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As Data Meets Farm Fields, Concerns Begin to Grow

Leading the way in raising questions about data privacy is the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation’s largest farm organization.

The group organized meetings last fall with a series of companies, including Monsanto, Deere, Dow and DuPont, to discuss the privacy issues. And this month, delegates to the organization’s annual meeting approved a 13-point policy laying out how farmers’ data should be handled and protected.

Among other things, the policy states that any data collected from farmers should remain their property and that companies should return data to farmers who request it. The policy says no data should be deposited with a government agency, where it could be subject to public release under the Freedom of Information Act.

“In general, our folks obviously see the value in this [technology] and they absolutely believe that the new big data is going to provide them with a way to be more efficient,” said Mary Kay Thatcher, a lobbyist for the organization.

The Farm Bureau isn’t seeking legislation to deal with the data issue, and hasn’t even decided to seek an industry-wide policy. Farmers are just beginning to learn about the implications as they began testing various technologies, Thatcher said.

Representatives of Monsanto say farmers are asked whether the company can collect the data. But the officials stopped short of saying, for example, that Monsanto would not use the information to individually set the prices it charges for biotech seed.

“It’s so early to even speculate on something like that. We would obviously vary our pricing via a number of different means,” said spokesman Lee Quarles.

As for farmers’ concerns about market speculation, Monsanto does trade in commodities markets, but only in a limited way to protect its risk as a seed producer, the company said in an emailed statement.

“Monsanto does not use financial derivative instruments for the purpose of speculating in foreign currencies, commodities or interest rates,” the company said.

A new technology called FieldScripts that Monsanto is launching in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota this year will direct farmers’ computerized planters to insert the best variety of corn seeds, at the optimal rate, for each part of their fields, based on yield and soil fertility data that the growers have submitted. Monsanto will later use the farmers’ harvest-time data to optimize the planting prescription for the following season.

According to the FieldScripts agreement with farmers, Monsanto will have the right to continue using the data even after a grower drops out of the program. In addition, the data will be used to develop the planting prescription and aggregated with other growers’ data to improve future products, under the agreement. A separate privacy policy says the data may be shared with Monsanto business partners but not with marketers.

Marshall, the Missourian who grows corn, soybeans and wheat north of Kansas City, is one farmer who won’t be turning over his data to Monsanto or any other company any time soon.

He uses GPS equipment to guide and record his planting and harvesting, and he later analyzes the data to determine exactly how each part of his fields performed. Pesticide applications also are GPS-guided to ensure that he sprays the amount he wants in each area.

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