UMN administrators, researchers work with lawmakers to author agricultural research bill

The bill will make research the University does with individual farmers private.

Helen Sabrowsky

A new bill passed last legislative session will privatize some University of Minnesota agricultural data starting this August. 

The legislation, described as HIPAA for agricultural research, aims to protect farmers’ personal data and addresses their reluctance to participate in studies and research conducted by the University. Researchers and administrators in the University have worked closely with lawmakers to author the bill.

While the University has developed proper technology to secure farmers’ data when conducting research, the information is still public under current law. 

“We began to realize that quite a lot of the data in the agricultural space is identifiable farm data or business data,” said Phil Pardey, director of the International Science and Technology Practice and Policy Center. “And there was a natural reluctance of individual family farms to share their data with the University if it was going to be presumptively public.”

Members of the University’s College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences approached Sen. Bill Weber, R-Luverne, chair of the Senate’s Agriculture, Rural Development and Housing Policy committee, with this concern. Weber sponsored the Senate version of the bill.

The bill, which will go into effect August 1, aims to guarantee that a farm or farmer’s identifiable data at the University will remain private despite the school’s status as a public institution, Weber said. 

University goals for agricultural research are to analyze data collected and return to individual farms and farmers with suggestions on how to best modify practices, Weber said.

For example, the University studies how pests and disease disseminate through agricultural land, which involves examining data from farmers to understand how pests spread and evolve.

“Each individual farmer makes a decision for his or her own farming practice, but there’s a collective consequence of that decision,” Pardey said. “There’s a direct social value to this farm data, and if we couldn’t get access to that farm data we couldn’t generate that social value.”

Brian Buhr, dean of CFANS, said the new bill will enable researchers to collect and analyze substantial amounts of data which farmers were previously reluctant to share. 

Buhr said non-identifiable information will still be available to the public and that subpoenas still apply to all data.

“Some people have expressed concerns over whether they will still be able to access data on what’s happening with water issues in Minnesota, and absolutely they will be able to,” he said. “You just won’t be able to get information on a specific individual.”

While the University is excited about the progress of their technology and the bill, finding ways to couple technical security and legal privacy is a challenge many research organizations still face worldwide, Pardey said.

In the past week, Pardey and other researchers on the project met with senior U.S. Food and Drug Administration staff who deal with the same issue on a national level. The FDA and other organizations are interested in the progress of the University’s project, Pardey said.