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Big agricultural data prompts big questions


Farmers have long been using technology to measure yields, monitor plant growth and adjust application rates for seed, fertilizer and pesticides. Those practices are accumulating massive amounts of data — referred to as “big data.”

But how will big data be managed? What information will be available to whom?

Technology frequently fits the category of “private but available for a price.” How about images of a growing crop or a livestock herd? Is that information “private to me and not available to you?”

Recently it was suggested that questions involving big data should be categorized as collecting data, sharing or transferring data, and using data. The general question appears to be “who can do what” with respect to agriculture’s big data. Who can collect data, who can transfer it to whom and who can use it?

The answers aren’t clear. Some university professors suggest that federal laws — trademark, patent and copyright laws, for example — don’t fully address questions arising from the emergence of agricultural big data. They suggest that perhaps state trade-secret laws could be applied. They also say that property owners enter into agreements or contracts with others before the information is shared by its owners.

Another recent suggestion has been that state law — or perhaps federal law — be enacted limiting how often imagery data may be collected, shared and used. But how would such limitations be enforced? Images have been taken from space for decades. The images weren’t a concern in the past but are drawing more concern now that technology is providing extremely detailed images and more entities can afford to acquire the data.

Various concerns have been voiced as to why big data must be controlled. One concern is that those with access to the data and information can have an advantage in the market over those who don’t have it. One characteristic of perfect competition is full and free information. Without it, negotiating power will be out of balance.

Contractually controlling information is one approach and regulatory control is another. Is the more realistic approach to do whatever is possible to assure everyone has access to the data?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service has collected and published data for decades. Likewise the USDA’s Economic Research Service has long analyzed that data and published results. The information helps everyone in agriculture understand the state of the industry.

But concerns have been expressed that for the past several decades, less information is available to the public, including producers. To counter that trend, there have been efforts to maintain transparency in agricultural-commodities sectors.

 Is a third alternative for agricultural big data to have government do its best to collect and publish the data? Note that this suggestion doesn’t mention that government “analyze” the data. Perhaps data analysis can be, or possibly should be, left for private entrepreneurs to develop services that are of value to others.

But big data is no longer a national issue — it’s a global matter.

A satellite that can provide a detailed scan of a North Dakota field can just as easily scan a field in France.

A Brazilian firm that hires the service of a private satellite firm to scan Brazilian fields can just as easily pay to have U.S. fields scanned. USDA public information can be retrieved just as easily by a Kazakhstan livestock producer as a North Dakota rancher. The information is public on a global scale.

Does the U.S. taxpayer pay the full bill for global data that the USDA makes available to the world? Do countries need to negotiate an agreement to share the cost of gathering global public agricultural information?

Perhaps such negotiations already are occurring and I’m unaware of such discussions.

The information age is upon us.

We’ve been in the computer age for nearly 35 years, but computers are just tools, no different than a tractor. How we use computer technology to gather, analyze and use information is no longer a question for the future — it’s here today.

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