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CFS Side Event: Data Governance in The Digitalization of the Food System
Summary of Side Event at the 2023 Forum of the World Committee on Food Security

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 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 collective vision document for the future of ag-tech, with the inputs of civil society groups from around the world.

On Oct 24th, at the annual CFS plenary, the CSIPM organized a side event to discuss Data Governance in The Digitalization of the Food System, co-hosted with Mexico and the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. As the CFS policy process on data came to an end, the event brought together small-scale producers and governments to discuss how digitalization is already having impacts in their territories, and to initiate the next steps in global advocacy around agri-food digtalization.

The Speakers

Moderator: Michael Fakhri – the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food

Taína Hedman – International Indian Treaty Council, CSIPM Coordination Committee

Patti Naylor – National Family Farm Coalition, La Via Campesina, CSIPM Data working group coordinator

Moayyad Bsharat – Union of Agricultural Work Committees, Occupied Palestinian Territory, CSIPM Coordination Committee (Online)

Víctor Suárez Carrera – Deputy Minister of Food Self-sufficiency, México

H.E. Ms Nosipho Nausca-Jean Jezile – Ambassador from South Africa.

The speakers opened by discussing infrastructure access as a necessary foundation to discuss data governance, and the key role of governments in providing infrastructure. Victor Suarez, Deputy Minister of Food Self-sufficiency in Mexico, described that “internet access has only been concentrated in urban populations with high incomes.” Moayyad, joining in virtually from Palestine, shared that in Gaza there is a “chronic electricity deficit. This undermines the introduction of modern techniques, including digitalization.” As moderator Michael Fakhri summarized, “People talk about technology sometimes very much in market terms or as business opportunities. But if we treat it as infrastructure, as a common good, that shifts our understanding of what's at stake.”

Suarez shared that, taking the perspective of internet access as a right, Mexico has started a public company called Electricidad e Internet Para Todos that is connected to the public electricity company. With this company, they have promised that “95% of rural communities will have access to free telecommunications and internet.”

However Taína Hedman, representing the International Indian Treaty Council, reminded us that rural infrastructure must be done holistically and with consultation of the residents, otherwise it is money taken from the people with no return. She shared that “We have a fiber optic cable that passes through our territory that was made by a business at some point. But…there is no coverage across all the county. They used, and they have earned, millions during all the years they have been working on this cable. And what has it given us?”

Fakhri reminded us that the notion that rural areas need to “catch up” and bridge the “data gap” is based on a false idea that “there's some ideal version of data…and we all need to catch up to this invented ideal.” He argued that “a more productive way to think of data is, data is not something we collect, data is something we produce…. And it's a way of actually shaping and creating the world. So while we're producing data, we're actually producing the world we want to live in.” Under this paradigm, it’s okay to slow down “to have the correct conversations in the correct way at the correct time when the people are ready”

Taking the time for bottom-up data governance is necessary because access to technologies is meaningless without questioning who controls those technologies. At each agricultural revolution, agribusiness has promised that industry-controlled technologies are the solution to hunger. Suarez argued that "Once again they are promising us that with digital technologies - Big Data, automation, AI - now we will solve the global problems of food insecurity. It's another false promise.”

For colonized peoples such as Palestinians, data is often controlled by the colonizer and used as a tool for oppression. Moayyad shared that the “Israeli occupation authorities use digitalization to monitor workers in the field of human rights” and use data to “design investment that competes with them [smallholder farmers] and remove them from the entire agricultural sector.” When information is privatized, it becomes “a tool to attract the new investment that competes with the small producers and farmers and expel them from the agricultural sector.”

Because data is abstract for most people producing it, it can be difficult for people to even know their data is being extracted. Fakhri expressed that unlike knowledge which “comes with the context front and center,…data comes from a different set of relationships where we may not know who we are working with. We've all just produced data for social media. That's the relationship. It's abstract.” Because of this abstraction, Patti Naylor (representing the National Family Farm Coalition) shared that “farmers, sometimes unknowingly, are giving up data and their own knowledge to the corporations, thinking that these technologies are a benefit to them, and I would say, believing the propaganda that they hear from these companies.”

Once data producers realize that our data is being extracted, Hedman insisted that “we the communities have the power…we are the center of the information. Global powers want our knowledge.” As Fakhri explained, companies may “act as if they're going to come and sell us this new technology, and it's going to change the world. But they need the people more than we need them.”

With this power, data producers can assert our rights, including the right to receive the benefits produced by data collection. Nosipho Nausca-Jeand Jezile, ambassador from South Africa, described that “South Africa has a legal framework which is referred to as benefit sharing. It is about how you acknowledge indigenous knowledge to enable innovation, and therefore through the whole value chain there is a benefit that goes back to those indigenous knowledge holders.”

We know that it is possible for data to be used for liberation outside of corporate control, because data is something that has existed long before digitalization. Hedman affirmed that “Indigenous peoples have been stewards of data, of our ancestral knowledge, which has been recorded and protected for the care of our Mother Earth, of ourselves, of the people, of the world.”

Yet, the audience raised many remaining questions to realize the use of data for liberation. How do we engage meaningfully with governments that use words like competitiveness, effectiveness, efficiency, entrepreneurialism? Given that most farmers are not experts in working with data, how can farmers be put in the centre of data collection without being exploited? How do we address the environmental costs required to create digital hardware and infrastructure? And what does successful-benefit sharing actually look like, understanding all the different ways that knowledge, data, and information is created?

Fakhri shared that “right now within the UN, through the Secretary-general's office, there's talk of trying to negotiate a global compact on digitalization, which means that the world understands we need some mechanism to govern data on a global basis.” This conversation is just the beginning of a global discussion about centering the rights of farmers and workers in the midst of agri-food digitalization.