EU agri-food operators sign milestone data sharing deal

Pesonen: "Some of these data may be considered to be personal data, sensitive data or be seen as confidential information from the point of view of agro-businesses providing services and equipment for farm activities." [Shutterstock]

In a bid to speed up the exploitation of new technologies in EU farming, a coalition of associations from the EU agri-food chain signed on 23 April a joint EU Code of Conduct on sharing of agricultural data.

The objective of this voluntary initiative is to create a framework of cooperation among agri-food chain operators to make the best use of much-needed data in a constantly digitising farming sector.

The European Commission’s communication on the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) post-2020 has made it clear that precision farming will play a key role, particularly in addressing  climate change issues accurately.

In a recent interview with EURACTIV.com, EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan stressed that farmers should take advantage of recent technological breakthroughs.

“We want to make it easier for investment in innovation and research into new technologies that can save time and money for farmers in the field, from machines that can test whether grapes are ripe to automatic harvesters and sensors that can precisely regulate doses of water or any other inputs,” he said.

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But in order for farmers to take advantage of new technologies, they need data, and this data has to be analysed. However, the ownership of this data, as well as the privacy risks it entails, has sparked an intense debate in Brussels.

The EU executive has repeatedly stated that data ownership and access should in no way weaken farmers’ competitiveness.

Stakeholders stressed that with this initiative, agri-food operators are trying to build trust between each other.

“I welcome the EU Code of conduct on agricultural data sharing initiated by the stakeholders of the agro-food sector. As Europe is moving towards a more modern and more sustainable CAP, technological solutions will be more important than ever, giving precision agriculture and data-driven solutions a crucial role to play,” said Hogan at a conference organised by EU farmers’ Union (Copa-Cogeca).

Hogan warned, though, that data sharing could be very controversial “if not handled properly”.

“We need to protect farmers in regard to the data they generate and make sure everybody participate; not only the big companies.”

Data can be collected for example via drones, robots, meteorological stations or satellite technology.

The agricultural data collected includes livestock and fish data, land and agronomic, climate, machine, financial and compliance data.

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The data originator

Nine organisations and associations signed the EU Code of Conduct on Agricultural Data Sharing by Contractual Arrangement (Copa and Cogeca, CEMA, Fertilizers Europe, CEETTAR, CEJA, ECPA, EFFAB, FEFAC and ESA).

According to Garlich von Essen, the European Seeds Association (ESA) Secretary-General, the deal is not final and further adjustments will be gradually made.

The Code recognises the need to grant the data originator (i.e. the one who has created and/or collected the data), a leading role in controlling the access to and use of data from their business and to benefit from sharing the data with any partner that wishes to use it.

The guidelines also underline that the right to determine who can access and use the data is attributed to the data originator.

In practice, this means that, for instance, the rights on data produced on the farm or during farming operations is attributed to the farmer and may be used extensively by him.

“The contract should acknowledge the right of all parties to protect sensitive information (eg IP) via restrictions on further use or processing,” the deal reads.

In addition, the deal provides that contracts cannot be amended without the prior consent of the data originator.

“If data is to be sold or shared with a third party that is not initially mentioned in the contract, the data originator must be able to agree on or refuse this, without financial or other repercussions,” it states.

However, it’s unclear to how individual farmers, especially smallholders who have low bargaining power, will be able to face down big agri-food businesses.

This is the main argument of environmental NGOs, which oppose big agri-food mergers claiming they will hold smallholders “hostages” and leave them without a choice when it comes to data sharing.

Fair and transparent rules

“If we want to ensure agricultural products go from the farm to the fork, we need to make sure to develop digital skills at all level”, said Jérome Bandny, Secretary-General of the European Agricultural Machinery (CEMA)

Similarly, Pekka Pesonen, Secretary General of Copa Cogeca, noted that in order to fully reap the benefits of digital farming, “sharing data between different partners in the agro-food chain must be conducted in a fair and transparent way”.

“This is because it raises a wide range of questions: privacy, data protection, intellectual property, data attribution (also knows as ownership), trust, storage, conservation, usability, and security. This is why the initiative aims to set transparent principles, clarifying responsibilities and creating trust among partners”, he added.

According to Pesonen, agricultural data are of high economic importance for both farmers and the entire value chain and it is essential that the necessary safeguards are built in.

“Some of these data may be considered to be personal data, sensitive data or be seen as confidential information from the point of view of agro-businesses providing services and equipment for farm activities”, he emphasised.

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