing population, predicted to be 9 billion strong by 2050.

While these developments are certainly coming to fruition, many farmers are still reluctant and even anxious to hitch their wagons to what is being pitched to them as the inevitable future. Paramount to their concerns is not the unfamiliarity of the technology, but rather who could be on the receiving end of the terabytes of data being picked from their farms and sent into the Cloud.

The Promise of Big Data and Precision Farming

Big data and the precision farming it enables offer tangible, bountiful benefits to farmers, consumers and the environment alike. One 2012 survey of soybean farmers found that investing in data-driven farming could bring a quick, measurable return on investment, saving them 15% on pricey crop inputs like seeds, fertilizer and chemicals while paying back the capital costs within as little as a year. Other research indicated that farmers who invested in just one type of precision farming could increase yields by 16% while cutting total water consumption by 50%.

Precision farming is so precise, in fact, that it can decipher that different sections of a field might call for different hybrid seed. Scott Shearer, an Ohio State University professor and chair of the school’s Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, likens the technology to offering a “prescription” for the perfect mix of hybrid seed, soil conditions and input.

Farming Data Ownership: Who Reaps What They Sow?

However, capabilities like these have even more massive potential when farmers are willing to collaborate and share data with one another or larger, globally-based data ecosystems. This capability can yield untold insights and patterns through deep analytics, leading to breakthroughs in practices that have remained unchanged for decades. On such a scale, crop epidemics could be predicted and responded to accordingly, which would prevent food shortages or major economic losses.

From an individual farmer’s perspective, though, the risks are great. Farmer Chris Jones tells TechRepublic:

“My concern is, I’m out there trying to do the right thing with farming practices, and the GPS tracks everything, am I going to get a phone call from the EPA, asking ‘Did you know you were spraying too close to this pond,’ or ‘You’re in violation of this fertilizer limit?”

Even more jarring is the potential that a neighbor/competitor could convince a farmer’s landlord that they would be more productive with the land, or that industries like seed sellers or commodities investors could use agricultural data to manipulate prices.

Stopgaps currently in place to prevent such problems are being administered by data storage companies like the Monsanto-owned Climate Corporation. “We emphasize that farmers own the data they create,” says Brett Begemann, president of Monsanto. Climate Corp. allows its customers to use data services and share data across platforms free of charge. Farmers can also download and delete their data at their own convenience or even prevent it from being accessed by their service providers. These gateways may stand in the path of truly connected data infrastructures, but they aim to sate the fears of uncertain adopters.

Letting customers dictate how locally they want to share their data and whether they want to share it at all builds a crucial bridging point and soothes the growing pains some experience during data-based systems adoption. Retailers, restaurateurs, manufacturers and more can determine their level of contribution to the data pool while still reaping the profitable benefits that data-driven strategizing can provide.

As adoption of data-driven technologies achieves greater market penetration, data keepers must be able to offer options like these in order to assure their customers that everything is structured, under control and strictly permission-based.

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