Can we democratize data in the age of digital extraction?

By Clare Crowe Pettersson, Journalist, & Lena Bassermann, TMG Think Tank for Sustainability

The United Nations Committee on World Food Security (CFS) recently adopted new policy guidelines on the use of data and digital technologies in the context of food security and nutrition. What comes next?

Data and digital technologies add another dimension of complexity for food systems transformation. © GIZ / Climax Film Production, 2021

By TMG – ThinkTankforSustainabilty

The Töpfer Müller Gaßner GmbH (TMG) as a "Think Tank for Sustainability" supports the implementation of sustainable development targets and the Paris Climate Agreement.

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“No data without representation!” calls Nachiket Udupa, a member of India’s Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture. Ahead of the 51st plenary session of the United Nations Committee on World Food Security (CFS), Nachiket and other civil society leaders convened to explore open questions around the pitfalls and opportunities presented by data-driven technologies in food systems. The forum, hosted by TMG Research gGmbH with support from the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), provided examples of how civil society organizations (CSOs) are reimagining inclusive digitalization and co-creating human-rights based digital technologies towards social empowerment and democratic accountability.


Data and digital technologies add another dimension of complexity to an already controversial conversation around the direction of food systems transformation. While they have the potential to help innovate solutions for pressing global challenges, they also risk entrenching inequalities and unjust systems. The recent adoption of Policy Recommendations on Strengthening Collection and Use of Food Security and Nutrition (FSN) Data and Related Analysis Tools during CFS 51 marked an important first step in addressing the implications of digitalization in the food domain.

“It is in an unequal world in that we are introducing digital tools,” reminds K.J. Joy, Senior Fellow at the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM) in India. Often heralded as a silver bullet for sustainable food systems, the mainstream “data gap” narrative posits that more data is the answer to making progress towards achieving food and nutrition security. However, data and digitalization alone do not address the structural causes behind hunger and malnutrition, and the unjust power structures embedded in digital systems.


Rather than more data, the need is for better data, more representative of what is often underreported and unseen, empowering the most marginalized first and foremost rather than exacerbating patterns of exclusion and discrimination.


It is essential that the political questions around data and digitalization center on human-rights and on the preconditions required to empower communities to shape their own food and digital futures.

A lack of appropriate regulatory frameworks has put the communities that feed the world at risk. A push for digital tools geared towards small-scale food producers has created a new marketplace for data extraction from the private sector. “The more data a corporation can accumulate, the more economic and political power that company has,” says Patti Naylor, an American farmer and coordinator of the Civil Society and Indigenous People’s Mechanism for Relations with the CFS (CSIPM) working group on data. “It’s a new kind of wealth that is being extracted from our communities. Just as human labor has been extracted, and the wealth of natural resources have been extracted, now data is that new asset.” As Nachiket Udupa, a representative from India’s largest land rights movement, offers, “Data is the new oil.”


“What we cannot allow from a Right to Food perspective is for data to benefit big producers and companies and disempower local producers and communities. It is very important these policy recommendations now be brought to impact,”


... says CFS Chairperson, H.E. Ambassador Gabriel Ferrero y de Loma-Osorio, who joined for the TMG discussion and reacted to the demands made by CSO representatives.

During the forum, social movement leaders from Kenya, India, and South Africa shared insights on how their communities are piloting digital tools and social innovations as a lever for positive change in food systems. Along with contributions from other civil society voices, their experiences help to provide guidance for how the implementation of these recommendations should take shape.


Ich bin ein Alternativtext
Women's land rights are still being infringed, especially in rural areas. In Kenya, the Haki Ardhi app is helping. © TMG

Violet Shivutse, Founder and Coordinator of Shibuye Community Health Workers in Kenya, shared how the Haki Ardhi App, developed with the Kenya Land Alliance, TMG and Rainforest Alliance UK, helps to report infringements of women's land rights, protecting their rights as well as strengthening relevant institutions and policies. “In many discussions, people don’t believe in the power of organizing communities,” says Violet. “We have to start investing in championing communities, starting with how they are already organizing and holding duty bearers accountable.” When communities are equipped with their own data, they can better contribute to dialogue and debate at local and global levels and build stronger, data-based advocacy strategies to strengthen accountable.

What lessons can be drawn from the experiences of communities on the forefront of the digital frontier and the frontlines of compounding crises? Drawing on collective experience, an emerging consensus was reached on the guiding principles to ensure that data and digitalization are a source for good. It remains to be seen if governments take these recommendations on board. Still, while voluntary and non-binding, the new policy recommendations mark a step forward, a springboard for further conversations on how the CFS can work towards inclusive digitalization and serve the needs of the most affected constituencies.

While digitalization could be an asset for advancing food and nutrition security and making visible patterns of inequity and discrimination, it is already being deployed in ways that deepen inequalities. A rebalancing of power over data and digital resources is required. Human-rights based data governance and democratic accountability are essential in these efforts.

In an era of complex digital landscapes and data extraction, digital democratization hinges on a paradigm shift. To harness digitalization's potential for the common good, we must refocus on the rights and agency of the most marginalized, especially women, Indigenous Peoples, and small-scale producers. Grassroots movements and CSOs must be at the decision-making table to decide what kind of data is needed, and to offer alternative visions for how digital technologies can be applied to the benefit of their people.

With global food systems marred by power asymmetries, it is imperative that global governance structures ensure that rights-holders are at the center of digitalization in food systems. Top-down approaches towards the Right to Food have failed. True transformation is built from the bottom up and inclusive digitalization can help to reshape food systems for the better.


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