By Alasdair Mcnab

So the toys are out of the pram over a proposal from NFUS on how to divide the convergence money. Are there more serious issues we should be addressing and planning collective action on to reset the direction of our industry?

Recently a copy of the NFUS magazine Scottish Farming Leader arrived. Upon opening the envelope a single sheet of paper fell out with the magazine. Produced by SAOS it proclaimed the title “Harnessing the power of Scotland’s agri data – keeping it here and making it work for us.” This caught my eye.

As many of you will have gathered by now I am interested in data. I spent much of my veterinary career analysing, interpreting and acting on data. Farms rely very heavily on multiple sources of data - soil analysis, plant performance, genetic data (genomics) for meat, EBVs, worm egg counts, mineral and dietary analysis and financial data.

This data taken together is called big data. From this big data the factors affecting performance and profit can be analysed, connections identified and plans developed. Seems straightforward, so what is there to worry about? Who collects this data for us? What do they do with it?

At a conference workshop on big data at Kuala Lumpur in 2017 Andrew Crane, former CEO of Australian grain co-op CBH, said “agriculture is one of last industries to get teched. It’s a physical product – how do we digitise that?” He is asking how we put agriculture data onto a computer database so we can analyse it.

He continued “Who owns the data? Modern farm equipment captures a huge yield of data as it harvests crops. Who owns that?”

In the arable sector big data is collected from tests and sensors on machinery which collect information on factors such as soil, weather and crop performance which gives farmers unprecedented decision-making capabilities. But who owns that data? You may think you have paid for the data, but what have you actually paid for?

You have paid for the information but may not have control over what the company does with the data – the information from all the farmers they have stored.

For example some of you have sent swabs to one of the human DNA analysis companies. Yes it’s fun to find out your background but they can sell the big data to pharmaceutical companies, researchers etc without your permission because you don’t ‘own’ the data. This is why the farming industry should be worried. Why are farmers not controlling and selling such data?

Scotland Food and Drink Ambition 2030 sets a target for the cumulative values of Scottish food and drink being worth £30bn by 2030. In 2018 that value was £16.7bn. QMS are looking at working with Scotland Food and Drink to help achieving that target and provide a boost to the Scottish red meat sector by improving access to more international markets.

Scotland Food and Drink helps sectors develop plans which lay out what needs to happen in each sector to develop the production, consistency and marketing of the product, to promote innovation in production of the product and to ensure all involved are trained to a standard that will ensure the product arrives in the market with the expected quality.

These plans are implemented by firstly by developing relationships in the supply chain to improve knowledge of each role in that chain, where value is lost and where value can be gained. This takes time, the building of trust, breaking down of barriers and conceptions, improving understanding of constraints, demands and working towards mutually beneficial solutions. The second area is innovation all along the supply chain. In the meat sector this will involve all stages from conception to consumption. The third area is training of all those along the supply chain so all understand the quality and standard required of the final product and have the skills and knowledge to produce or process it.

Some years ago the Scottish Salmon industry was producing 5-6kg fish as that weight was the most profitable for the primary producer. The retailers wanted 3-4kg salmon as it gave a better size of cut for the final consumer. This move met with industry resistance, not dissimilar to the cattle carcase weight scenario today.

Scottish salmon production systems were revamped to meet the new specification, regain market share and develop new markets. The result was profits rose dramatically and the rest is history. Supply chain data was essential to this change being successful.

Scotch beef and lamb have the same potential. There are issues to address and resolve in terms of supply chain management and relationships. The will should be there. There is too much to lose for all involved.

What has this got to do with data? All the work done by Scotland Food and Drink, processors and retailers depends on data. Data informs the supply chain from conception to consumption and back the way to the primary producer. Data tells you what’s working, what needs sorted, where it can be better and quantifies the extent of the issues identified so effective decisions can be made.

In the SAOS leaflet author, George Noble, expresses great concern that the data we produce is falling into the hands of a small number of companies using opaque data sharing agreements which give them control of our data. The danger is that in time they will determine what we will do as farmers as they own the data and know about our farms and businesses.

Like SAOS, I believe we farmers should collectively own and manage our data and be able to negotiate a fair value when sharing that data. ScotEID is a forerunner in the concept of a database based on industry owned data. To deliver Scotland Food and Drink Ambition 2030 Scottish farming needs control of its data. We must start these discussions within the industry and with government urgently.

To ignore this iceberg and spend time squabbling, over what is a one off payment, leaves our industry open to the charge of culpable neglect of our future. Big business needs big data under its own control.