Data rights and the Aussie farmer

James Riley
Editorial Director

Data portability and the application of farmer’s data rights in the agricultural sector will play a large part in reaping the expected $20+ billion reward of improved productivity through better use of digital technology.

Digital tech holds huge promise for improvements in the agricultural sector, both on-farm and through-out the supply chain. But in the emerging ‘winner takes all’ world of digital platforms, the issue has already attracted the eye of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

In fact, it is fair to say that the ACCC’s recently completed Digital Platforms Inquiry – principally into Facebook and Google – has informed its early entry into thinking around data and the agricultural sector.

Speaking at the Growing a Digital Future for Australian Agriculture National Forum held at Parliament House in Canberra this week, ACCC commissioner Mick Keogh said data portability in the sector – and a clear understanding of data rights – was a key to the future health of agriculture in Australia.

The ease with which data can be transferred from one system to another without degradation was important to both the adoption of new digital technology as well as ongoing farm efficiency. Mr Keogh said there were parallels in this regard to the mandated open banking regime, and ultimately to data rights.

“While there are no plans to include agriculture in this regime at present, the principals involved will likely be expanded in the future, with potential implications for those involved in the ag-tech sector,” Mr Keogh said.

“The use of data restrictions by digital agriculture service providers to prevent farmers moving to a competitor provider could also amount to a breach of Australian competition laws, or breach recently enacted unfair contract terms laws, and the ACCC has powers to seek penalties or impose correction orders in such cases,” he said.

The need for a consistent and clear understanding of data rights is arguably more important in agriculture than other sectors, as production data potentially more valuable across time.

Mr Keogh says it is critical to the health of agriculture ecosystems that data rights not be obscured or over-complicated in lengthy or vague or opaque user agreements.

“In many respects it is more important for customers of digital agricultural companies to have a very clear understanding of the rights they hold over their data, as that data often includes key production and business information that is critical to future business operations, and also for compliance and reporting requirements,” he said.

“It is essential to maintaining a competitive market for digital agricultural technology services that user agreements are expressed in very clear and unambiguous language, that data rights are spelled out unambiguously, and that as a matter of principle, that there should not be unnecessary barriers preventing farmers moving their data to another service provider.”

Mr Keogh addressed Australia’s perennial issues of low private sector investment in research and development, and the poor commercial translation of public sector research efforts. More broadly, he warned against the belief that the rise of digital agriculture somehow lessens the need for public sector agricultural R&D.

Drawing on the work of a 2011 Productivity Commission report on rural R&D, Mr Keogh said the private sector had argued that for a nation like Australia, with production systems that were different from the northern hemisphere, it was important to maintain public investment in R&D.

Public sector R&D was complimentary to private sector investments, he said, with the public sector doing basic and applied research ensures that there is a steady stream of new opportunities for private sector organisations to further develop into commercial and marketable systems and technologies.

“Many digital agriculture systems provide new ways to apply the insights gained from agricultural R&D to decisions made by farmers and others in supply chains, but they still rely on R&D outcomes as a fundamental input into the system,” Mr Keogh said.

A further risk in the system was that public sector agricultural R&D agencies not recognising the appropriate point at which to hand over their research results to a private company for the development of commercial technologies.

“There is room for significant reform in this regard, starting with reducing the complexity and timescales associated with negotiating public and private sector collaborative research efforts, and removing some of the administrative deadweight that discourages cross-sectoral collaboration,” he said.

“The number of times I have heard of R&D projects that are completed before the contract has been agreed is ample evidence of the need for reform.”

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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