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Legislating e-agriculture: why does it matter?


The digital transformation of agrifood systems is accelerating globally, driven by the emergence of technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and blockchain. These technologies are having a profound effect on agriculture, enhancing precision, productivity and real-time decision-making capabilities (Trendov, Varas & Zeng, 2019). IoT sensors, for example, can monitor diverse agricultural variables, ranging from soil moisture to livestock health, enabling farmers to make more informed choices. These choices, often guided by big data analytics and AI, not only increase efficiency but also strengthen resilience against climate change and extreme weather events. In addition, incorporating blockchain technology into the agrifood value chain can improve transparency and traceability. However, the digitalisation of agriculture also carries risks, particularly with regards to the growing digital divide, data privacy and the exclusion of marginalised individuals and communities. Challenges such as a lack of access to digital infrastructure, the lack of knowledge of these technologies, and the high cost of adopting them are likely to exacerbate the growing digital divide, particularly between large-scale and subsistence farming and between women and men. (FAO, 2023)

The immutable nature of blockchain can facilitate the verification of agricultural inputs and food products, but it poses legal challenges. For example, the permanent nature of records in blockchain ledgers can conflict with data protection laws. There are also concerns about the ethical implications of AI and the environmental impacts of digital technologies. In addition, automation via AI and robotics can lead to workforce displacement, especially in areas where agriculture is the primary source of employment (FAO, 2022). Geographically, while global internet coverage is expanding, rural areas are still lagging behind with less than 30 percent having access to broadband and 3G services. Women are 21 percent less likely than men to use the Internet, a number that rises to 52 percent in least-developed countries (World Wide Web Foundation, 2020). The United Nations General Assembly has highlighted persistent digital divides across various sectors, including the underrepresentation of women in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) (UNGA, 2016 Para 21). The Sustainable Development Goals also highlight the importance of ensuring access to the internet (SDG Target 9c). The lack of legal identification is a significant barrier to financial inclusion. In low-income countries, 45 percent of women over the age of 15 lack such identification, compared to 30 percent of men. This lack of identification exacerbates the existing inequalities and limits women's ability to engage in various economic activities (OECD, 2018). The OECD released a recommendation in 2022 focusing on Artificial Intelligence which stresses the need for responsible governance of AI technologies and highlights their potential for reducing social and gender disparities if managed effectively (OECD, 2022).

Current legal and regulatory frameworks often fall short of adequately addressing these intersecting issues. Legislators should develop comprehensive legal frameworks that consider both the opportunities and risks raised by these technologies. Such legal frameworks should also enable the realisation of human rights, including those of Indigenous Peoples and women. Digital transformation policies should align with national development objectives, including gender equality goals. The multi-faceted nature of the digital divide requires multi-stakeholder dialogues at the national and international levels to develop comprehensive and cross-cutting strategies that ensure that no one is left behind in the digitalisation of agriculture. The upcoming global Summit of the Future in September 2024 should lead to the adoption of a Global Digital Compact. It is expected that the Compact will lay out important principles for the regulation of these technologies. It is also crucial to foster communication and collaboration among governments, technology providers, and other stakeholders to overcome challenges and develop interoperable standards, particularly for cross-border data exchange and smart contracts.

Digital agriculture is a fast-moving field that promises great progress, but may also lead to even greater inequalities. For this reason, strategies such as the African Union's digital transformation strategy for Africa (2020-2030) are important initiatives which should be supported in order for them to lead to concrete action.

                                                                                                                                   Naomi Kenney and Margret Vidar (FAO)

African Union. Nd. digital transformation strategy for Africa (2020-2030).

FAO. 2023. The status of women in agrifood systems. Rome.

FAO. 2022. The State of Food and Agriculture 2022. Leveraging automation in agriculture for transforming agrifood systems. Rome, FAO.

OECD. 2022. Recommendation of the Council on Artificial Intelligence, OECD/LEGAL/0449) 

OECD. 2018. Bridging the digital gender divide – Include, upskill, innovate, Paris. 

Trendov, N.M., Varas, S, and Zeng, M. 2019. Digital Technologies in Agriculture and Rural Areas, Briefing Paper. Rome, FAO.

World Wide Web Foundation. 2020. Women’s Rights Online - Closing the digital gender gap for a more equal world.