By: Savannah McKinnon
Roughly 29% of farmers in the United States have no internet access. Older farmers and ranchers, especially, rely on experience to determine the amount of fertilizer or water necessary to sustain the year’s harvest. As a result, precision farming, a digital method which uses a database for farmers to gather historical data and utilize that data to make management decisions, has received slow adoption rates. On top of these slow rates, the FBI released a memo in 2016 claiming that farmers adopting precision agriculture tools were at risk of their digitalized data being held for ransom by “hacktivists” coming after GMOs. While precision agriculture could enable a more resilient food system, it must reshape its platform to appease farmers slow to adopt new technology.
History of Precision Agriculture
Precision agriculture started in the 1960s when farmers would collect or log their data, then make decisions based on that data. By 1990, GPS technology was available for farmers to store information, such as planting field position. Precision farming data allows for farmers to make informed management decisions that permeate farm marketing, production, and growth. However, with farm data storage comes data privacy concerns.
On top of “hacktivists” attempting to hack John Deere or Monsanto precision agriculture systems, third party issues may arise when the farmers utilize contracts. Confidentiality agreements may privatize data, but most contracts offer no guarantee this data is free from John Deere or Monsanto sharing it with third parties. The Personal Information Protection Electronics Document Act of 2000 was meant to address data privacy pertaining to farmers by preventing the exposure of private data in commercial activity. The Act also consists of ten privacy principles, but larger agribusinesses are bypassing the act through enacting complicated contracts. These agribusinesses have an incentive to bypass privacy laws to enable them to utilize farmer data to develop new technologies and perpetuate market manipulation tactics. Specifically, Monsanto production contracts with farmers have terms allowing Monsanto to keep farmer data even after the contract duration ends. Farmers essentially pay for precision agriculture services while getting no monetary benefit from agribusinesses using their data.
Usefulness of Precision Agriculture
Nevertheless, precision agriculture data is vital for the efficiency and profitability of farmers. Precision farming systems use yield mapping to help develop maximize harvest yields; a geographic information system and global position system, available in all newer John Deere tractors, collect geo-spatial information to record data in fields; variable rate technology allow farmers to record and apply different rates of fertilizer in various locations on a farmer’s property. This kind of valuable information supplies farmers with data to maximize efficiency on their farms, sustainability, and profitability. Further, precision agriculture data is also collected through drones, smart irrigations systems, robotics and artificial intelligence. Essentially, financial technologies are now used to democratize the agricultural market, allowing farming to become more accessible if precision agriculture were widespread. These technologies, when implemented properly have numerous benefits, including producing healthier foods at a lower cost, making cheap produce more accessible for low-income households, and decreasing topsoil erosion.
Today, over 70% of North American farmers use precision agriculture, but less than half use sufficient software necessary to analyze it. This is partially because farmers fear a lack of autonomy over their data, and farmers are generally slow to adopt new technology.
To resolve data autonomy challenges, advocates for farmer data privacy have requested Congress to consider data privacy legislation similar to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). This would provide federal protections for precision agriculture through enacting field data policy safeguards on business associates and others with access to farmer data. It is essential for any policy protecting precision agriculture to designate an individual to oversee a corporation’s compliance to data privacy principles. While this sort of data privacy protection approach has floated around Congress, no formal solution has been prioritized.
However, Congress did prioritize the Precision Agriculture Connectivity Act of 2018 aimed to increase internet access among farms to improve access to precision agriculture technologies. Though, the task force enabled by the Act is merely performative at this time, signaling further action necessary to protect farmers’ data.
Precision agriculture is a necessary investment for farmers to help conserve soil and water. However, the lack of strong policy and oversight protecting data needs to be addressed by Congress. With a guarantee of data protection, farmers could open up to the idea of adopting this new technology; a technology that would solve a whole host of problems on farms by increasing efficiency and promoting multi-crop farming.