Big data presents opportunities, challenges for agriculture

Imagine if every combine yield monitor on the continent was wirelessly linked to a massive data storage and analysis bank, continuously uploading real time harvest results.

As the combines rolled, a detailed picture of the size of the North American crop would take shape.

This would provide a far more detailed picture of the crop than any Statistics Canada or U.S. Department of Agriculture survey.

It would be prized information for the grain industry, from grain users to handlers to railways.

Take it a step further.

This massive databank receives information right from the start of the production year. Farmers upload details about their seeded acreage and input use. The system continuously monitors weather down to the field level and knows how farmers are reacting to changing conditions by spraying for pests or top dressing with fertilizer if rain has created problems with what was applied at seeding.

This system would have a more in-depth handle on production potential through the growing season than any other organization.

This might seem a bit futuristic, but the first steps down this road have already been taken.

You may have heard of the FarmSight system from John Deere, DuPont Pioneer’s Field360 or the Climate Pro system offered by Climate Corp., which Monsanto bought last year.

They offer a potential leap forward in precision agriculture.

Subscribers provide details about their land, seeded crops and machinery, and the systems use the data and sophisticated weather information to provide recommendations on things such as the timing of fungicide or fertilizer applications.

For example, Climate Pro’s Nitrogen Advisor uses local weather data and soil moisture to track nitrogen loss through the season. It can calculate crop stress due to shortage of nitrogen and make recommendations for top-up applications.

You can see the attraction for farmers who want leading edge technology to get the most from their crops.

Adoption of the technology is better than expected in the United States.

Monsanto’s latest quarterly report said that it had hoped to sign up 20 million acres to the free basic service this year. However, 40 million acres were signed up by the end of May, and farmers representing 30 million of those acres had been active users in the previous 30 days.

It means nearly one in five acres of U.S. corn and soybeans had enrolled.

The company sees the system as the thing that links biology, technology and information. Revenue will be limited in the start-up years, but Monsanto believes there is a $20 billion market opportunity.

This presents a great advancement in precision crop management, but there are concerns about the implications of putting so much private data into the hands of huge corporations.

Information is power. The corporations that amass this data could know more about you and your neighbours than you do.

The information can be used for good, but there is always the potential for wrongdoing and manipulation.

There is the privacy issue about the information they have about your farm, but there is also an issue of the power they get from aggregating the information from many thousands of farms.

Think about grain markets. Anyone who had access to all that information would have more market power than those with less market power.

The companies say they won’t sell or share the data or use it in a market distorting way.

Several U.S. farm groups are working together to try to develop a standard in these data sharing contracts to protect farmers and allow them to know what they’re signing without wading through multiple agreements with different companies.

However, this convergence of technology — of mobile and cloud-based computing, of amassing and analyzing huge amounts of data — presents a new world full of opportunities and challenges, not just in agriculture, but across all industries.

It will require awareness and vigilance to minimize the potential for abuse.

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