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08 Feb 2023

Engineering trust in data sharing on farms

As featured in Arable Farming Magazine

Engineering trust in data sharing on farms

by Arable Farming Magazine November/December 2022 issue

Farmers must have trust in their data being used fairly if the potential benefits of digital agriculture are to be realised, says Prof Tina Barsby, of the British Farm Data Council.

Many farmers say they would be interested in getting into digital agriculture, but they dont trust people with their data.

This has been a frequent response when farmers are asked why they arent using the huge variety of data-inspired decisions available to them.

There are a multitude of digital tools available to farms, all built to aid farmers in one way or another.

Despite the clearly demonstrated value that this type of technology can provide, uptake remains stubbornly low on farms.

Given the potential to reduce costs, better target inputs, increase productivity and promote on-farm profitability, I believe this low uptake is holding UK agriculture back.

Defra policy-makers must have these objectives in mind too.

Trust is therefore key.

The potential benefits of digital agriculture will be better realised if farmers and growers can trust that their farm data is used fairly and with integrity.

They need to believe it is taken, stored, profited from and potentially shared with others, with their agreement and under a set of principles which they buy in to.

This is why we set up the British Farm Data Council, to do something about this data governance and engineer trust in farm data sharing.

Supply chain

Before we started, we discussed the subject with people from across the food supply chain from farmers to researchers, from agronomists to breeders, and from input distribution to retailers.

Interestingly, everyone agreed it was important to understand the source of the data, how it is collected, where it is stored and what organisations can and cannot do with it, without the express permission of the data owner.

Most concerning was that people from all parts of the supply chain had different slants on what the term ‘data governance meant, were uneasy that things were not being done properly, and were conflicted on ‘what good looks like, especially outside of the area of the rules and regulations associated with GDPR and whatever personal data restrictions will replace it in the UK.

Given there is no consistent view, let alone standards of governance, on how data should be collected and shared, why should we be surprised that there is a lack of trust in the process? Putting standards in place that are accepted by the wider food supply chain could make a significant improvement in transitioning to a system where farmers and growers believe their concerns are being addressed, while taking some of the guesswork out of the process for those in the food chain who feel exposed to the damaging risk of doing something wrong.

The British Farm Data Council is starting by surveying what work in this area has already been carried out in the UK and as far afield as North America and New Zealand, and then sketching out a draft of guiding principles of that elusive ‘what good looks like.

We are already talking to those in academia and other industries to ensure those principles are robust and make sense, recognising that other sectors in the UK are also facing data trust and governance issues, especially in the health sector.

Digital tools

Where this takes us depends on the council members who have be drawn from all walks of agriculture; while most of them are not data experts, you are likely to recognise at least one of them; all interact with data and are aware of the role digital tools have in the future of farming.

Most importantly, they are passionate in putting farmers and growers at the centre of their thinking; something I felt was critically important.

How far do we go? In other sectors, accreditation is being proposed or enacted, for those organisations who achieve the ‘gold standard.

If such a standard were in place for digital agricultural tools, then farmers and growers might feel more comfortable with working with those organisations and companies which have demonstrated they have achieved such a standard.

One way or another, the British Farm Data Council is committed to increasing the confidence of farmers and growers to the point where more farmers are prepared to take another look at how digital tools can help them.

Trust is the key to unlocking the digital revolution in agriculture here in the UK, to the benefit of all involved.

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