The factory has no roof

January 11, 2022

Farmers are the custodians of large areas of the earth’s natural resources. Most farmers look after the land often because it is a multi-generational asset and often because they are also passionate conservationists. Nonetheless, there is an ongoing dialog about the degree of oversight that governments, commercial partners, and consumers should have over farming activity.

Farming is, for the most part, a private activity, and is conducted as part of larger, mostly private, value chains. In that setting, it is reasonable to assert that data generated as part of that private activity should remain so, and pressure to make it more public is unreasonable.

Typically this translates into messages like:

  • Farm data belongs to farmers, just as the land they farm belongs to them
  • Farms are private businesses, like any other, and have no obligation to farm in the open
  • Data that is collected can be used against farmers and there aren’t enough safeguards

The problem is that the factory has no roof

None of those statements are unreasonable, and in particular, the arguments about protecting farmers from financial harm must be taken seriously. Concerns about data privacy and security inhibit adoption.

The real issue is that these discussions largely ignore the fact that anyone who wants to know what is happening on a farm already can — they don’t need farmers to generate or provide it.

It is increasingly the case that farm activity is observable and basic knowledge can be obtained at low cost and in real-time for most agricultural production — as if taking place in a factory with no roof, open for all the world to see.

The future is already here and getting more evenly distributed

I am not trying to convince you that we’ve already arrived at this place, but the train is nearing the station. There are plenty of examples of how new capabilities of satellites and machine learning combine to provide extremely accurate and low-cost information about farm activity. Large market forces like TCFD are likely to drive further use of these new tools.

Embrace the reality and design a better future

Ensuring that farmers are properly recognized for their role in land stewardship is vitally important. We need to engage in new thinking about the right way to make that true, whilst accepting the inevitable degrees of transparency.

Regulation is unlikely to provide the right outcomes given the pace of change. Business model innovation and leadership from industry are far more promising ways to get the best outcomes.