Democratizing data to transform agriculture

Right now, agriculture finds itself at the heart of two transformative movements: the shift toward data democratization and the urgent need to transition to a global bioeconomy, or an economy powered by renewable resources instead of fossil fuels. 

Data democratization involves opening up access to high value datasets from diverse sources, while respecting people’s data rights, to enable more transparent and efficient decision-making. Meanwhile, a sustainable bioeconomy means reducing dependence on fossil fuels in favor of biological resources, processes and principles for the sustainable supply of goods and services in all sectors. Together, these two movements could help usher in an era of sustainable digital agriculture, rooted in responsible practices and holistic, data-driven strategies. 

Data-driven innovation is essential for a robust and responsible bioeconomy. For example, changing the way we collect and use data in agriculture can help manage limited resources more effectively and find optimal conditions for growing. However, making this shift will require a concerted, collaborative effort from stakeholders across the supply chain, both domestically and globally. 

Despite the recognized importance of data-driven innovation, particularly in sectors like agriculture, the democratization of data faces significant barriers. These include: 

  • Technological disparities, especially in remote and underdeveloped areas, where access to the necessary tools and connectivity is limited. 

  • A wide gap in digital literacy and analytical skills among various stakeholders, hindering the effective use of available data. 

  • Inconsistent data standards, privacy concerns, and insufficient infrastructure for data handling which impede the seamless exchange and utilization of data. 

  • Economic and political factors that restrict the flow of information and resources necessary for a truly data-empowered bioeconomy. 

Addressing these issues requires not just technological solutions but also educational, policy, and collaborative efforts. This post will delve into potential strategies to overcome these barriers, focusing on innovative approaches to enhance data access and literacy, develop robust data infrastructure, and foster a culture of collaboration and transparency among all stakeholders. These strategies aim to unlock the full potential of data-driven practices to transform the bioeconomy, ensuring sustainable resource management and optimizing agricultural productivity on both domestic and global scales.

How data drives the bioeconomy

In agriculture, data democratization means making valuable data sets, such as weather patterns, soil conditions, crop growth models, and market trends, accessible and usable to all players in the sector—farmers, agronomists, researchers, and policymakers. Access to high-value data enables stakeholders to make more informed and efficient decisions. For instance, a farmer can use data on weather patterns and soil conditions to decide the best crops to plant and the most suitable farming techniques to use. This leads to better yields, reduced waste, and more sustainable farming practices. 

The bioeconomy, an evolving concept since the late 1960s, revolves around the sustainable production, utilization, conservation, and regeneration of biological resources, integrating knowledge, science, technology, and innovation. This approach is crucial in addressing the Sustainable Development Goals. In agriculture, the bioeconomy signifies a pivotal shift. It’s not just about improving crop yields; it’s about transforming how we view and use biological resources. 

By integrating data-driven practices, agriculture can transition to more sustainable, efficient, and regenerative models. This involves cultivating conservation practices, creating sustainable crop value chains, and ensuring responsible use of resources. The bioeconomy aims to balance human needs with nature’s capacity, striving for a system that enhances social equity, ecosystem resilience, and economic growth within nature’s biophysical limits.

With the rise of the bioeconomy, data becomes an even more crucial asset to ensure optimal design and use of resources. More importantly, ethical data practices will be foundational to a sustainable bioeconomy by ensuring:

  1. Protection of the individual: While biotechnology promises new solutions, it also raises concerns about privacy, whether at the level of crops, farms, or consumers. Ethical data handling ensures that while we harness bio-data for the greater good, individual rights are not compromised.

  2. Serving the collective: As we transition to a bioeconomy, vast datasets—from bio-data to market trends—can be utilized to design strategies that prioritize sustainability and inclusivity. This ensures that the bioeconomy serves everyone, not just a privileged few.

  3. Exchange of ancestral and traditional knowledge: Reconnecting with ancestral and traditional knowledge regarding responsible use of available resources in different natural ecosystems requires a new approach to governance for the common good of all beings.

Harnessing the full power of the bioeconomy requires a strategic integration of diverse data sets from varied sources. Digital solutions can make farm processes more efficient, offer tailored financial advisories to farmers, and optimize supply chains. However, these tools need usable data such as soil records, climatic variables, and track/trace capabilities. Harmonizing data standards to enable interoperability and support machine readability could accelerate the development of digital agriculture data models and applications.

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What does data-driven agriculture look like? 

Colombia stands amongst the nations richest in biological diversity. Utilizing biotechnological advancements, the country can pioneer the creation of premium bio-inputs and bio-products, birthing novel commodities and services. But integrating advanced technologies into the national agricultural framework comes with its challenges. Key among these are establishing a robust technological backbone in rural regions and the adoption of tech-enhanced productivity measures among smallholder farmers. 

To harness this latent capability, it’s imperative for farmers to combine their time-tested techniques with newer innovations. For instance, they might use conventional methods of crop rotation and natural fertilization alongside modern tools like precision agriculture technology to optimize planting, watering, and harvesting. This approach allows cultivators to benefit from the efficiency and sustainability of advanced methods, while still honoring and utilizing the wisdom of traditional practices.

Doing so ensures more insightful data utilization, enabling more informed decisions from governmental bodies, enterprises, and educational institutions. Strategic endeavors aimed at dismantling inherent barriers will allow these innovations to be tailored to the nuances of micro-agriculture and Colombia’s diverse regional tapestries. Such customization is particularly significant for the smallholder farmers, who constitute 70 percent of the nation’s agricultural community.

For example, C4IR Colombia developed a project called Agro 4.0 focused on supporting smallholder farmers and small-to-medium enterprises in the adoption of digital technology to monitor and harvest their crops and strengthen their productivity. The Agro 4.0 project successfully implemented 10 technological pilots involving IoT, AI, cloud computing, and e-commerce in various crops, impacting 100 direct and indirect producer beneficiaries. This initiative not only facilitated the adoption and integration of emerging technologies among smallholder farmers but also demonstrated the vital need for data democratization. (You can read about the Agro 4.0 project in Spanish here: Practical Guide for Farmers and Producers on Technology Implementation)

Building strong digital infrastructure: two examples

Infrastructure isn’t just about physical constructs like roads or warehouses; in the digital age, data-sharing infrastructure is equally vital. Responsible data-sharing initiatives empower stakeholders—from biotechnologists to policymakers—to make informed decisions. This drives efficiency across the value chain, ensuring that the bioeconomy is not just sustainable but also efficient and optimized. 

For example, the agriculture data exchange (ADeX), piloted in the Indian state of Telangana, is a collaboration between the World Economic Forum, the State Government, and the Indian Institute of Science, designed to provide digital agriculture solutions to farmers at scale. ADeX has been developed as an open-source technology platform, to enable multiple data providers to interact with many consumers in a secure environment. 

ADeX is supported by a comprehensive Agriculture Data Management Framework (ADMF), which includes a diverse expert committee and seven standard operating procedures on key issues related to data security, consent management, grievance redressal, and more.

In 2021, the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Colombia, in collaboration with PwC Colombia and supported by the World Economic Forum, launched the report, Data for a Common Purpose: Facilitating Colombia’s Transition to a Data-Driven Economy. This document highlights the importance of effective collaboration between the public and private sectors on data exchange to address crucial socioeconomic and environmental challenges. The pilot initiative, “Moonshot – Data Marketplace for the Common Good”, proposes guidelines to strengthen the dynamics of exchange in the nascent data ecosystems in Colombia. Following this, in 2022, the National Data Infrastructure Plan of the Colombian State launched, incorporating the vision of the Moonshot project. This plan posits data as a strategic resource to serve society and the environment, marking the beginning of a shift towards an economy dictated by data for the common good.

Balancing security with innovation

In the pursuit of a bioeconomy that includes data democratization, agile policies are necessary to navigate uncharted waters. Frameworks that balance data management and security with innovation can foster an environment where creativity thrives. Sandboxes, controlled environments for testing new ideas, epitomize this balance, encouraging exploration of cutting-edge solutions without jeopardizing the existing ecosystem.

Both India and Colombia have also made progress in national and regional initiatives for the creation of frameworks and governance models for data use, enabling the unlocking and exchange of data to benefit a larger number of stakeholders.

For example, the Misión de sabios por Caldas, published by the CINDE Foundation and the Government of Caldas (Colombia) in 2020, outlined a strategic plan for science, technology and innovation policy for 2023-2033, recognizing data as an essential resource for sustainable development. This policy implemented two key programs in 2022 (Biofactories Program and JUNTOS) that aim to install new governance models in science, technology and innovation through a geographically decentralized approach. In addition, they propose a new framework that encourages the creation and use of secure biodata, through advanced tools such as biotechnology and artificial intelligence, to drive the bioeconomy. 

Moving towards a data-driven future

Data democratization is crucial for revolutionizing agriculture. By ensuring open access to high-value datasets and fostering an environment of transparency and respect for data rights, we can significantly enhance decision-making. This approach is essential for managing resources efficiently and finding optimal growing conditions to facilitate the transition to a sustainable bioeconomy.

The challenges and opportunities presented here highlight the need for inclusive and collaborative efforts in data governance. This includes bridging technological gaps, enhancing digital literacy, and developing consistent data standards. Such efforts are critical for ensuring that data-driven innovation does not only benefit the agricultural sector, but also contributes to the broader goals of sustainable development.

Building robust digital infrastructure and adopting ethical data practices is also key. This includes initiatives like the agriculture data exchange (ADeX) and Colombia’s National Data Infrastructure Plan. By prioritizing responsible data-sharing and balancing security with innovation, we can ensure that the bioeconomy is not just sustainable but also equitable and optimized for the common good.

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