AgTech: Data Management for the Improvement of Agricultural Practices

AgTech: Data Management for the Improvement of Agricultural Practices

The use of new technologies is essential to enable farmers to contribute to the fight against global warming and to improve the financial viability of their farms. While data alone are unprofitable, their processing may enable the development of innovative digital services to transform agricultural practices and better inform consumers. How can the agricultural sector take advantage of these data while keeping control of their uses? Here are some answers with Sébastien Picardat, CEO of Agdatahub.

Contrary to popular opinion, the agricultural sector is very technophile. In 2016, almost 80% of farmers were using the Internet according to a report by the Department of Agriculture. This report also highlighted a considerable increase of the use of professional agricultural applications. “Animal sectors were the first to use the Minitel in the 1980s to ensure the traceability of cattle and make animal tracking reports. It’s far from being new!”  reminds Sébastien Picardat, CEO of Agdatahub, which operates the agricultural data exchange platform called API-Agro

Within this strategic economic sector, thousands of products go from one stakeholder to another each day. Each year, the data from more than 18 million animal movements are tracked and exchanged in France. Therefore, the goal is to track production-related information and the millions of data generated every day. 

Moreover, many smart devices collect data which will help farm operators in their daily tasks. AgTech companies have the responsibility to compile and add value to these data, which are extremely heterogeneous. Thanks to these data, it is possible to monitor the cattle’s health, adjust the irrigation of agricultural parcels, create predictive models in order to reduce sanitary risks, or control the soil quality. Therefore, the uses are very diverse. 

Considered individually, a farm’s data have no value. Considered all together, they hold meaning. Moreover, access to these data is essential for research and the development of agricultural industries. The ITAs (“Instituts techniques agricoles”) and farm bureaus took an interest in these questions from 2014. With open data, agricultural data are available to all, thus boosting innovation: creators of digital solutions for instance can test new products or prototypes of decision-aiding tools. 

But how can we interconnect all the players of the French agricultural sector, representing 420,000 farms and 85,000 partners and which are essentially VSBs and SMBs? Distributors of fertilizer, seeds, phytosanitary products and livestock feed, but also veterinarians, are at the very beginning of the production line. Among the downstream players who buy agricultural produce are the cooperatives, merchants, agribusiness industries and the slaughterhouses. Information sources are therefore numerous, and the quantity of data is enormous. This is the reason why it is important to describe these data in order to make them usable. It is also important to protect and anonymize these data, supposing they would be reused. 

Since 2019, the API-Agro SaaS solution enables exchanges between agricultural players and AgTech startups in order to produce and use data securely. 

Adding Value to Agricultural Data 

How can farmers pass on their data while remaining in control of their information? Many are those who share their data and regret not having much visibility on the way they are used. It is essential that agricultural sector players have the right to examine the use of the data they generate and choose with whom they want to share them. Data usage is a particularly delicate issue which determines farmers’ independence from big agrochemical companies and agricultural mechanization. Indeed, their independence is being compromised if they have to buy the data generated with agricultural machines that do not belong to them, for example. 

In order to meet the need for data control, Agdatahub has created a whole range of consent solutions with the help of the sector’s software companies. These solutions allow farmers to give consent to their usual partners for a use and duration determined before the data exchange. Farmers can thus choose with whom they share their data, what they are going to be used for, and the time during which the consent is given. 

These solutions include three modules: the first one introduces to the digital identity of farms and guarantees the identity of the contracting parties. The second module is a range of consent managers for farmers. The third one is a router that manages consents and that is going to connect to the different managers to centralize all the consents given by agricultural players on a single portal, Agri-Consent, whose access will be free for farmers. 

According to Sébastien Picardat, it is important that every farmer keeps control over the use of their data: “In the United States, in Chicago for example, data are resold to international merchants who act on the wheat exchange rate. Thanks to this visibility and the consolidation on all continents, they are able to influence the rates. Data is therefore used at the expense of farmers and, in the end, it has an impact on their income.” 

Innovating to Improve Productivity

Thanks to technology and the Cloud, farmers are offered new opportunities to add value to their data. It is important to remind that, while data alone do not create value, their usage by certain services can help improve the productivity and the economic and environmental profitability of farms. Once data are processed, they can help farmers improve their income by reducing their costs or by generating more profit. These services, which include decision-aiding tools, are designed for farmers and contribute to improving the technical, environmental and social performances of the agricultural production. Thanks to these tools, it is also possible to restrict the use of phytosanitary products in order to reduce the environmental or sanitary impact of the production. 

Farmers can also monetize their contribution to carbon sequestration. Methanation or the production of green energy allows them to have an additional source of income in return for an action for the planet. 

According to Agdatahub CEO, these data can also help farmers add value to their productions thanks to the traceability service for final consumers: “When you go to the supermarket, to your organic grocery or to the market on Sundays, you are going to buy products that comply with specifications, which have a local origin… And you are willing to pay a higher price.” Digital technology also helps recreate the link between farmers and consumers. “When you see a bar code on a product, but also the farm and where the product has been produced, you realize that there is an actual person behind it,” adds Sébastien Picardat. All these new uses and services therefore help create value from these freshly available data. 

The European Ambition 

Agriculture is a highly strategic sector, in the same ways as the health or the transportation sectors, because it ensures food security for the whole population. However, as the sector is becoming more and more digitalized, the American and Chinese behemoths are trying to collect as much global agricultural data as possible. The data stored at a supplier whose services are subject to American laws are therefore subject to extraterritorial regulations as per the Cloud Act, hence a major legal risk. “The COVID-19 pandemic and the vaccine situation made us realize that when there are no production facilities available, we are dependent on foreign powers,” warns Sébastien Picardat. “For the sake of agriculture and in order to feed all 500 million Europeans, it seems essential to us to preserve our agricultural production capabilities and make sure that AgTech tools remain European, so we don’t become dependent on other states.” The question of French and European sovereignty is therefore a critical issue. It is also a selection criterion when it comes to join forces with a technology partner.

To accelerate the digital transition of the 10 million farms in the European Union, Agdatahub — AgTech’s major player at the European level — aims to deploy its activity in the member states of the EU, which do not have exchange platforms for the industrial stage yet. The French startup wants to facilitate exchanges between European neighbors thanks to the standardization of data. The company is taking part in three big European research projects on digital agriculture (Invite, Tech Care and SmartAgriHubs). At the beginning of the year, Agdatahub joined the GAIA-X foundation as “Day-1 Member.” Along with its technology partners (Orange Business Services, Dawex and 3DS OUTSCALE), Agdatahub supports the creation of a working group dedicated to agriculture within the GAIA-X foundation in order to deal with questions regarding the digital identity of farms and the standardization of data to facilitate the interoperability between the existing platforms in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. To what purpose? Guaranteeing the digital independence of European agriculture.

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