Opinion: Big Ag coming up short on data ethics

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Dave Dickey

When it comes to protecting sensitive farmer crop data, farm equipment and software makers —including DuPont, Monsanto’s The Climate Corporation, Dow AgroSciences LLC, Syngenta, and John Deere — have thus far have certainly talked the talked but haven’t been as successful in walking the walk.

Farmers are up in arms because, increasingly, Big Ag is including data collection software in farm equipment and farmer management applications.

There is a strong sense of mistrust and concern among the nation’s farmers about losing control of data housed in cloud based platforms.

And it’s not without merit.

There are no, none, zero, zippo laws on the federal books addressing farmer privacy and security concerns regarding ag data collection.

In November 2014, the aforementioned Big Ag companies reached a well-publicized agreement with the American Farm Bureau Federation as well as other grower groups, volunteering to implement a set of core principles into their contracts with farmers including not to sell crop data without farmer’s consent.

The agreement also allows Big Ag companies to qualify for the AFBF Ag Data Transparent seal of approval.

The seal is awarded to those Big Ag companies who pass muster from a third-party administrator that evaluates answers to a set of core questions including issues such as transparency, portability, choice, collection, access and control.

A third-party administration evaluates answers to a set of questions and awards use of the Ag Data Transparent seal upon approval.

Unfortunately to date – almost two years after the much-publicized announcement at the 2014 Commodity Classic – only nine agricultural companies have earned the Ag Data Transparent seal of approval.

Growmark was the first and perhaps best known ag company thus far earning certification.

The rest of U.S. major ag players haven’t bothered to follow through.  In March AFBF tried to jump start the program by partnering with like-minded groups and individuals to create a not-for-profit Ag Data Transparency Evaluator Inc. along with an easy-peasyizzy website to apply for the seal.

But Big Ag ain’t playing.

In July, Todd Janzen, administrator of the Ag Data Transparent website testified before the U.S. House Ag Subcommittee on General Farm Commodities and Risk Management.

Janzen testified there are a few reasons the seal of approval hasn’t taken off:

“One is a lack of trust among farmers and these ag tech providers … second is a loss of control to these companies and third is the complex legal agreements [farmers] are being asked to sign.

But for now, he added, “these are issues that the private sector can tackle.”

Translation: We don’t need Congress poking around into the issue of Big Ag data collection anytime soon.

Well I say it’s already clear that most of Big Ag would rather get a colostomy then a Ag Data Transparent Seal of Approval.

It’s appalling that farmers don’t have any judicial recourse should they believe their privacy has been invaded.   At a minimum, Congress needs to plug the leak in existing privacy law.

About Dave Dickey

Dickey spent nearly 30 years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s NPR member station WILL-AM 580 where he won a dozen Associated Press awards for his reporting. For 13 years, he directed Illinois Public Media’s agriculture programming. His weekly column for Big Ag Watch covers agriculture and related issues including politics, government, environment and labor. Email him at dave.dickey@investigatemidwest.org.

This column reflects the writer’s own opinions and not those of Big Ag Watch.

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