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Big data ethics and the digital age of agriculture.

Editor's Note: ASABE member Jason Schuster of Iowa State University captured first place in the 2016 Ag and Bio Ethics Essay Competition by submitting an original work of up to 1500 words on an ethics topic that affects "the practice of professions related to agricultural and biological engineering, systems, or technology." Second place went to ASABE member Maria Balcazar of North Carolina State University (Is more production the answer? A critical look on our framework to solve food security), and third place was awarded to ASABE member Sarah Freriks of the University of Illinois (Bioethical considerations of CRISPR-Cas9). The annual Ag and Bio Ethics Essay Competition is open to undergraduate and graduate student members of ASABE and the Institute for Biological Engineering (IBE). The three finalists presented their work at the ASABE Annual International Meeting in New Orleans last July, and their essays are available at

Recent technology innovations in agriculture have allowed farmers to take a step back and examine the broader view of their crop production practices. Yield monitors, soil maps, and GPS guidance technologies that ushered in precision agriculture over the last quarter century are now being aggregated and combined with new sources of information to provide actionable recommendations to producers. As the industry enters the digital age of agriculture, new policies, analytics, security, and management techniques will be required to handle the terabytes of big data coming from crop fields. It will take collaboration between producers, agriculture technology providers (ATPs), and agricultural and biological engineers to ensure that ethical, consistent principles are established during the transition to digital agriculture.

A survey conducted by the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) in 2014 showed that of the respondents who were active in a farming operation, 65% were skeptical or fearful of new technologies. The survey also showed that one of the farmers' top concerns is data usage and collection. There must be more transparency between ATPs and producers on what data is being collected and when it is being collected. A single tractor can be used for several crop management applications throughout a growing season, so it is important for producers to recognize who has access to the different types of data that is generated. It is already a common practice for producers to agree to data privacy statements prior to being able to use ATP technology. However, these terms of data privacy and collection should be more clearly defined to protect the interests of the farmer. Both producers and ATPs will need to work together to ensure that proper business ethics and the interests of both parties are maintained.

Another common concern that arises within the crop-to-computer data cycle pertains to ownership of the data. Most producers believe they own all data that is generated on their farming operations. However, there is no precedent regarding this issue. In an updated survey by the AFBF, 55% of respondents who have signed contracts with companies said that the contract doesn't express data ownership. During the 2016 ASABE Annual International Meeting, Martin Richenhagen, President and CEO of AGCO Corporation, expressed that his company believes that farmers own the data that is generated on their farms. While many larger companies are following suit, there is no precedent on this issue. There should be a common standard of agreement between ATPs and producers to limit confusion about each independent ATP's rules regarding data privacy, use, and ownership. During this transition period, much of the responsibility for understanding the terms of each agreement will fall on the farmer. As a result, farmer adoption of digital agriculture technology will likely be slow and cautious until universal standards are in place.

After data has been collected, issues of data access, security, and control arise. In the same survey conducted by the AFBF, 66% of farmers supported an independent third-party warehouse to store farm data in 2014, and this support has since increased to 71%. Independent data storage would allow farmers better control over their information and who has access to it. There have already been developments in this area to help meet farmers' interests. In early 2016, the Agricultural Data Coalition was formed as a partnership between ATPs, universities, and producers to focus on the design, creation, and management of neutral-party data warehouses. These data warehouses may provide advantages to the producer by being able to maintain data history, simplify the transfer between file formats of different ATPs, and support IT solutions. As agricultural data warehouses are formed, security and access will be paramount to address producer safety and liability. A report released by the Identity Theft Resource Center indicated that 781 U.S. data breaches occurred in 2015, a near-record high. Recent lawsuits between federal administrations and private technology providers will create precedents regarding data access for future cases. The footprint that big data leaves may have a double impact for farmers, depending on who has access to the data and how it is being analyzed. Data security will become a major concern as the transition to digital agriculture continues.

ATPs have an ethical responsibility when using data that has been collected on-farm or through a data warehouse. ATPs should not recommend specific products or services nor speculate in commodity markets as a result of big data analytics due to ethical implications. The race for competitive advantage and the recent agricultural market downturn may fuel some of these unethical practices. Producers need to be wary of targeted product marketing and differential pricing, which may become evident in the digital age of agriculture. ATPs should also uphold the right of the producer to opt in, opt out, or terminate ongoing services at any time during the contract. However, the producer must understand the ATP's data deletion and transfer policies before contracting for services with the ATP.

Agricultural and biological engineers play a major role in ensuring that the collection and use of big data are performed ethically. By serving in this discipline, we are committed to upholding the AS ABE Code of Ethics of Engineers for the greater good. As the first of The Fundamental Canons states, we shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public in the performance of our professional duties. Often, engineers are the first line of defense in speaking out against unethical practices. Software ethics issues, similar to the recent Volkswagen and Mitsubishi cases, may become more common in the future. Therefore, as a profession, we must be on the lookout for unethical data use and manipulation as the industry continues to evolve.

In conclusion, digital agriculture and the use of big data will allow producers to artificially increase their farm acreage through aggregation of data to make informed decisions. These data-driven decisions aim to accelerate the progress of successful farm practices. With big data comes big opportunities, as well as new issues. Policy between ATPs and producers on the collection and ownership of data needs to be more transparent. ATPs and data warehouses need to invest in data security to ensure producer confidence for further progress of digital agriculture. Stronger policy is needed regarding access of federal entities to producer data. Finally, ATPs need to uphold their ethical responsibility when using big data for analytics and recommendations. Ultimately, the digital age of agriculture will present producers, ATPs, and agricultural and biological engineers alike with many challenges, as well as opportunities to better meet the demand of the growing population and ensure a sustainable agricultural future.

ASABE member Jason Schuster, Graduate Student, Iowa State University, Ames, USA,
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Title Annotation:ag & bio ethics essay winner
Author:Schuster, Jason
Publication:Resource: Engineering & Technology for a Sustainable World
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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