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Big Data puts farmers on alert


Picture by Billy Hathorn

A new article, published in Rural21 - the International Journal for Rural Development, deals with new data information systems introduced by seed companies Monsanto and DuPont in the USA. Author Mike Gardner indicates that American farmers are on alert due to new data services. It is not just that the new technology collects and stores information from farmers, but it also uploads data to seed providers. Seed giants like Monsanto can use these data for analyzing and optimizing their planting. However, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation this may lead to inter alia increasing competition between farmers and higher seed prices, as well as greater benefits for seed companies.

May 5, 2014 ǀ Rural21

Big Data puts farmers on alert

Read the full article in Rural21 here.

Article written by Mike Gardner, Journalist, Bonn.

Big data could have a profound impact on farming in the USA and elsewhere. Major agribusiness corporations met with a US farming trade group to discuss the issue in mid-April.

The American Farm Bureau Federation, a US farming trade group, met with major agribusiness firms in mid-April 2014 to discuss the implications of big data for agriculture. The talks had been prompted by concern among farmers in the USA about new data services introduced by seed giants Monsanto and DuPont.
The new systems gather information from farmers on aspects like crop yield to choose appropriate seeds, the right amounts of seed, and how densely rows should be planted and at what depth. The new information is then stored in the cloud. Monsanto’s FieldScript, which uses this “prescriptive planting” concept, has already been launched in four US states.

Farming equipment collecting individual farmers’ information for their personal use has been on the market since the 1990s. What is new about the latest technology is that it uploads the data to the seed providers. Companies like Monsanto can then analyse the data and use it to optimise planting. The results can subsequently be fed straight into the tractor cab.

While Monsanto hail the new development a great step forward, maintaining that e.g. corn crop yields could rise by five to ten bushels per acre (300–600 kg/ha), farmers have responded with caution. They say that sharing data in this manner could increase competition and lead to higher seed prices. The American Farm Bureau Federation argues that the major seed providers will benefit from more densely planted fields and higher crop returns, since this will in turn enable them to sell more seed.

Farm machinery manufacturers John Deere have developed precision farming equipment that enables tractors and combine harvesters to automatically transmit data from individual farms to corporate data bases. Whereas so far, it has been up to the farmer to transfer data from a computer to an agronomist to have it analysed, new smart devices can send the data straight to company servers, without the farmer even necessarily being aware of this. “When I start storing up information on the Internet, I lose control of it,” says former South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Walt Bones.

Farmers tend to regard their field data as trade secrets. Access by others to items like soil fertility or crop yields can put a farmer at a competitive disadvantage. Moreover, given that such information has a value, it ought to warrant compensation, many farmers argue. “The discussion isn’t compensation per se but its value,” said Bob Stallman, President of the American Farm Bureau Federation, at the April meeting. “What do these new systems create in terms of value, and how is that value shared, and who benefits from that value?”

According to DuPont, farmers continue to own the data they have collected and transmitted. John Deere say that not only does data remain property of the farmers, but that they can also opt out of the company’s cloud services. And at the meeting with the American Farm Bureau Federation, Monsanto ensured that any information from farmers belonged to individual growers and would not be shared with third parties. Also, farmers could delete their data at any time.

Last October, Monsanto bought the Climate Corporation to enhance their services for farmers at a cost of one billion dollars. The Climate Corporation was founded by software engineers and data scientists from Google and other high-tech companies in 2006. Its technology platform combines hyperlocal weather-monitoring with agronomic data modelling and high-resolution weather simulations to provide information for farmers such as recommending to plant a few days earlier or changing irrigation schedules. Monsanto have estimated their new services to be worth 20 billion dollars.

However, some open-source groups are offering farmers information services, too. One project based at Purdue University, Indiana, teaches farmers how to capture and store their own data. A private company in Michigan sells software and data analytics for farmers who remain completely in control of the data gathered.

Source: Rural21.

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