Defra secretary Elizabeth Truss says data giveaway will help food and farming businesses

Environment secretary Elizabeth Truss. Picture: Ian Burt

Environment secretary Elizabeth Truss. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: IAN BURT

A vast reserve of government data will be made publicly available in an effort to create profitable opportunities for people making their living from food, farming and the environment.

Environment secretary Elizabeth Truss is due to announce that at least 8,000 datasets held by Defra will be released during the next year in what she describes as 'the single biggest government data giveaway the UK has ever seen'.

The South West Norfolk MP said harnessing this open data will give food and farming businesses access to cutting-edge techniques to boost efficiency and productivity, and allow better monitoring and management of environmental risks.

Speaking to an audience of technology experts, entrepreneurs and investors in London's Tech City today, Ms Truss will say: 'Defra is the most data-rich department in Whitehall, though much of it – millions and millions of files – is hidden away. It is worth billions of pounds to British people, businesses and our rural economy, and it can be used to improve the quality of our natural environment.

'The hi-tech data provides 3D imagery that food producers can use to plan their crop plantations, to pinpoint the best locations for growing.

'Imagine what this could do for wine-makers in the country, ensuring their vineyards are in the most productive spot or salad growers utilising the Fenland soil.

'With farming in the Eastern region last year worth over £1bn, almost a quarter of the national income for farming in England, access to data like this is going to be a real boost to the industry. This information can be expensive and time-consuming to collect so it is only right that if it is already held by Defra that the public can have access to it free of charge.'

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Defra said the new data releases will include imagery from the Copernicus satellite system which can pinpoint which places have the best soil and microclimates to grow grapes for sparkling wine, detect live if a ship is acting suspiciously in a marine conservation zone, or assess the health of crops and chart their performance under different conditions from space.

Also available will be real-time air quality and river level readings, beach cleanliness measurements and the records of the National Biodiversity Network which charts plant, animal, bird, insect and invertebrate numbers across Britain.

Ms Truss said the data release could also reduce red tape and administrative burdens on farmers.

'We will be able to survey the country's crops without tramping the fields, meaning farmers get far less bother from government inspectors,' she said.

'Some of the data will be directly useful, and some of it will need some work – it will depend on how they want to apply it. We are not saying every farmer should start designing apps. I know of some farmers who do a lot of research into water sources and so on, who will be able to use it directly, but I can also imagine agronomists and agents will be able to use it for their services.'

Industry reaction

Farming industry representatives reserved judgement on the value of the data until they had been able to assess what was available.

Phil Bicknell, head of food and farming for the NFU (National Farmers' Union) said: 'The key to this will be turning the Defra data information into intelligence and insight. By releasing this more widely, the hope will be that businesses are proactive and take on this role. Farmers are no different from any business – they need feedback on their own performance and that of their industry. Those who better understand our industry can better support it through innovation and ingenuity.

'We look forward to finding out more and to understand how our farmer and grower members can make the most of this initiative.

James Beamish is crop production manager at Salle Farms, which is involved in a major data-driven project to assess nutrient run-off into water courses, said: 'It is difficult to pass judgement on the data sets without actually seeing what their content is.

'There has been a massive industry-led surge in satellite imagery and technology over the past 10 years and in the past two years the must-have gadget is a drone to fly over your fields to take images of all sorts of different things to map for weeds, diseases and nutrient deficiencies but, alas, farm yields across the UK have still stayed on the level or even been in slight decline, so this is not solving the yield plateau yet.

'With this in mind I struggle to see how the data will tell us too much more than what we are already paying for ourselves to be done and I doubt whether farming practices will change dramatically on the back of it.'

What do you think? Will the Defra data giveaway bring tangible benefits to your food or farming business? Contact or call 01603 772184.