UN addresses growing power of Big Data in food and nutrition

The United Nations’s Committee on World Food Security will adopt a set of principles next week for the collection and use of data in the context of food and nutrition. These policy recommendations will fill a gap, as the sharp increase in the use of data and digital technologies makes it urgent to put in place human rights-based governance frameworks.

Data has become a critical resource and determining who can use which data, under what conditions and for what purposes is increasingly relevant to realize the right to food and nutrition.

Currently, access to data and control over the technologies needed to collect, store, process, analyze and use them are very unevenly distributed. In the emerging data economy, the power and economic benefits derived from digital data are concentrated in a few countries, especially the USA and China. Moreover, a small number of global digital corporations have acquired huge financial, market and technological power, largely based on their control over large swathes of data.

Data grabs and digital divide

We are in an era of rapidly growing data extraction and use, which is deepening economic inequality around the world and within societies.

Simultaneously, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) is reinventing itself as an agency focusing on making available data to channel private and public investments in food and agriculture. The FAO recently launched a geospatial platform that combines two million data layers from different domains and sources, such as national statistics, meteorological data and satellite imagery. Together with the World Bank and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) it also launched the so-called “50x2030 Initiative”, a 10-year, USD 500 million program that aims to increase the capacity of 50 low and lower middle-income countries to produce, analyze, interpret, and use data to support rural development and food security.

While state and corporate actors promote data-based technologies and digitalization as a silver bullet to increase food production while making food systems more sustainable, no governance frameworks are in place yet to protect and promote the human rights of small-scale food producers, Indigenous Peoples and other communities. These groups fear that their data will be extracted and used without their consent to create products and services that will then be sold to them for profit – deepening their dependence on external actors while lining the pockets of corporations. Indeed, data grabs can easily turn into land or seed grabs.

Human-rights based data governance

Against this background, the CFS has negotiated a set of policy recommendations, which provide guidance on how states and international institutions should regulate the collection and use of data in the context of food and nutrition. These recommendations emphasize that data governance needs to be based on human rights principles and advance the right to food. They further explicitly recognize peasants, Indigenous peoples, and other small-scale food producers as rights holders over the data they generate and related knowledge. They acknowledge their right to an equitable share of any benefits generated from that data. Importantly, the recommendations call on states to invest in public data infrastructure while emphasizing the need to prevent illegal extraction of data.

While states unfortunately shied away from setting clear rules for the regulation and accountability of agribusiness and data companies, the policy recommendations do provide elements that food providers and civil society organizations can use to demand the development of human rights-based government frameworks for food-related data. At the same time, social movements and Indigenous Peoples will continue developing their own ways of sharing and using data to advance agroecology and food sovereignty.

While the CFS policy recommendations are a first step in the right direction, more needs to be done to safeguard the rights of small-scale food producers and communities in the context of data extraction while ensuring a fair distribution of the benefits of data use.

For more information or media interviews please contact Amanda Cordova Gonzales cordova-gonzales@fian.org or Tom Sullivan sullivan@fian.org


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