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Opinion: Food Security & Nutrition

Building Global Food Security Through Data Coordination

Benjamin Kwasi Addom Benjamin Kwasi Addom

Benjamin Kwasi Addom, Adviser on Agriculture & Fisheries Trade Policy for the Commonwealth Connectivity Agenda unpacks the potential for agricultural data to drive change in the sector and improve food security.

Data is the bedrock of digital agricultural innovations. With the saying that “data is the new oil”, agricultural data can also be considered a resource to advance sustainability, food security, productivity and other aims. Above all, resources require infrastructure to utilise their full potential.

So, how can data help put food on the table? The threat to global food security is a major concern for policymakers across the globe. In the Commonwealth, agriculture ensures food security and employment for over half of its 2.5 billion people.

The agricultural data ecosystem is complex. This may include an array of content data types such as agronomic, weather, financial, production, yield, and market, as well as user data such as those on the farmers, traders, enterprises, consumers, research networks, extension networks, financial institutions and cooperatives that will eventually make use of the tools. 

The value of agricultural data continues to increase in the digital age, as the speed and volume of data being generated provide the basis for investment in the sector. It also enables sound policy decision-making and timely advisory services to farmers.

The challenge of food security and data

Despite data being labelled as the “new oil”, most countries lack the infrastructure to manage agricultural data. Within any typical national agricultural data ecosystem, several stakeholder groups are involved in the management of data, although this often comes with a lack of coordination in managing this information. This leads to fragmented data systems, the unwillingness of data holders to share, duplication of data systems, operational inefficiencies, collection and survey fatigue on data subjects, failure to scale innovations based on data, unsuitable policies developed on fragmented data points and a data power imbalance between the “data owners” and “data holders”.

The long-term effect of policy inaction by national governments could mean a weak national digital sovereignty – the power and authority of national governments to make decisions freely affecting citizens and businesses within the digital domain. 

An article by the World Economic Forum (WEF) clearly laid out the challenge including fragmentation, lack of standards and limitations in the interchange of agricultural data. It argues that WEF aims to drive industry coordination by developing a common format for the interchange of agricultural data. Unfortunately, the agricultural data challenge at the country level may need more than just industry coordination on data formats or standards.

A new approach – Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) for agricultural data 

According to the United Nations (UN), countries with robust public infrastructure are better equipped to meet the needs of their people and accelerate action towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Infrastructure powers societies, provides the fundamental services and systems that enable economies, allows for communication, facilitates the creation and growth of other systems and supports daily activities.  

A national approach is needed to manage agricultural data, and the concept of Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) can help. DPIs are considered digital solutions that enable the basic functions essential for public and private service delivery. There are already use cases of DPI in the Commonwealth including digital identity – Aadhaar and real-time fast United Payment Interface (UPI) in India; digital systems for real-time Covid-19 screening, contact tracing and monitoring system in Sri Lanka; and a digital cash payment programme in Togo that helped the country’s most vulnerable people during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The use case for agriculture, however, is missing. Agricultural data infrastructure, as argued in the State of Digital Agriculture in the Commonwealth report represents a use case of DPI for the agricultural sector upon which other digital agricultural services can be built. DPI for agriculture could consist of the following components:

  1. Social/Principles Component: A component that creates opportunities for data standards across a range of data sources, supports data privacy and protection for owners and contributors, supports data ethics and enables data sharing, use and re-use. 
  2. Technological/Data System: A component that supports data registries, data identifiers and more for up-to-date data, accurate data products and adheres to data principles and interoperability across countries.  
  3. Governance/Administration Component: Governance models that emphasise neutrality and the representation of stakeholders such as data custodians, stewards and trustees with multi-stakeholder entities to administer the DPI. 
  4. Business/Market Component: A business component that ensures fair and scalable access with a social and public case for financing and a business case for private sector investors that maintains and sustains the infrastructure. 

The future of agricultural data

Looking ahead, the current situation in each country must be understood and agreement must be reached on whether there is a need for a national approach to data coordination within the agricultural innovation ecosystem. In addition, awareness around the risks of inaction for governments must be created – especially the risk against national digital sovereignty – building consensus on the way forward and beginning the process of developing the DPI use case for agriculture.

The Commonwealth Secretariat’s Connectivity Agenda can help lead a consortium of partners to roll out this coordinated and long-term investment in agricultural data management for national, regional and global decision-making for agricultural production and trade in low and middle-income countries (LMICs). 

This Expert View originally appeared on the Commonwealth blog and has been edited for length and clarity.

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