THE BLOG

The Monsanto Privacy Model? Monsanto and Farmer Organizations May Be Forging New Path to Data Cooperation

03/27/2015 11:20 am ET | Updated May 27, 2015

Monsanto is usually thought of (and sometimes reviled) for its sale of genetically modified seeds, but the company is increasingly becoming the key big-data technology firm providing real-time data to farmers as they plant their fields. Since it purchased technology firm Climate Corp. in 2013 for $930 million, Monsanto has begun providing real-time data through a cellphone app to farmers cultivating 60 million out of the 161 million acres of U.S. farmland -- meaning more than a third of U.S. farmland is under the guidance of Monsanto's climate and cultivation data. Basic data is freely provided, and farmers pay a premium for more specialized data and help.

There are 30 million agricultural fields in America, and Monsanto has mapped them all with soil and climate data to a 10-meter-by-10-meter resolution. It provides real-time temperature, weather, soil moisture, and other metrics to guide farmers on what to expect, even telling them the best days to work their fields and, with the premium version, how much water and fertilizer to use.

The company uses satellite data to show farmers trouble spots in their fields and, with auto-steering technologies in place, help farmers drive equipment in straight rows. Monsanto is, in the words of Robb Fraley, now Monsanto's chief technology officer, "modeling microclimatic conditions, so you can become predictive on not only which field, but which part of a field should someone be looking at." Another product provided by acquisition 640 Labs grabs geotagged data from tractors, combines and other equipment and allows farmers to store it for real-time and future analysis.

Of course, Monsanto also gains as its reach expands, since every new farmer using its Climate Corp. software is new information about its customers for Monsanto -- detailing what products they use, what they are farming and how much money they are making. This puts Monsanto in the position to control more real-time data about farming in the nation than anybody else by far.

All of which is frightening, given Monsanto's track record, but farmer organizations have already recognized the danger of losing control of such vital data to a single company and have organized to negotiate a set of principles on data sharing that could be a model for many other sectors. Last fall, led by the American Farm Bureau, Monsanto, the American Soybean Association, Beck's Hybrids, Dow AgroSciences LLC, DuPont Pioneer, John Deere, the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Corn Growers Association, the National Farmers Union, Raven Industries, and the USA Rice Federation all agreed last November to a set of principles to help protect farmer control of their own data as they negotiate with large agribusiness data companies like Monsanto.

The principles of the agreement, which could be a model for other groups and legislation, include:

  • Ownership: The idea that farmers will retain ownership of all information generated in their farming operations.

  • Control: Any access to that data requires affirmative and explicit consent by the farmer.
  • Notice: Farmers must be notified if data is collected and how it will be used, with office in a readily accessible format.
  • Transparency: Farmers must have clear understanding of which third parties are using the data and choices to limit that sharing. No contract may be changed without the farmer's explicit agreement.
  • Portability: Farmers should be able to retrieve their data for storage and use in competing systems.
  • The effort will include farmer eduction initiatives, including developing easy-to-use transparency evaluation tools to clearly compare and contrast specific issues within data contracts and see how they align with these principles.

    "The principles released today provide a measure of needed certainty to farmers regarding the protection of their data," said American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman at the time. "The privacy and security principles that underpin these emerging technologies, whether related to how data is gathered, protected and shared, must be transparent and secure."

    Potentially adding pressure to Monsanto to abide by the principles are emerging firms like Kansas-based Farmobile, which is developing a parallel data system, which it highlights as "farmer-owned," that is designed to help farmers generate revenue from their own data by picking what information they are willing to disseminate to potential buyers, from pesticide producers to commodity traders.

    As Ad Age noted in an article describing the firm, "That notion of control and revenue streams for those creating the data may not have found a place in the world of consumer data yet, but it is becoming a reality for farmers."

    For that reason, both the Monsanto- and Farm Bureau-led set of privacy principles and the emerging models of farmers controlling monetization of their data may be a model of privacy that those promoting economic justice models around data use should be paying close attention to. While other groups may not have the organized power of the Farm Bureau to negotiate such deals for consumers, they lay out one model for regulators to require for all data collectors in the economy.

    That the market will likely not protect privacy in the absence of regulation for most consumers is highlighted by the fact that Monsanto is rapidly moving its data-driven technology out to developing nations with little discussion of similar data rights for those consumers. Developing-world farmers are prime customers for Monsanto's cellphone app, since cellphones are often the primary technology that they do own.

    Monsanto already is providing data services to 3 million smallholder farmers in India, who receive text-message updates in a simplified version of the company's Climate Basic app. Monsanto is explicit that it intends to use the data for marketing purposes to tailor sales of its genetically modified seeds to specific African fields -- with little mention of those farmers controlling that data.

    Still, the U.S. model of data control by American farmers negotiated with Monsanto should become a core touchstone for discussions of where big-data policy should move in the future.