Farmers harvesting potato2

As the open data revolution in agriculture and nutrition gathers pace, discussions are emerging about some of the ethical issues involved in equitable sharing and use of data¹, particularly as increasing amounts of data are now generated by or for farmers, although the discussion and implications extend much more widely across the agriculture and nutrition sectors as a whole.

A future for farmers as data generators

Every day farmers around the world generate data about planting, cultivation practices and decisions, farm inputs, harvests and other activities associated with the complex value chains within which they operate.  Increasingly food is seen as a global commodity and the livelihoods of farmers depend on successful interactions with volatile global commodity markets, so their decisions and the prices they achieve are of significant interest as sources of information with financial implications worldwide.

As technology advances and many farmers gain more digital connectivity, their contribution to, and access to, available open data will widen, empowering them to seek a voice in raising potentially challenging issues around ownership, unrestricted access, exploitation and data manipulation in a participatory relationship with governments and businesses.  Now that data is perceived to have a financial value and food is being firmly established as a global commodity, those originating the data might be expected increasingly to demand rights of ownership and the ability to reuse the data they generate, and to receive some benefit from others using it for profit – even if that is not manifested financially.

The ensuing debate about ethics and standards that emerges in coming years will be in the context of global climate change, increasingly volatile markets, challenges of new pests and diseases² and the potential for political and social instability, all combined with intractable global poverty and regional food shortages. Recognition of the ethical issues emerging at this stage and an appreciation of the challenges ahead should prompt a healthy debate that explores new innovations in the way data can be managed in the sector. The aim should be the development of capacity and frameworks in local communities that are fit to shape a future with equitable open data management capability.

Current challenges for farmers as users

While discussion to shape the future is clearly needed, there is also a need to focus now on the current challenges facing farmers whose access to open data is limited by a lack of the digital connectivity they need to enable access, a lack of organization and on-the-ground capacity to access datasets that are relevant, able to be manipulated and which are truly interoperable. It is worth noting that it is not just data generated by individual farmers that is useful.  The aggregated data generated by each farmer over time, as well as the aggregated data from communities of farmers, is in many cases more useful and of higher value. This raises significant issues around ownership and the equitable use of such aggregated datasets that need to be resolved in both ethical and legal terms.

The Global Open Data in Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) and partners including CIARD, FAO, the Open Data Institute and policymakers in governments and development organizations aim to raise these challenges in a constructive and positive way to articulate the challenges and prompt an open debate to find ways to address them.

GODAN’s current priority is to share awareness of what open data is and how it has the power to transform lives for farmers, including smallholder farmers, as the open data revolution moves forwards.  For data to be open it is essential that it is available, accurate, relevant and in a format that can be accessed at reasonable cost.  It is essential that data can be used effectively and processed so that it can deliver solutions to real world problems.

Farmers are not only generators of (increasingly big) data and recipients of processed data. They also represent an organic and dynamic repository of expertise of crop cultivation that has grown over millennia.  This has a potential value for modern agriculture and there are parallels in the quest by pharmaceutical industries to identify plant compounds used by indigenous people to treat disease. Issues of ownership and rights have been at the centre of discussions surrounding the ethical use of these resources and those same issues arise now in accessing agricultural knowledge held by farming communities in developing economies.

The financial value of this expertise to modern agriculture is enormous in sparking innovation and technological advances in cultivation practices.  The ethical issue facing us now is whether this information and data is a free resource that can be exploited by entrepreneurs and the agrochemical industries or whether ownership rests with the people and communities from which it originates.

Unfortunately, many of the rural smallholders and communities that might be viewed as data ‘owners’ are powerless, poorly organized, poorly connected.

and often lacking in the skills to make their voices heard or even to share their knowledge with peers should they want to. While there is a role for the development sector and governments  to grow capacity, skills, and connectivity to support participation  and prevent unrestricted exploitation, it is essential that farmers and their local support organizations are engaged actively through participatory processes to shape the structures and communication channels that will be needed for farmers to be empowered so that they can engage meaningfully in the management and use of their data.

Priorities for open data to benefit smallholders

Changes in extension practices towards a more participatory model now provide a climate within which capacity building, digital connectivity and skills development for smallholder farmers have the potential to build a future model in which they are empowered to suggest innovations, become entrepreneurs and create solutions to the issues of availability, access and interoperability, alongside those solutions generated from more conventional sources.  The potential to develop equitable solutions to what can currently appear to be quite intractable problems exists and this has the power to transform lives and rural communities alike.

In reality the open data revolution for agriculture has now gathered real momentum and cannot easily be derailed.  This means that the potential to feed a rapidly growing global population may be realised through open access to data and associated knowledge, together with the empowerment of the world’s farming communities in decision-making – a goal that was unthinkable in the past.  The power and benefit of global open data in agriculture and nutrition is unmistakably an immense force for good. Now it is more a question of how we shape that future and avoid the creation of new digital divides.



This article has been developed in collaboration by Ajit Manu, Senior Officer (GFAR/FAO), Johannes Keizer (FAO/GODAN) and Jo Shockley, GODAN Secretariat to open a positive discussion on issues around the ethical use of open data in agriculture.

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