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Agricultural News From Washington

Big data conversations

By Seymour Klierly

After Target had its data systems breached, privacy concerns have hit closer to home in America. Millions of customers lost personal and financial data for while shopping in their own neighborhood, causing consumers across all the country to actively work to protect their corner of the world from abuse. With the adoption of precision agriculture technologies, row crop farmers are beginning to worry about their digital privacy, signaling that agriculture is no longer immune to big data worries.

In January, the American Farm Bureau Federation formerly adopted policy resolutions regarding data and privacy issues. After the resolutions passed President Bob Stallman stated, “Proprietary data collected from individual farms is valuable and should remain the property of the farmer. As innovation and technology using this data expands to provide farmers new management tools, protecting the privacy of this data is paramount. Farm Bureau will continue to work to ensure that a farmer’s data, whether related to seed or other crop inputs, the production system used, and both business and personal information, is extended the highest degree of protection.”

True to their word, AFBF recently led a discussion with agriculture groups, seed companies and equipment manufacturers in Kansas City. At this stage, identifying a vulnerability or problem is the easiest step, but finding common ground and solutions will take more work. After this first private meeting, AFBF and other participants committed to push the whole industry to meet and discuss the range of issues before they become major obstacles to producers and agriculture companies.

“There were a lot of questions answered and a lot more questions asked,” said Martin Barbre, president of the National Corn Growers Association. “We’re going to continue this dialogue and hopefully have more definitive answers in the future.”

Just as the technology for precision agriculture and the associated data it has created has evolved rather quickly, agriculture has a wary eye towards one size fits all regulations at the state or federal level. A majority of farmers and ranchers still distrust the federal government with significant data after the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released private information from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations to environmental groups without their knowledge or consent.

The concerns are starting to be picked up in Washington, D.C. “Information and data utilization is the way of the future,” Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-KS, told the Associated Press. “And just as our federal government struggles with privacy concerns through records at the NSA (National Security Agency) and various health records, so too must we maintain appropriate privacy protection of individuals from corporate entitles.”

Defining “big data” and talking about the issue publicly will either push the industry toward mutually beneficial solutions or the actions cause swing backwards towards larger concerns among producers without consensus next steps. Nevertheless, kudos to the industry for beginning to act before intervention becomes necessary. In this day and age, the debate is necessary as the data in question will not likely go away quickly or quietly.

Editor’s note: Seymour Klierly writes Washington Whispers for the Journal from inside the Beltway.

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