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Harnessing the benefits of data and farmer’s data right to advance agriculture

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Digital farming holds enormous potential for agricultural development, and giving farmers the tools to boost productivity and profitability. Although the benefits of digitalisation are numerous, farmers feel they are not the ones benefiting from the value of data collected on their farms. Ensuring that farmers understand their rights to data, and have access to relevant data, is essential to harnessing the benefits for better farm decision management.

Towards an understanding of farmers’ right to data

Sharing open agricultural data such as weather data, market price data, and agricultural inputs data offers farmers a number of potential benefits. This data can improve farmer productivity by addressing key constraints, providing knowledge and access to appropriate inputs, extension advice, weather warnings and market prices; yet smallholders often don’t have access to the data relevant to their farm management. It is important, then, that farmer data is used to add value back to the farmers.

The value and ownership of farm data continues to gain increasing traction in development thinking – this is highlighted in a recent Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) publication, Ownership of Open Data: Governance Options for Agriculture and Nutrition, outlining the rights that farmers and data aggregators have under existing legislation.

The power of data for smallholder farmers

To address these issues in more detail, CTA supported a Global Forum on Agricultural Research and Innovation (GFAR) training course and seminar that brought together 16 farmers and farmer organisation representatives, and experts in data for agriculture.

Based on the discussions held in the training course and subsequent linked webinars, a white paper was produced, which details the opportunities and challenges of data-driven agriculture for smallholder farmers. These ideas have been further developed in an e-consultation on the E-agriculture website the results of which were further validated by an expert meeting last month in Bonn.

Gaps and challenges

A number of issues were identified, in this process, as factors restricting farmers from benefiting from data-driven agriculture. From the farmers’ perspectives, there is a distinct lack of awareness of the issues surrounding data, and the complexity of these issues. This feeds into the imbalance that exists between individual farmers and larger agribusinesses – wherein the former lack sufficient resources to address and analyse the significance of data, and so cannot take advantage of the value in it.

There is also limited legislation for the generation, flow, exchange and use of data; where legislation does exist, it is not well understood by farmer organisations. From a policy perspective, moreover, there is very little guidance as to which agricultural data can be considered personal data, and therefore protected by privacy laws. It is also necessary to understand the distinction between the attribution of data ownership, and control over data use.

Future scenarios

Governments were a key target of suggestions put forward: one idea proposed the establishment of state-run repositories of farmer data-related services, which would be accessible at any time. Another idea suggested that governments and development agencies pool their resources into collecting technical knowledge, which could then be made available to researchers and practitioners. The public sector could also play a more active role in negotiating for better services at reasonable cost, and ensuring that the necessary infrastructure to collect and maintain the data is put in place. Taking this idea further, one participant stressed the importance of comprehensive regulatory mechanisms with the capacity to enforce contract negotiations. The point of raising these scenarios was to examine where the farmer could benefit in these instances.

It was also suggested that new structures enabling the aggregation of farmers’ data could be put in place, such as data cooperatives that are able to negotiate the use and benefits of the data provided by farmers. Some ideas took a broader scope, proposing, for example, a data exchange where farmers, governments and industry all share and profit from each other’s data under an open data framework. Taken together, the ideas put forward all worked beneath a central rubric: that data be as open as possible, but as closed as necessary.

Actions

Action points to be taken forward from the recent workshop are still being formulated, but from personal observation of the discussions so far, the main areas of interest fall into the following areas:

  • There is a need for capacity development for farmers organisations and awareness raising on current laws protecting farmers of data use.
  • Access to more data that has been collected by government or research regarding the farm environment could be facilitated.
  • More mapping and research on specific data exchange is needed to understand the most advantageous arrangements for farmers.
  • Further guidance on the legal possibilities for protecting farmers’ rights is needed.

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