As big data comes to the farm, are policy makers keeping up?

As innovative agricultural technologies speed forward, researchers are exploring gaps in existing policies or laying the groundwork for new guidelines that will affect farmers, stakeholders and the public for years to come.

“We’re on a path and farming is increasingly going to look different. It’s going to keep on getting more efficient and more things will become automated and there will be more data driving better decisions,” said Graeme Jobe from the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan.

Jobe and Jo-Anne Relf-Eckstein are part of the U of S team headed by principal investigator Peter Phillips focused on identifying the opportunities and barriers for digital technology and agriculture for Western Canada from a policy perspective.

The group is exploring what is working well, what needs to change and what doesn’t exist in agriculture policy.

It’s part of a larger national undertaking called the Creating Digital Opportunities Project, which is a five-year project made up of researchers from universities across Canada that started in 2015.

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Teams of researchers are looking into how prepared Canada’s industries are to adapting to the future while assessing opportunities, risks and barriers.

The evaluation will help determine what policy changes are necessary.

“Our group’s goal within the project is to identify the most significant digital transformations that are happening in agriculture and to produce a number of papers, potentially policy briefs, that tell the story of those changes,” said Jobe.

Over the past two years, Jobe and Relf-Eckstein attended numerous trade shows, field days and producer information events across Western Canada that featured the newest technological products and services.

They interviewed about 25 individuals, asking what they saw as limiting factors and positive aspects for digital technology in agriculture.

“We asked them about the micro: What is it that you do? What does your company do? What’s your role? If you’re someone who’s trying to help farmers adopt this technology, why are some guys not going to adopt (it)? We asked them for their comments on the macro: What do you think the future of digital technology is in agriculture and where do you see this going?” said Jobe.

Added Relf-Eckstein, “a common theme was that digital ag-tech opportunities are happening fast and in a big way. Across all 25 individuals, we saw a strong entrepreneurial space being created for agriculture leveraging digital technologies from other sectors, mostly automotive and defense.”

Smaller western Canadian companies reported they saw difficulties in securing venture capital as the biggest limitation.

“The lack of venture capital affects the ability for them to grow and become relevant. The innovation per se is already there,” said Relf-Eckstein.

“So, we’re seeing two paths. You either have to leave Canada to secure venture capital or be bought out.”

Jobe said those smaller companies have a lot of growth potential and the Canadian economy and Canadian agriculture would benefit from their successes.

One gap that is becoming a growing issue surrounds ownership of on farm data.

“That’s a policy question that I anticipate will become more and more hotly contested as more people start to realize what’s already being done with their data,” Jobe said.

Farmers are agreeing to use technologies like sensors, drones and satellite data that is taken from their farming operation and then packaged into a software product, which is then sold back to them to improve their individual efficiency.

“It’s a big deal and it’s going to continue to grow and make farming more and more efficient and really change things, but I think we have to think in the back of our minds about what else can be done with all that data there and what do these companies want to do with it, and what implications does it have for the farmer,” he said.

“If you know a lot about someone’s farming operation, could you then low-ball them when you’re buying grain from them (for example) … I wonder if someday we can sell this data?

He said no evidence has emerged that this kind of thing is happening, but it’s an example of things that future agriculture policy needs to anticipate and prepare for.

Companies like Google, Amazon and Facebook can now target individual consumers based on their internet searches, a practice that is expected to increase throughout all areas of retail.

Glacier FarmMedia’s Innovation Readiness Survey explored farmer perceptions of data, sensors, autonomous vehicles and telematics.

It determined that farmers see potential benefits in these four digital technologies, but are in no rush to adopt them because the barriers currently outweigh potential benefits.

Budget constraints are the main impediment to adoption, as well as lack of understanding and product support after purchase.

The study reported that in the short-term most farmers believe they will not get the return on investment necessary to make the technology worthwhile.

However, 10 percent of farmers are fully using data technology now, 20 percent are actively testing and 30 percent said they will be ready in two years.

Jobe and Relf-Eckstein said questions of ownership over the information gathered by these new technologies become important because storing vast quantities of information can have implications for many things.

“Does the farmer enter into the contract that they sign when they use the equipment? Do they say in that contract this company can do whatever they want with the data collected off my farm? Does government have to step in and legislate some kind of protection for farmers that would give them greater protection over that data?” Jobe said.

An example that cited the limitations of a farmer’s ownership of data involved a court case in the United States where collected data from a crop sprayer was subpoenaed and resulted in a conviction.

While in transport, a nozzle leaked a chemical into a ditch on public land. Regulators had no proof but were successful in petitioning for the sprayer’s data, which recorded tank volumes and when the nozzle was on or off.

Based on the available data, Jobe said the court came down with a guilty verdict.

“So that’s another big public policy question. If you’re collecting that data, should it be available? Should it be petitionable in court if there’s some kind of accusation or suspicion of wrongdoing?” he said.

There is currently no policy in Canada in response to ag-specific situations like this, he said.

“I’m sure there’s some privacy legislation that might apply to this, but I’m not sure how.

“Then there’s the terms in the contracts that are signed by farmers and those would probably come under some consumer protection legislation, but I don’t think that has any bearing on our concerns based on the situations I’ve described,” he said.

Before agriculture policies can be shaped, Jobe and Relf-Eckstein said misperceptions regarding agricultural technologies in Western Canada must be overcome.

“In the East, I would say there’s definitely a perception that the agriculture industry in Western Canada isn’t technologically advanced when, in fact, it very much is and has been for a long time,” said Jobe.

Added Relf-Eckstein: “We have to make a really strong case to grab the attention (of policy makers) and it helps because we’ve had some (positive) economic reports out since this project started that really support Ottawa looking at Western Canada.”

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