The ongoing transformation of agriculture to E-agriculture, which uses data, information and ICTs (Information and Communications Technologies) much more intensely in farming, has undoubtedly brought about new opportunities for farmers. But should we not be cautious that the rights of farmers are not tread upon in this new terrain?
Many proponents of e-agriculture claim that data from their farms and farming is the new golden harvest for farmers. E-agriculture at the farm level brings a new degree of precision and, in turn, efficiency to farming by using data gathered from sensors, machinery, automated weather stations, remote sensing and photometry by drones, aircraft and satellites and that collected and collated by farmers. This data about processes carried out on farms and the information gleaned from this data can be used further for transporting, packaging, storing and marketing of all farm produce. This makes not only farming but entire agricultural market and services chains more efficient, especially in use of inputs, improving safety and quality of farm produce, preventing wastage and reducing time and human labour. E-agriculture and the more open availability of data also has the potential of creating new businesses and jobs, especially in rural and urban contiguous areas in agribusinesses, agro-services, agro-industries and those that serve agriculture such as financial services, insurance etc.
Laying claim to the data
However, the data revolution has brought about new and unique challenges to farmers, who are even more affected by this data revolution which, when it comes to use of data, is like in the Old Wild West. The first issue is, after all, whose data is it? Going by well-established social, cultural and legal norms, anything produced on a farm belongs to the owner of the land. But new technologies such as sensors in farm machinery and geo-spatial data collected for remote sensing many times bypass farmers in their flows to users. For example, data from tractors with electronic control systems linked to Geographical Information Systems can flow directly to the manufacturers, providing information on soil temperature, humidity and other soil parameters as well as crop yields during harvesting.
Similarly, seed suppliers which require farmers to agree to provide location data of where they plant the seeds can be used to identify yield and farming problems without consultations with the farmers themselves. The data to make these analyses and diagnostics can be collected through remote sensing, by drones, aircraft and satellite and processed through GIS systems, again bypassing farmers. These ICT tools can certainly benefit farmers but they also become six-shooters making farming communities vulnerable in markets for their produce and infringing their rights to privacy, property and even safety.
The second issue is compensation. Oftentimes, there are no laws, rules, regulatory mechanisms or enforcement of data as property and privacy rights for farmers. The efforts they put in and costs they incur in providing data and information for use by other users may not commercially benefit them. In most cases farmers who provide data have no clue or control over their flows and end uses after they provide. Today, European farmers who want to get subsidies under the European Common Agricultural Policy and participate in the common market have to spend a substantial amount of time and cost in installing the hardware and connectivity to provide the statutory data that entitles them to subsidies. The control in the end use of this data till now has remained hazy and undefined. Despite this fact, for two years from the date of publishing, the data is made free to be downloaded by anyone. In India, when land records were made digital and open to public, it created an environment where farmers and village communities became victims of unlawful land grabbing. Further, there are no guarantees common to other areas such as ensuring safety of person and property and privacy when such data is made publicly available and used. For example, no private commercial organization or individual is forced to reveal their assets publicly by most Governments but farmers are!
The third issue is the capacity in farmers needed to aggregate and analyse data so that they can benefit from it. In this case the situation of farmers in developing countries is the most vulnerable as they do not have the wherewithal especially money and skills to access and effectively use data. Even when relevant and useful data is available and accessible through “Smart” phones, the cost of data and its processing can be prohibitive due to costs of connectivity and necessary software: and their coveted treasure may turn out to be misleading or at worse a counterfeit.
In the beginning of this data revolution and ushering in of E-agriculture, it is typically the strategy of major seed, machinery and other input suppliers to offer elementary data and information services for free. However, their strategy is quite clear: once hooked, services to farmers will be charged, and significantly at that. By linking input such as seeds, farm machinery, fertilizers and pesticides to data and information systems and forcing farmers to sign agreements to provide data, large corporations are making farmers dependent on them to avail these inputs. Big agribusinesses aggregate this as “big data” and process it to further their own commercial interests including pricing their products. Ostensibly they do this to enable farmers to improve their farming but the agenda is always to gain more profits. Recently a major American Seed company purchased a farm data and information service organization for almost a billion dollars.
Mapping the new frontier
The exchange of data and information and the emergence of E-agriculture is a very positive development for improving the efficiency of crop production and productivity beyond just yields through better use of inputs. It can mean greater accessibility of nutritious, safe, healthy and affordable food, meeting emerging challenges to global agriculture such as climate change the spread of transboundary diseases and pests, and loss of biodiversity. Better data and information can bring more efficient agricultural value addition and market chains as also global trade in agricultural commodities and create new employment especially for youth in rural areas.
However, this development also needs new institutional frameworks at various levels from international, national to local in the form of treaties, agreements, rules, regulatory mechanisms and enforcement mechanisms. As data and information flows are parallel to commodity flows and these flows are increasingly globalised with agri-food chains spanning several countries and geographic regions, international treaties and agreements and enforcement mechanisms similar to the World Trade Organization are needed. This would establish national and farmer/producer rights to data and information and balance interests. At the national level, new institutional mechanisms will need to be legislated and implemented that enable protection of key national interests; national systems to collect, collate and process data and information to benefit farmers, agri-services and agri-business will also be needed. At the community level, as data is most valuable when aggregated, new organizations such as “data” cooperatives and trust organizations to aggregate and manage farmer’s data and information and channel commercial and for profit interests will be required. Farmers will also need to mobilise and negotiate charters and agreements themselves with the users of their data and information, so as to protect their interests.
What we need now are new Sheriffs and along with them all the paraphernalia for enforcement of rights and justice. Only then will we not see a return to a harsh, unregulated Wild West where pioneering small farmers are deprived of precious data and opportunities for their use, to better face the challenges of the new frontiers of agriculture.
Blogpost by Ajit Maru, Senior Knowledge Officer, GFAR Secretariat and Charles Plummer, Communications Officer, GFAR Secretariat
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