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Could farmer data "ownership" kill innovation?

Richard Heath - Tuesday, June 13, 2017

It is hard to discuss digital agriculture without coming across questions about who is benefiting most from the data collected. These questions are leading to a strong focus on farmers “owning” their data. Leaving aside the issues around whether you can actually own data, some of the language that is being used in this debate is running the risk of promoting a scenario that stifles innovation in digital agriculture.

Most farm businesses these days are comfortable with using private consultants, whether it be for agronomy, animal nutrition or business development. Farmers provide the consultants with information, knowledge and plans about their farm, the consultants then combine and interpret that information with their own knowledge and expertise to provide recommendations that return value to the farmer.

Engaging a private consultant is a well understood commercial transaction where the farmer is paying commensurate value for insight and advice that they do not already possess. There are also important issues of trust for this transaction to work. The farmer trusts that the consultant is not going to profit from sensitive business information they pass on and the consultant trusts that the farmer is not going to freely pass on the intellectual property that they provide. The increasing use of private consultants in agriculture suggests that by and large these trust issues are not proving to be a barrier.

The value derived from agricultural data to a farm business can be assessed in the same way that the services of a private consultant would be. Will the use of the technology or data give you insights that you don’t already have and if so, are those insights going to result in an increase in business performance that is more than the cost of the technology? A relatively simple commercial transaction. This transaction also comes with significant trust issues and unlike the use of private consultants the trust issues attached to the use of digital agriculture are proving to be problematic.

Farmers are saying that they do not trust service providers not to profit at their expense from the data they provide. And equally, service providers, particularly start-ups and smaller companies, are concerned that their investment and intellectual property is at risk of being given away without a commensurate return. The second part of that equation may surprise some, however, this is the perhaps unintended consequence of the push for farmers to own their own data so they can determine who extracts value.

For data to have value it must be transformed. Raw data is just a series of ones and zeroes that is of negligible value to anyone. Transforming those ones and zeroes into something of value, whether it be a yield map, objective carcass information or forecasts about soil water status takes significant investment in both technology and knowledge. It must be stored, curated, analysed, combined with other data and delivered into digital solutions to create value. In the process, the original farmer’s data is transformed so that it is no longer recognisable from its original form. If farmers demand transformed data is given away freely, whoever is receiving the data is also receiving the intellectual property that has gone into how

the data has been transformed. This would chock innovation as no AgTech business could ever raise investment into a product that they have to give away.

The desire of farmers to ensure that they capture some of the benefits of transformation of farm data is completely reasonable. It is unfortunate that this desire is being translated into the overly simplistic “farmers must own their data” mantra. The return that farmers gain from making their data available for transformation must be commensurate with its value when combined with the IP and data of others. The discussion about data transactions must mature so that commercial agreements that benefit both the farmer and the service provider evolve. Without this, the risk of suppressing innovation is real. 
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