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Global data governance and the CSIPM


Reflecting on the 2023 CSIPM Plenary and CFS Forum, and Patti’s work organizing farmers in the Midwest

Background Context

The UN Committee on Food Security (CFS) is the foremost inclusive international forum on food, following a profound reform in 2009 after the world food price crisis in 2007 and 2008. During that reform, the Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism (CSIPM) was created. The CSIPM is a coalition of organizations and social movements that are a part of the official advisory group in the CFS.

For the past year, the CSIPM formed a Data Working Group which has been active in a CFS policy process called “Data collection and analysis tools for food security and nutrition.” The process ended during the annual plenary of the CFS in mid-October, with the CFS adopting the policy suggestions that the CSIPM and other CFS members helped to draft throughout the year. The process was initiated by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, giving it a bias towards corporate interests from the beginning, but the CSIPM pushed hard to voice the implications of data for people’s rights and make sure that the policy recommendations included data governance. The CSIPM also drafted a vision document for the future of ag-tech, with the inputs of civil society groups from around the world.

After the plenary I met up with Patti Naylor, co-coordinator of the Data Working Group and representative of the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC). NFFC is a US nationwide movement of 50,000 farmers and ranchers, and over 400,000 fishers with a mission to “mobilize family farmers, ranchers, and fishers to achieve fair prices, vibrant communities, and healthy foods free of corporate domination.” In my discussion with Patti, we reflected on what the CSIPM working group process means for farmers and movements here in North America.

Maya: How was the CSIPM Forum and CFS Plenary? Did it go as you had hoped? Were there any surprises, good or bad?

Because of a technical issue, Patti’s answer to this question was not included in the recording. To summarize what Patti shared, both the Forum and Plenary went well, and offer a great space to be able to discuss with both civil society and government representatives. Patti noticed that there were significantly fewer people at the CSFIPM Forum than previous years. She guessed this is because people are occupied by the struggles and emergencies happening in their own territories.

During the part of the CFS plenary where member states were endorsing the final policy recommednation, Patti presented a statement on behalf of the Data Working Group. She shared that the CSIPM had many successes reforming the document to reflect civil society’s concerns, including that “the collection and use of data should serve the realization of the right to food,” expanding the definition of data to reflect traditional knowledge and qualitative data, and that the CSIPM’s proposed paragraph on data governance was included, though in a seriously weakened version. Patti also shared the many aspects in which the policy recommendations fall short – “during the negotiations, we were disturbed by the reluctance of member states to acknowledge and address the reality of corporate power over data and data-based technologies, including the concentration of the benefits generated from them in the hands of a few corporate actors.” Read the full statement here

Maya: What motivated you to lead the data working group? Is data or digital agriculture a big issue affecting you and your community of farmers back home?

I do see what's happening here in the United States just around me. We started 25 years ago with genetically modified seeds and I think that was really the start of the kind of corporate control of our food system here in the United States, but that has been squelched. We don't really engage in that anymore, we take it for granted that what we all around us are genetically modified corn and soybeans. The idea was that they’re safe to eat so there's no other discussion that needs to be done. But of course, there's a lot of other social and environmental concerns, and the replacement of traditional seeds and open pollinated varieties.

Anyway, that was the beginning of this kind of digital technology taking over agriculture. I think recently climate smart agriculture is really being pushed here in the United States and around the world, and that all has a great amount to do with data collection and the kind of technologies like sensors and monitors and robotics and autonomous vehicles, tractors. The idea is that technology is going to solve all these other problems that we've already created, much of them through technology. This has really got me concerned, that we're not focusing on asking the right questions. It's not just climate change. It's also biodiversity and diversity of our diets and caring for each other and caring for the land.

Were there any important lessons you learned as somebody organizing against GMOs that applies to our organizing around digitalization?

The power of corporations needs to be challenged because that's where the narrative is coming from. They have political and economic power. The public narrative that GMOs for example are safe or that your data is safe needs to be challenged. And that's where the challenge is, to take away that power that they have. Why do they have that much power? Why does our government let them have that much power? The only way to take that power away is for us to organize on the ground.

To what extent are you seeing digital agriculture and automation happening on the ground around you? I know I've heard from industrial farmers that they're concerned about the use of their data also, it's not a niche concern

I think it might be becoming a little bit more of a concern but I just got a magazine, there was an article in it by a farmer saying “Oh don't worry. I use all of this technology and I know that my data is safe.” It's amazing how it's all being presented to farmers. The concerns are out there so the corporations, agribusiness and tech companies, know how to address that and they're doing it head-on. I'm afraid that they [farmers] don't realize the broader issues, they understand the expense and I think they understand how it means more and more investment into their machinery and into the production systems.

Yeah. Do you see farmers excited to adopt new technologies, you mentioned that younger farmers especially might be.

Well again, the cost is a big thing. You know, last week I did a presentation at a conference that was promoting anaerobic digesters. They cost a couple million dollars and they're being paid for by the USDA, but they're only logical for the biggest dairy and swine operations. So that means that this kind of technology is being used to further the consolidation of the livestock, bigger and bigger CAFOs. I guess the point is the reason I was there is, it was a whole conference promoting the anaerobic digesters because there's money out there for it from the USDA, you know, and I always say it doesn't matter if it's Republicans or Democrats in charge. The money for agriculture is always going to be for agribusiness to promote this sort of thing.

Do you see anything positive coming out of the use of digital agriculture, digital automated tools? Would you use any of them on your own farm?

Well, our farm is a little different. Our farm is organic for one thing, small, we have old equipment. With digital equipment certainly there's positives, I think the thing about digital technologies is we really need to have an assessment which ones are going to be beneficial in a broad manner and which ones are just there to make money for whoever created this technology. There's so many things that are happening, I mentioned how there's genetically modified soil microbes. Genetically modifying trees and livestock. There's an article about how a couple of universities are using artificial intelligence to identify the genes of dairy cows so they can be the most productive cows that we have. But we're just looking at technology, it has to be within a broader view of what we need to do in producing food and protecting our environment and our societies for our communities.

Patti is giving examples of “biodigital convergence,” the trend of integration of biological and digital systems. With this convergence, the ongoing trend of genetic modification of agricultural products and the trend of digital agriculture (like farm management software and machinery) become one in the same. Both aim towards an integrated system of precision farming from precision gene editing to precision spraying, in other words a “living, food-growing landscape shaped and nudged by robotic and data-driven machines.”

Maya: How do you imagine the increase in the agriculture digital tools potentially affecting land access in your area – who has access to land, who is there farming, how expensive land is, how land is used. Do you see it having major effects?

Patti: Yes. I would say that's a very good way of framing it because I think that's really the issue. The technology is out there and the farmers that are not going to stop using the technology. They need to get the bigger and bigger tractors and combines and all of that, and it's a catch-22 then because they have far more land to pay for. But if they don't do that, then they'll be the first ones to have to put aside farming. So in a sense yes, the technology is driving both the consolidation of farmland, fewer farmers farming more more tracks of land, and it's locking in the idea that all we really need to focus on is efficiency and productivity. Which means the genetically modified seeds and the chemicals that go with that and the synthetic fertilizer that's necessary also, so it's really locking in this whole system, and then of course having the livestock separated from the farm in the CAFOs.

Maya: For sure, I think what you’re saying about debt is an important part of the lock-in. We’ve been talking about how the digital tools that themselves create lock-in through not allowing you to transfer your data and things like that, but also the debt for sure.

Patti: Yeah, those are the kind of things that I think the Data Working Group was able to bring in, things that I wouldn't have thought about. You asked what I see here on the ground, what I see here in Iowa isn't the whole story. The kinds of things that we learned through the working group was really amazing and, speaking of that, I haven't had a conversation yet with the facilitation team and those of us who were closely involved about what we're going to do next with the working group. I don't know where we’re headed yet.

Maya: Okay I won’t ask you about it then. Is there other work you're doing, more locally or nationally or regionally around digitalization outside of the CSIPM? I know you're probably busy, but maybe through the National Family Farm Coalition, are they organizing around digitalization?

Patti: I'm not sure where we're headed, so that's a really good question. Just yesterday, the National Family Farm Coalition has monthly phone calls for members. I talked about digitalization and we had good responses from our members. We'll have to see what kind of capacity we have, but I know there's people in the membership who are concerned about it.

Maya: Do you have ideas of what you would want that organizing to look like nationally or locally?

Patti: When I first started in this working group, I really wanted to engage local farmers, because you're asking me what farmers are thinking and I don't really know because as an organic farmer here in Iowa, it's not really a topic that comes up the whole lot. I'd really like to have more of a discussion somehow with farmers here in the United States because we're not talking about it that I can see, at least not outside of the conventional farm organizations like Farm Bureau and the commodity groups. We did have two workshops in the last two years around digitalization in our region and we had some really good responses, but we didn't really reach what I would call the conventional farmer as much, and that's where the discussion needs to go because they're the ones who are going to have the most influence, they're the ones who are using the technology and really most at risk of being eliminated.

So how do we bridge that divide where we have people who really understand agroecology and small-scale farmers and family farmers, and where the dominant agriculture of the United States is. I think this topic of digitalization might be the best avenue to really reach people. If you think about how to create change sometimes it can come very quickly. It can build up over time and then there's like a trigger that says now I see it, and I think I see what's going on. Certainly the kind of research that the Data Working Group has done and NADAWG, this is where it's really helpful to have this kind of support.

Maya: Can you say more specifically what is the kind of support that's helpful for you?

Patti: I think identifying risks, and a clear understanding of there's benefits and there's risks. We really need to have an assessment of which technologies are going to be beneficial and which ones are just there to make money for whoever created this technology. I think the strength is being able to look at things in a different way without being judgmental. I never say that farmers are the problem, because I think it's a system. So I think just having that research behind us is really important.

Maya: That’s making me think about an interesting conversation about assessment, on one hand it’s very necessary so that it's not just whoever has the most money gets to decide what is the most common technology. Then on the other hand, we have assessments and certifications for food production that exist, but it takes so much work to enforce it. And maybe instead of having technologies made by other people and then assessing them, we can work towards making more of our own technologies.

Patti: I like that perspective, but I would say that without an assessment people aren't going to realize that we need our own kind of technology. I say assessment, maybe not of individual technologies but of how technologies are promoted, how they're developed, and how our government actually promotes some of these. That's a part of that assessment.

Maya: Okay, last thing before you have to go. So the work of the CSIPM was part of this data work stream of the CFS which creates these policy recommendations that the CSIPM worked on a lot. But it's a bit abstract being here. These policy suggestions might not be adopted by our government. So how does what's happening in the data working group affect people in North America?

Patti: So the policy recommendations came out of the work though the CFS workstream and they've been endorsed by member states. They are voluntary for countries and so the implementation of these what's important is that the Working Group, NADAWG, anybody working in the United States thinks about what elements of these policy recommendations can be amplified through any communications networks and through our organizations. Thinking about specific aspects of those recommendations, for instance who owns the infrastructure or what's the risk of your data being used for corporate profits, can be incorporated into the work that we're doing. That's the value of the whole work stream. The recommendations were not nearly as strong as we would have liked them to be. There's been a recommendation that maybe what we need is an alternative policy recommendation coming from the grassroots. What would we really want to see? We had our vision document, and that's a basis for the points that we need to promote.

Maya: Okay, so you're saying it's up to us to make it matter – to find what in the policy recommendations could be useful, and use it as a tool to push our own government to resist corporate exploitation and support grassroots technologies. And if there's nothing in those policy recommendations, we have to make our own.