Ensuring data sovereignty ‘major challenge’ for European farmers

Data protection and governance, data sovereignty and data democracy have now become crucial issues in the agricultural sector. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

The virtues of digital farming have been extolled by many, including the European Commission and industry voices. But digital farming carries concerns which require careful consideration, as a recent situation in the US demonstrates. 

Most recently, digital farming has been championed in leaked documents obtained by EURACTIV, including the European Commission’s data strategy draft and Farm to Fork strategy draft.

Both drafts promote data collection and sharing for EU farming to enhance its sustainability performance and competitiveness. 

The leaked Farm to Fork strategy specifies the development of a “Farm Sustainability Data Network” which it says will allow primary producers to monitor “not only their economic results but also their environmental and climate performance” while facilitating “advice on future-orientated farming options”.

The data strategy aims to create a common agricultural data space.

Double-edged sword

However, the farming sector has started to raise concerns about data ownership, privacy and producers’ rights, but also about who can use, access and analyse their data, indicating that transparent and clear data protection regulation is becoming an increasingly prominent issue. 

An intense social media backlash over data privacy concerns in the US has recently led to the termination of a partnership between Climate Fieldview, a Bayer-owned platform which monitors agricultural data, and Tillable, a company designed to maximise rental agreements between farmers and landowners, after farmers complained that sharing of sensitive data between the two companies led to an increase in rental prices for farmers.

Mike Stern, CEO of Climate Fieldview,  said in a statement that “no data sharing has been enabled with Tillable,” emphasising that customers have “full control over who they share their data with, including third-party FieldView platform partners” 

Philipp-Andreas Schmidt, global digital farming policy and public affairs at Bayer, told EURACTIV that they “do not [and will not] sell customer’s personal information or customer farm data” and that “Bayer’s/The Climate Corporation’s data policy for digital farming in Europe reflects these same guiding principles.”

However, despite these reassurances, the partnership was discontinued, demonstrating that data protection and governance, data sovereignty and data democracy have now become crucial issues in the agricultural sector.

EU auditors, not just lawmakers, recognise the potential of digital farming tools

Although greeted with scepticism at the beginning, precision farming is gaining more and more relevance among farmers and lawmakers. Even EU auditors now extoll the high value of the information provided by digital tools in agriculture.

Digital farming builds on developments in farming technologies, including sensors and satellites, robotics, drones and automation. The use of such technologies is often termed ‘precision farming’, upon which many farms increasingly rely. 

Digital farming depends on the mass collection of farming data, which is then used in innovative ways to create more efficient use of resources or labour, or new applications, value or products. 

CEMA, the industry body for the agriculture machinery sector, defines digital farming as “going beyond the mere presence and availability of data to create actionable intelligence and meaningful added value from such data”.

Digital innovation also creates new risks for farmers

Although the European Commission and machine manufacturers sing the praises of digitalisation in agriculture, others point to the risk of creating new dependencies for farmers on multinationals. EURACTIV France reports.

This was recognised by a 2017 European Parliament report on the social, ethical and legal implications of digital farming, which highlights that misuse of farm data may lead to “anti-competitive practices, including price discrimination and speculations in commodity markets that may affect food security”. 

They also highlight that “information related to yields and performance contained in this data can hold incredible value and could provide a market advantage to seed and fertiliser companies.”

Data sovereignty ‘must be ensured’

A report from Friends of the Earth, published in February 2020, stated that there is currently no national or EU legal framework “to control the use of data collected and assessed by agribusiness companies or others.” 

The report highlights that “Europe, like most other regions, is on the verge of allowing centralisation and concentration of data at an unprecedented scale, with the absence of any regulation.”

“The lack of substantial public debate and political intervention will leave the technology in the hands of a few global corporations who will be able to collect, analyse, and monetise the data however they like, whilst consolidating their dominance in the farm sector and food chain.”

“Without intervention, those who control the data will end up controlling our food, farmers and countryside,” the report concludes, saying that “data sovereignty of all farmers must be ensured”.

Agriculture expert: Like organic, transition to digital farming needs support

Changing farming practices is always risky and if we want EU farmers to enter the digital era, we need to support them financially for a certain transition period, as has been the case with switching to organic farming, agriculture expert Luc Vernet told EURACTIV.

Daniel Azevedo, director of farmers association COPA-COGECA,  told EURACTIV that for Europe to continue to be a global leader of providing high-quality produce in a sustainable manner, “all EU policies need to align their efforts towards creating the baseline for the access and uptake of innovative, and cutting edge and safe technologies by farmers and the agri-food chain.”

Although he highlighted that digital farming could lead to an “innovative, dynamic and modern profession”, he also voiced concern over data sharing.

“Sharing data between different partners in the agro-food chain must be conducted in a fair and transparent way,” he said.

This led to a coalition of associations from the EU agrifood chain creating an EU voluntary code of conduct on data sharing, which aims to set transparent principles, clarifying responsibilities and creating trust among partners.

It sets out key guidelines for operators to follow, compatible with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

However, Azevedo stressed COPA-COGECA’s view that “should the volunteer approach not deliver, we will have no problem to look into regulatory solutions.”

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Samuel Stolton]

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