On 24 October 2023, the 51st plenary session of the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) hosted a side event on “Data Governance in the Digitalization of the Food System – Bringing Small Food Producers and Governments Closer”. This side event was co-organized by the data working group of the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples’ Mechanism (CSIPM), the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Michael Fakhri, and the government of Mexico.
Facilitated by the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, the event took place on the same day when the CFS Policy Recommendations on strengthening collection and use of FSN data were submitted for approval and endorsed by member states at the CFS plenary. Below is a multimedia summary of the event, which included a highly varied and rich panel of speakers: Taina Hedman, from the International Indian Treaty Council (Panama), Patti Naylor, from the National Family Farm Coalition (NFFC, United States), Moayyad Bsharat, from Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC, Occupied Palestinian Territory), Nosipho Nausca-Jean Jezile, the newly appointed CFS Chair and Ambassador of the Republic of South Africa in Italy, and Victor Suárez Carrera, Deputy Minister for Food Self-sufficiency (Mexico).
Michael Fakhri, who advocates for a robust governance framework for data, introduced the event by recognising the recent CFS negotiations as one of the pioneering discussions on this subject within the United Nations System. He highlighted how discussions around technology are frequently confined to market or business opportunities, overlooking underlying power dynamics.
Moayyad Bsharat, the first panelist to speak, was unable to travel from the Occupied Palestinian Territory to Rome even though he had been granted a visa. As Moayyad emphasized, for colonized peoples such as Palestinians, data is often controlled by the colonizer and used as a tool for oppression. Data is seldom neutral and often carries significant political implications. This is particularly evident in the technologies deployed and controlled by Israeli corporations. An example is how the Israeli occupation authorities use digitalization to monitor workers in the field, violating their human rights. He also warned of the risks of privatizing information, which turns it into a tool to attract investments that compete with the small food producers and farmers and are used to expel them from the agricultural sector.
H.E. Ms Nosipho Nausca-Jean Jezile stated that the benefits of data and digital technologies must be returned to those from whom the data is being taken. She gave an example. In South Africa, there is a legal framework which is referred to as Access and Benefit-Sharing and is in alignment with the Nagoya Protocol. The framework aims to ensure a fair and equitable distribution of benefits derived from the use of genetic resources, such as indigenous plants for medicinal purposes – a common practice in South Africa. It acknowledges indigenous knowledge to enable innovation. Hence, throughout the entire value chain, there is a reciprocal benefit that reverberates back to the custodians of this Indigenous knowledge.
From the Kuna Yala community in Panama, Taina Hedman shared her Indigenous perspective. “We, the communities, have all the power. We are the center of information,” she stated. “The global power wants to extract the knowledge from us – we are the ones who have the information.” She reflected on the notion that data is not solely confined within the boundaries of corporate control, as it has been around long before the era of digitalisation. Indigenous Peoples have long been custodians of data, safeguarding their ancestral knowledge. This knowledge has been documented and protected for the care of Mother Earth and humanity,” she concluded.
Patti Naylor, a smallholder farmer from the United States, discussed the harmful aspects of digital technologies to small-scale farmers, citing the extraction and exploitation of their data and knowledge by corporations, surveillance and privacy violations, and potential threats of labor deskillment or outright replacement. She also recognised that technologies are normalising an extractive agriculture system. National sovereignty over food production and distribution systems are critical to food security, thus, governance of data technologies must be put in place.
Víctor Suárez Carrera underscored the importance of equitable access to technologies. He highlighted a stark reality where a significant part of the rural population in Mexico lacks Internet access, prompting the government to adopt an ambitious goal of providing 95% of rural communities with access to free telecommunications and Internet. Control of technologies is also a concern of the Mexican government. Carrera expressed skepticism over the touted benefits of digital technologies, including Big Data, automation, and AI, being hailed as a panacea for global food insecurity – a claim he considers to be yet another false promise.
Michael Fakhri summed up the debate and the complex and connected issues. He stated that we could think of data and knowledge as different sets of relationships that produce different ways of understanding the world. Knowledge comes with the context of the moment front and center. In contrast, data comes from a different set of relationships where we may not know who we are working with. “It’s abstract,” he explained, “as if there is a machine sucking out our experiences and repackaging them in a way that we don’t have access to.” He echoed the words of Taina reminding the audience that Indigenous Peoples’ right for free, prior and informed consent is not just recognised in the UNDRIP. It is deeply rooted in their right to self-determination and is an inherent part of their identity.
The Special Rapporteur ended the event with the following reflection:
Watch the video (floor) recording of the side event
- Read the working group’s statement at the CFS 51st plenary.
- Read the working group’s evaluation of the CFS Policy Recommendations on strengthening collection and use of FSN data.
- Read the working group’s vision statement.
- Read the CFS Policy Recommendations on strengthening collection and use of FSN data
- Follow and join the social media conversation with hashtag #CFSData
- Article: “From Data to Action: Six principles for inclusive digitalization towards food systems transformation“ (TMG, Clare Crowe, November 2023)
- Report: “Artificial Intelligence vs. Agroecology?” (FIAN, November 2023), also available in French.
- Press release: UN addresses growing power of Big Data in food and nutrition (FIAN, October 2023)
- Article: “Feeding the World with More Data?” (Maywa Montenegro and Matthew Canfield, September 2023)
- Article: “Digital agriculture: A new frontier for data rights” (Philip Seufert, September 2023), also available in Spanish.