U.S. farm industry seeks rules on data privacy, no consensus yet

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The American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) said on Thursday it had more work to do to find consensus on a set of standards aimed at protecting farm data privacy, after meeting in Kansas City with a dozen leading U.S. agricultural industry players.

At stake is who will spearhead the drive toward a common standard for data produced on farms as the industry aims to turn information into profit and productivity, projected to be a multi-billion dollar industry in the coming years.

Over the last year, there has been a surge in the collection and analyses of farm data across the United States.

Corporate giants in agriculture, as well as small start-ups and Silicon Valley tech experts, are rolling out products and services that combine analysis of everything from the row spacing a farmer might use to plant his corn, to the soil conditions of various spots in a field, and local weather patterns.

The companies say there are big profits to be made in helping farmers increase crop production.

But with the explosion of interest in farm data have come concerns, and the AFBF, the national independent farmers' group, has been seeking input on a set of standards from a range of industry participants. Consistent rules are crucial to ensuring that the data is not misused, according to those engaged in the discussions.

Universal guidelines on data ownership and licensing would make data services contracts easier to understand. Common technical standards for data could make high-tech farm machines of different brands more inter operable, transmit critical farm data more securely, and make that data easier to analyze.

Some fear commodity markets and farmland values could be manipulated or exploited if the data winds up in the hands of traders or land brokers. Others fear that large seed and chemical companies could use the information to sell more fertilizer and seeds.

More Questions Than Answers 

Thursday's gathering, hosted by the AFBF and attended by executives from equipment maker John Deere, seed companies Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer and other farm products companies, and representatives from key U.S. crop producer groups, was the first of what could be several meetings aimed at securing industry standards on farm data.

"There were a lot of questions answered and a lot more questions asked," said Martin Barbre, president of the National Corn Growers Association and one of about 35 meeting participants. "We're going to continue this dialogue and hopefully have more definitive answers in the future."

Executives from Monsanto that attended the meeting said afterward that they saw the meeting as "valuable dialogue" that they see continuing.

"The meeting was a clear indication of the opportunities that the proper management of data holds for agriculture across the board," said Monsanto spokeswoman Christy Toedebusch.

Participants disagreed on which of several existing data security and privacy standards platforms should the template for the industry be based on. Monsanto-owned Climate Corporation helped to launch the Open Ag Data Alliance, the seed maker's preferred platform for data standards.

But John Deere has not joined that group and currently chairs the board of another standards group called AgGateway.

"We need clarity so everyone knows what the rules are," said Ron LeMay, chairman of Kansas City-based FarmLink, a farm data analyses provider. "There is a lot at stake here. There is a huge benefit by being able to muster all the information. We need to get it right."

LeMay, who served as CEO of telecom giant Sprint Corp. before entering into farm data, said that one of the issues deals with permissioning when farmers sign up for an app and agree to certain terms and conditions.

"This ultimately will be made part of the contracts between farmers and contractors," he said.

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