Data governance and regulating data in agriculture

While data governance and regulation continue to become a growing concern, with discussions around how data is collected by platforms and corporations to ensure personal information isn’t misused, conversations surrounding regulating big data in agriculture remain minimal. 

In a panel hosted by the AI + Society Initiative, Dr. Kelly Bronson, Jonathan W. Y. Gray, Sarah-Louise Ruder and Jonathan Van Geuns discussed the state of data regulation in agriculture. 

Bronson, the Canada Research Chair in Science and Society and a faculty member at the University of Ottawa, opened the discussion with this central problem: Canada has no regulation specific to farm or agricultural data.

In the midst of a “agriculture revolution,” regulation of this data is important. 

Today, John Deere tractors, for example, have embedded data sensors. In fact, a report from early April by Fierce Wireless revealed that John Deere tractors collect billions of measurements that describe soil, crops and weather conditions while the machines are fertilizing and harvesting. The data can consist of location, weather, consumption, energy use, prices, and uses machines, drones and satellites to monitor crops, livestock, water, and human behaviour. The data is then collected and used to make more accurate decisions.

During an event John Deere hosted in Texas, the company explained how farmers make use of their own data for near real-time decision making. The connected tractors send data over LTE to the AWS cloud, where it is processed and returned to farmers’ smartphones in 20 minutes to an hour, according to Lane Arthur, VP of data, applications and analytics in Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group.

According to Bronson, these data sets are being aggregated by companies like John Deere and are being used to drive informational advice to farmers. Farmers then pay for data-specific advice on how to farm. The whole operation is designed to advance farming, to make it more precise and productive 

But during the panel, Bronson revealed that there can be problems misusing data, even in farming context. Agricultural technology companies are extremely focused on harnessing data from farmers as they supply digital products to them and as a result, control the flow of data.

To help explain the type of laws surrounding data in Canada, Sarah-Louise Ruder, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability, introduced two government policies in place in the country. 

The Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) and The Privacy Act both pertain to the protection of personal information such as race, age, ethnicity, marital status, and organizational data. Within these two acts, there are no rules regarding agricultural, or if there are, the policies are extremely minimal, Ruder explained during the panel. There are no agricultural-specific laws for data governance and privacy.

When it comes to apps that collect this data, Ruder said that farmers only own some of the of their data, not all, even if the apps claim that they have ownership over all of it. For example, the AG Experts data use policy notes that farmers only own their data until it’s aggregated. This policy goes for several apps. 

There are currently no sector specific laws for agricultural data governance in the country. 

“I view this as a problem,” Ruder said. 

The panel also included a presentation put together by Jonathan Van Guens, who has worked on seminal research and the design of data governance frameworks for UNICEF, the United States Agency for International Development, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Mozilla Foundation, and the City of Montreal. Van Guens’ research highlights points from a report titled Farmer-Centric data governance: Towards a New Paradigm.

The report laid out the concerns, saying that while the use of farming data holds much potential to strengthen the agriculture sector, farmer capacity and data governance challenges raise the possibility that farmers will not benefit economically from their own data.

The report offers recommendations to help to change the trajectory of data governance in the agricultural tech sector.

Here’s a recap of the suggestions:

  • User-centric data governance models should be integrated into digital agriculture programs, given their immense potential to shift the current paradigms of information imbalances to benefit farmers, communities, and societies.
  • Companies and organizations that work with farmer data need to create a trusting relationship with farmers throughout the data lifecycle.
  • Farmer-centric data governance approaches must pursue more consistent, higher quality data sharing, interoperability, and defragmentation of data.
  • Meaningful participation must strongly tie farmers to data governance

The panel closed off with a statement adding, “the status quo is insufficient for protecting the rights and interests of farmers and farm workers. Canada needs an agriculture-specific approach to data governance in the food system.”

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Samira Balsara
Samira Balsara
Samira is a writer for IT World Canada. She is currently pursuing a journalism degree at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly known as Ryerson) and hopes to become a news anchor or write journalistic profiles. You can email her at [email protected]

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