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Big Data, Big Questions: The 2018 Farm Bill and the Landscape of Data Privacy, Security, and Ownership

Written by Eliza Pan, Summer 2017 intern in the Food Law and Policy Clinic.


While “farming” may still evoke pastoral images for many Americans, modern agriculture has become increasingly data-driven in the last decade. Since Monsanto’s approximately $1-billion acquisition of The Climate Corporation in 2013, ag data has generated both significant investment and debate. In 2016, investments in precision agriculture technologies totaled $405 million, even after declining 39% from the previous year.

The rise of big data in agriculture has pushed questions about data privacy, security, and ownership to the forefront of discussion among farmers, commentators, and policymakers. The proliferation of precision agriculture, which ranges from straightforward spot application of pesticides to complex GPS-driven variable application of agricultural inputs, has helped to increase yields and profits for farmers. However, alongside these benefits are serious concerns about the use of sensitive data by agriculture technology providers (ATPs), commodity traders, and even rival farmers.

In response to these growing concerns, an industry coalition led by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) devised the Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data in 2014. Thirty-seven organizations have since adopted the thirteen core principles, which govern issues ranging from data ownership to security safeguards. These core principles also form the foundation of the AFBF’s Ag Data Transparency Evaluator (ADTE), which allows ATPs to earn an “Ag Data Transparent” designation by voluntarily submitting their ag data contracts to a third-party evaluation.

The prospective role of the federal government in regulating ag data issues remains to be seen. The 2014 Farm Bill authorized the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to prioritize research into agriculture systems and technology, and NIFA has recently begun accepting research proposals related to big data. In addition to supporting research through NIFA, the USDA has the potential to provide greater oversight of ag data privacy, security, and ownership through the 2018 Farm Bill. Confronted with a myriad of murky legal questions and hurdles, ag data stakeholders will soon learn if the federal government intends to offer additional guidance or strengthen its regulations.


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