Codes of conduct: providing an ethical approach to big data in agriculture

Opinion

 
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Smart farming contributes to exponential income growth, enhanced decision making, better services and products, as well as greater agricultural efficiency, productivity and profitability. However, it is well known that whoever controls farm data has the power and means to create the most relevant agricultural services and products, which in turn also capture insights for the development of more lucrative innovations.

Nowadays, numerous agricultural technology providers are entering the market, focusing on aggregating farmers’ data. But many farmers, especially smallholders, do not benefit from the sharing and exchange of this data, which leaves them feeling disempowered. There are two key challenges that need to be overcome for smallholders to truly benefit: first, they need to be provided with better access to relevant data and services; second, they need greater awareness on the topic of personal data to ensure that any information they share does not weaken their position.

An issue of trust

While laws and regulations that govern personal data (such as The European General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR) are becoming increasingly common, there is a lack of legislation covering the collection, sharing and use of data in agriculture. A lack of transparency around issues of data ownership, better control of access to and use of data, data rights, privacy, security and whether farm data should be considered ‘personal’ or not, are some of the data challenges faced by all agricultural stakeholders, but farmers in particular. Moreover, data transactions are currently governed by contracts and licensing agreements, but the terms of these contracts and agreements are complex, which leaves smallholder farmers with very little negotiating power and it is obvious that a lack of trust dominates these relationships.

Up until now, ethical considerations were often side-lined because gathering more data was seen as necessary, and concerns about how data might be abused or misused were only subsequently considered. However, with the increase of big data in smart farming, it is more essential than ever to focus on the ethical aspects of data governance (access, control, consent) and practices. This will provide valuable insights into how data is being collected and used, and for what purposes, how to bridge the digital divide, and how to create transparency in order to build trust between stakeholders.

Code of ethics

To ensure that the benefits of the digital revolution in agriculture reach everyone involved, especially farmers, there is a need to identify sustainable ways to support data sharing among various stakeholders. Codes of conduct, voluntary guidelines, and principles on how to transparently govern farm data constitute an important first step to put the above mentioned issues into an ethical framework and engage all stakeholders involved and mostly farmers

So far, worldwide, there are three main codes of conduct that have been developed around the use of agriculture data: The US American Farm Bureau Federations’ Privacy and Security Principles for Farm Data, the New Zealand Farm Data Code and the EU Code of conduct on agricultural data sharing by contractual agreement. These codes cover central issues, such as terminology, data ownership, data rights (including right to access, data portability, and the right to erasure/right to be forgotten), privacy issues, security, consent, disclosure and transparency. In addition, they attempt to harness the benefits of ag-data while protecting producers’ privacy and security. Even though they are not legally binding, (they are a form of self-regulation that relies on the goodwill and social responsibility of industry and agribusinesses), these codes help build awareness around the importance of transparency in agricultural data flows, they change the way agribusinesses view data, and make data producers – primarily farmers – more aware of their rights.

An interesting point about the existing codes is that they primarily target agribusinesses and ag-tech companies that work with farmers and use their data, as opposed to the farmers themselves. The codes are an instrument for these organisations to gain the trust of farmers by ensuring their data is shared through transparent documentation and good practices. Moving forward, a customisable code of conduct that provides basic and general guidelines for farmers based on their needs and interests will be critical. Farmers’ associations could also help to play a key role by representing farmers and negotiating the code based on their interests.

Understanding the importance of the socio-ethical considerations regarding smart farming, and trying to balance the costs of the introduction of the technology versus the expected benefits for farmers, GODAN, in collaboration with CTA launched a working group (WG) on codes of conduct in February 2019. The WG’s goal is to empower farmers and raise awareness about their rights within the data value chain, promote dialogue between all actors involved in agricultural data sharing, and enhance the role of farmers’ associations in setting codes of conduct.

The first WG 2-day workshop was organised by GODAN, CTA and Association for Technology and Structures in Agriculture (KTBL) in July 2019 in order to provide a more practical approach on codes of conduct. Lawyers, farmer group representatives, policymakers, researchers and data specialists from Europe, Africa and Australia participated to synthesise the ‘ideal’ code of conduct from a general perspective, whilst trying to balance, the interests of all participants involved, but actually focusing more on the farmers' perspective and needs. A report on the outcomes of the workshop will be available before the end of 2019.