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A Conversation We Need to Have: Data's Role in Food Production

In the farming world, precision agriculture is the most significant development this century.

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Over the next 35 years, the global population is expected to increase by about one-third — more than two billion people — to some 9.6 billion. That’s the equivalent of adding roughly two new Chinas to the world’s population. Providing enough food for the world’s people, and doing so with roughly the same amount of land and possibly even less water, is a major challenge that companies such as John Deere are giving serious attention.

The agricultural industry believes the key to feeding a growing populace lies in using data and technology to do things more efficiently. Over the years, such advances in farming have led to more productive machinery, better planting and harvesting techniques, higher-yielding seeds and improvements in irrigation and fertilization. These improvements alone are not enough to meet the world’s escalating need for food. Rather, successfully tackling the future of food production will require all of us to think differently about the data behind farming.

Even though we may not think about big data as a core component of successful farming, nothing could be further from the truth. In a lot of ways, farmers have always been driven by data pertaining to weather or commodity prices. Data also drives much more in the everyday life of a farmer, such as fuel and seed costs, and timing between planting and harvest.

Today, information is integral to sustaining farmers’ livelihoods — and can be collected about the entire ecosystem, from start to finish. For example, machine data indicates how tractors are performing, as well as how each individual operator is executing. Field data shows the productivity of soil and the amount of rainfall received. Seed data indicates how each planted seed is performing, and yield data reveals the amount of grain harvested. The practice of integrating this data is called precision agriculture — and it’s a subject sure to have a big impact on farmers’ ability to increase crop yields, feed the planet and sustain their operations.

As precision farming evolved to utilize information, this has created a debate over data ownership. Most of the discussion centers around protecting an individual’s right to own his or her data. That’s certainly a legitimate concern. However, in our view, it comes down to a question of control over that data rather than ownership, and the ability to convert the data to information and insight for improving their operation.

Beyond the agricultural industry, an individual’s ability to determine where data is shared is crucial. It’s not hard to imagine that consumers wouldn’t want personal data such as health or fitness information widely shared. They might want to disclose fitness data to their primary care physicians, but wouldn’t necessarily want that information shared with another type of doctor or insurance company. This example reinforces that data control, rather than data ownership, is the real issue.

At John Deere, we established a data-control structure that is sensitive to the needs of farmers. We believe it should serve as a model for the broader technology industry. Allowing individuals to control the information they generate enables them to make deliberate and clear choices about what information they do, or do not, want to share.

Take farmers, as an example, and the process they go through each year to deliver the best possible harvest. Their equipment dealer helps ensure machinery and the precision technology runs when needed and performs to the maximum potential; agronomists provide expertise about planting, watering and fertilizing; and landowners may benchmark their results to see how they compare with others.

While each of these parties plays an important role as a strategic adviser, farmers don’t necessarily want their data shared on a broad basis. In other words, the data they want to share with dealers is different from the data they want to share with agronomists and landowners. We have created that model — which gives farmers the ability to control how their data is shared with the Operations Center — at MyJohnDeere.com.

In the farming world, precision agriculture is the most significant development this century. It will define the future of this industry, sustaining farming operations — and, more importantly, play a major role in producing the world’s future food supply. Now is the time to have a discussion about data control, a topic sure to become increasingly complex as more and more data is collected. What’s needed is a system that is beneficial, fair and transparent for everybody — and the data-control model being used within the farming industry is a great place to start.


Cory Reed is senior vice president, Intelligent Solutions Group, at John Deere, a position he has held since August 2013. He leads the company’s efforts to develop strategies for delivering innovative technology solutions and data that result in agronomic and productivity insights. Reach him @JohnDeere.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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