Sectoral data protection measures needed for digital transformation in agriculture

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The digital transformation of agriculture in Europe is being hindered by challenges related to access and control of agricultural data. New sector-specific rights and rules over ag-data could however improve competition and innovation, argues PhD candidate Can Atik. He will defend his thesis on 11 July 2023 at Tilburg University.

Digital transformation in agriculture has initiated a paradigm shift from traditional agricultural decision-making to data-driven ’smart farming’. Farmers can now detect issues early, track developments, and take swift action based on collecting and processing data from their farms. Data-driven ’smart farming’ promises higher productivity, reduced input usage, and minimal environmental impact.

However, this digital transformation is accompanied by a set of challenges related to data access and control, which hinder competition, innovation, and trust among stakeholders. Law scholar Can Atik investigated what these challenges are and how existing European regulation as well as new sectoral initiatives could make a change.

Data access problems

Atik’s research shows that a lack of legal clarity on ag-data access conditions and technical issues results in farmers struggling to access and transfer their farm data sets, which are technically controlled by technology providers or machine manufacturers. This erodes farmers’ trust in the digital transformation. Also, there is no clear way for various data access seekers in the farm-to-fork chain. For instance, a start-up needs to access ag-data sets to train algorithms and generate a competitive service.

Sector-specific regulation measures

According to Atik the existing regulatory framework in the European Union is not adequate to solve business to business data access challenges in agriculture, which also holds for the more recent regulations as well as the voluntary EU Code of Conduct drawn up by sectoral stakeholders. The recent Data Act proposal makes a difference but there still is a need for sector-specific regulation.

A data ownership right for farmers has been advocated by the sectoral stakeholders and literature, but exclusive and transferable ownership right design is likely to generate more harm than benefits. Atik proposes to link inalienable data access rights to ’farm units’ rather than to individual farmers or companies to ensure continuous access to ag-data sets by actual operators of the related farms while not precluding broader data re-use possibilities.

In addition, he recommends to establish a technical data access hub and a sectoral authority to overcome the problems deriving from interoperability problems and broader data access needs in the farm-to-fork chain. Traditional competition law enforcement can play a complementary role in addressing dynamic challenges if it is updated in the age of ’Big Data’.

PhD Defense

Can Atik LLM will defend his PhD thesis on Tuesday 11 July, 1.30 p.m. in the Auditorium of Tilburg University. Title thesis: Data Access Problems in the Emerging Digital Agriculture Sector: What Role for EU Competition Law Enforcement and Regulatory Intervention?Supervisors: Prof. W. Sauter, Prof. G. Monti, Dr. I. Graef. The defense will be livestreamed.