Key Points and Questions on the Governance of Digital Agriculture
Should an International Digital Council be struck, it should consider the following points as priorities:
- Digitalisation of food and agriculture should not be automatically considered positive or desirable. The autonomy of diverse cultural food and life ways of peoples and communities across the globe must be respected and protected as distinct and autonomous systems. It should not be assumed that smallholders WANT to be “integrated into new digitally driven agrifood systems” (USAID 2018, in Trendov, Varas, Zeng 2019 p1).
- A clear division needs to be made between industrial food systems and peasant / cultural / agroecological food systems. Peasant food systems should not be subjected to incorporation into industrial systems through digitalisation initiatives. At present, most digital technologies – precision agriculture and remote sensing technologies, big data, cloud, analytics, remote sensing technologies - are designed to serve failing industrial food systems.
- The millions of small-scale food producers across the globe, who produce the majority of the world’s food and who also disproportionately suffer from hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity have the right to decide what kind of food and agriculture systems we want, and the right to participate in decisions that affect us. This includes digitalisation processes. Thus far, the consultations that have been conducted on this process have not included any small-scale food producers organisations. This is an unacceptable omission that should be corrected going forward.
Responses to questions for concept note
- What are the potential entry points for government to address challenges and foster the development of digital agriculture?
- Before governments address challenges and foster the development of digital agriculture, there are some important questions that need to be answered: What digital technologies are being developed and promoted and by whom? Who benefits from these developments? On what basis are digital technologies considered desirable? Have communities been consulted about their needs and aspirations for their food and agriculture systems? What are the risks to the rights, food security and livelihoods of people and communities of digital agriculture technologies?
- Private sector industrial innovations have already been shown to undermine democratic rights of people and communities to have a voice in decisions that affect them. This needs to be addressed directly and immediately. Indeed, the 2019 FAO status report Digital technologies in agriculture and rural areas recognised “large international companies predominantly use digital transformation in agriculture in a context of agribusiness. This process also affects other organizations, such as governments, public sector agencies and local agripreneurs, which are involved in tackling societal challenges such as rural livelihood, women and youth unemployment and agripreneurship” (Trendov et al, 2019 p2)
- Any process of digitalisation undertaken by governments and/or the private sector must respect pre-existing international human rights declarations, relevant treaties, conventions, and national laws. Violation of these instruments must incur strict and severe penalties.
- Governments MUST conduct comprehensive risk, impact, and benefit assessments of any new technology in a participatory and inclusive manner, prioritising the inputs of those most affected by hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity.
- Governments MUST create strong legal and regulatory frameworks to protect people and communities from the potential negative impacts of digital agriculture technologies. These technologies must be strictly regulated, and communities should be protected from imposition of new technologies on them by private interests and governments.
- Investment in basic rural infrastructure, guided by the needs of communities, should be the first priority to address inequalities between rural and urban populations, in both developing and developed countries.
- Technologies should be developed to foster public goods first and foremost. People, not profits, should guide policy decisions.
- Data must be owned and controlled by the people who generate it, not private companies. Private sector access to and use of public data must be strictly regulated.
- The environmental and health impacts of digitalisation need to be carefully considered, assessed, and integrated into policy and regulatory frameworks – taking into account every point in the value chain – from the manufacture of hardware which relies on extractive industries such as mining, to their disposal, and also considering the issue of energy consumption involved in transportation and storage.
- If established, the Digital Council should consider the potential for digital technologies to contribute to sustainable energy transitions, to improve the efficient recycling and reuse of raw materials (reducing their continued extraction) their role in clean up and restoration of degraded and polluted landscapes, and many other applications needed for transition away from hydrocarbon-dependent growth economies and towards steady state and degrowth economies based on clean energy.
- How can the establishment of the Digital Council address the numerous barriers to adoption of these technologies?
- Inequalities between and within countries are the primary cause of hunger and malnutrition. Governments must begin by addressing these problems collectively.
- The council should not be neutral. If established, its work should be firmly anchored in advancing the progressive realisation of human rights, including the right to food, the rights of women, the rights of indigenous peoples, and the rights of peasants and people working in rural areas.
- While many technologies may be desirable and useful, we need to be very cautious and recognise the risk for misuse, and the potential of digital technologies to exacerbate existing inequalities and injustices. Technologies should be in the service of people and communities and enhance their livelihoods. As such, data must be collectively owned by communities, accessible, affordable, ethically designed, produced, distributed, and regulated. The process of developing these technologies should be democratic and bottom-up, and respond to the needs and aspirations of people and communities while ensuring decent work, ecological integrity, sustainability, and equity.
- In recognition of the need for transformative food system change to address the multiple interdependent crises of rising global hunger and malnutrition, climate change, mass migration, and inequality, agroecological approaches have been shown to have the greatest potential for meeting all these challenges in ways that are community-led, context-adaptable, and sustainable. Many of the industrial innovations under the rubric of digitalisation such as precision agriculture and DSI do not address these challenges, and may in fact contribute to them (HLPE 2019). How will the Council address these contradictions?
- The technologies themselves could possibly benefit diverse publics, if they were democratised. That is, if their development was oriented to enhancing public goods, through participatory and inclusive mechanisms, and based on collective rights and shared access, use, and benefit to and with communities. The research and development of new industrial technologies should be based in an understanding of and respect for the complex interdependence of nested, dynamic human and ecological systems. As this is not the case, these “solutions” are highly unlikely to support the food system transitions so urgently needed.
- In terms of its ethical responsibilities, the council should not only make sure that technologies are used in an ethical way, but that ethical principles guide their design, development, testing, manufacturing, distribution, ownership, control, and benefit
2. Do you think that the roles identified for the Digital Council are suitable for facing the agrifood systems challenges outlined above?
- The agri-food systems challenges we collectively face will not be magically fixed by digital technologies. They will be addressed only by governments upholding the rights of their publics, and by legal and regulatory frameworks and policies that serve public goods. Digital technologies can play a role in this, but only if they are democratised. Private sector concentration in the digital sector is the first priority that this digital council should address.
3. What governance structure should be in place in order for the Council to serve its purpose?
- What is the rationale for forming a Digital Council? What other fora already exist for discussion on these topics, and what gaps would this council fulfil? Has any assessment has been done on this? Before going forward, there should be a comprehensive assessment of the different intergovernmental fora where digital technologies for food and agriculture are being discussed. Surely, any discussion on digital agriculture should take place within already existing fora on food and agriculture, namely the UNFAO, and primarily the CFS, which is the foremost intergovernmental platform for food and agriculture policy.
- If established, who would this council be accountable to? Who would set the priorities for its work and on what basis? How would accountability be monitored and ensured?
- Not all stakeholders are equal. Private interests whose motivation is shareholder profits should not be given equal voice to people and communities, who are rights holders, and to whom governments, as duty bearers, are responsible. What mechanisms will be in place to prevent conflicts of interest? Private Sector participation and influence in the Council should be strictly limited due to conflicts of interest.
- What mechanisms will be in place to ensure democratic and inclusive participation of vulnerable and marginalised communities in the council? Small-scale food producers across the world have most at stake in this discussion, and as such their voices should be prioritised.
- While a number of stakeholders invested in industrial agriculture and food systems have taken up the rhetoric of sustainability, their piecemeal, technical approaches (e.g. biofortification, so-called sustainable intensification, biotechnology) do not address these dysfunctionalities in a holistic, participatory, and transformative way. In essence, these so-called solutions are driven by the logic of unchecked economic growth and the accumulation of private profit at the expense and disregard of public goods. Those responsible for the development of digital agriculture technologies are operating under the same logics. We should be very clear to evaluate any new technologies on the basis of already agreed-uopn normative principles – to uphold, protect, and fulfil human rights and the right to food. The CFS is the space in which to address these issues.
HLPE. 2019. Agroecological and other innovative approaches for sustainable agriculture and
food systems that enhance food security and nutrition. A report by the High Level
Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition of the Committee on World Food
Trendov, N. M., Varas, S. & Zeng, M. (2019). Digital technologies in agriculture and rural
areas – Status report. Rome. Licence: cc