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Big Data is ‘Game-Changer’ for Agriculture

Written by K. Michael Conaway

By K. Michael Conaway, House Agriculture Committee Chairman

Chairman K. Michael Conaway (R-Texas) prepared these remarks for delivery on Oct. 28 at a hearing of the House Agriculture Committee.

Information technology is profoundly impacting every aspect of our lives.

In so many ways, this is a good thing. But, as anyone who’s had their identity stolen can tell you, it is not without its downsides.

The same, of course, is true in the case of production agriculture.

As we have learned in previous hearings, foreign countries do a lot to give their producers a leg-up over their competitors. As a few examples, along with lower worker, consumer and environmental standards, we have witnessed other countries manipulate their currencies, set up state trading enterprises and use subsidies, tariffs and other non-tariff barriers to gain the upper hand.

But we, too, have some distinct advantages going for us. Some, like our infrastructure, are tangible and easy to see while others, like a strong rule of law and a great entrepreneurial spirit, are usually just taken for granted.

But every now and again, a game-changer comes along. And we in America have had an excellent track record of inventing them and using them early to our great advantage. This record has helped keep America’s farmers and ranchers out in front of the pack.

The United States has led the way in several major agricultural game-changers, including the moldboard plow, the cotton gin, refrigeration and the Green Revolution.

Not long ago, we celebrated the addition of Norman Borlaug’s statute in the Capitol. Of course, Borlaug’s “Green Revolution” was a huge game-changer, introducing innovations that have saved billions of lives. Thanks to Borlaug, we are well positioned to be able to feed the 9 billion people who will soon inhabit our planet, and we will meet this challenge using far fewer natural resources and inputs.

Today, many believe that information technology – or “Big Data” as it has been called – is the next big game-changer for agriculture. Thanks to significant investments in precision agriculture technology by many companies, producers now have more information about their farms at their fingertips than ever before.

Big Data has what seems like a boundless potential to improve the efficiency, profitability and competitiveness of our nation’s farmers and ranchers while conserving natural resources and benefitting the environment.

In fact, the benefits of Big Data have already been paying off as we will hear about today.

But, at least one of the reasons why potential benefits have not yet been fully realized is because farmers and ranchers are getting lots of information from lots of different places. Getting all of this information into one place where it can be easily accessed and used is critically important.

Beyond practical considerations, however, is the important question of how to protect producer privacy and private property rights.

Thankfully, the law protects the privacy of most producer information that USDA gathers. But that, of course, does not cover information gathered by private entities. This has enormous implications that can, among other things, affect the commodities market, land values and how farm policies operate – and potentially expose producers to frivolous and costly environmental litigation.

My hope is that the Committee and our exceptional panel of witnesses will fully explore these and other relevant issues.

But, in closing, I want to go back to what I think is a central point, and that is the fact that this is the farmer’s information. And, as such, the farmer should own or, at bare minimum, control information about his operation.

If we can achieve this important principle, I think we go a long way in ensuring that American agriculture harnesses the power of Big Data.