Working on the Normative Dimension of the Data Economy for Food Systems

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The Horizon Europe funded project, Data4Food2030 has started its analysis of the ethical, legal and social aspects involved in the improvement of the data economy. As the definition and the framework of the data economy for food systems have made significant progress, it is now time to incorporate in it the study of the normative dimension of sustainability, equitability, fairness and justice.

Why is an Ethical, Social and Legal analysis essential?

The data economy for food systems will not only be a technical web of computers, sensors and machines structured according to a formal framework, but also entails a vast range of possible consequences for future human life. Food systems compose a central part of the global economy, are essential to feeding the population and play a major part in sustainability questions. The upcoming world of digitalisation, furthermore, brings along numerous opportunities as well as challenges for social, ethical and legal life that require thorough consideration. It is therefore essential that the social sciences work alongside the natural and data sciences to keep track of the moral implications of the work in Data4Food2030.

What is the ELSA approach?

The systematic study of Ethical, Legal and Social Aspects (ELSA) of key technologies, such as a data economy, is a methodology in the social sciences that enables standardized anticipation of moral issues, interactivity with stakeholders and the public for co-design opportunities, and interdisciplinarity to bridge boundaries between research communities. The ELSA methodology is closely related to the well-known Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) approach and shares with it the focus on reflection on impacts, purposes and motivations regarding societal impact, the attention for inclusion to involve diverse perspectives of related stakeholders and the close observation of responsiveness and responsibility when suitable action is called for. The ELSA-lab at the WUR will take the lead within Data4Food2030 as it has significant experience in bringing together social scientific expertise in digitalization with the technical sciences and in closely collaborating with a wide consortium of stakeholders.

Ethics of a Data Economy for Food Systems

In general, people tend to conceive of technologies as neutral objects, tools or instruments that can be used by humans to achieve their goals. However, technologies also mediate our experiences and determine how we understand the world, which can have numerous moral implications. This is even more so the case for upcoming, complex, digital technologies. For example, applying AI and IoT in agriculture can have both positive and negative impacts on the environment, which are hard to predict; can we trust automated machines in managing valuable crops? Who is responsible when something goes wrong? Can we blame an autonomous computer? Who should own and govern the data and databases used in the data economy? Who has the right of decision-making and ownership, and on what grounds? How can the livelihood of farmers be safeguarded? A plethora of questions regarding accountability, transparency, social cohesion, dignity, privacy, freedom and so on can and should be asked in this context. The ethical, legal and social science scholars within Data4Food2030 have a strong cumulative expertise in dealing with these pseudo-empirical but crucial matters and will work together closely to develop proper guidelines for the development of the data economy for food systems.

Introduction of ELSA at the second yearly assembly: Moving forward

In the beginning of October, the Data4Food2030 team gathered and discussed onward strategies. Here, the ELSA approach was introduced and explained during the plenary presentations. This interdisciplinary communication session served the twofold purpose of informing the complete team about the environmental, social, ethical and legal questions inherently connected to the data4food project and giving the natural and life scientists within the project the opportunity to share their knowledge as well as concerns regarding the normative dimension of the project. The complex and multi-faceted issues of current times, such as climate change, hunger and AI ethics, cannot be answered in a simple or definitive manner but require efforts of all the involved disciplines to talk and listen to each other so that we can work together towards a sustainable and equitable future. The ELSA-lab in Wageningen has the ambition to develop into a well-known hub of interconnected science that is in constant dialogue with government, global research and tech companies to realise responsible applications of future technologies.

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