Digital agriculture: A new frontier for data rights

Credit: angkhan / iStock

One morning in 2019, the inhabitants of Naya Toli, a village in eastern India, woke to find that they had become landless overnight. This time, it was not bulldozers or armed gangs driving them from their land but a state government program to digitize land records. The new digital registry attributed 108 acres in their area to the previous owner, who had sold the land to 19 families in 1973. 

What might appear to be a simple technical glitch reveals a fundamental problem with the rapid deployment of digital technologies: it risks entrenching existing exclusion and increasing inequalities.


Power imbalances embedded in digital technologies

The promise we so often hear about the future of food is that digital technologies will make food systems more productive, sustainable, and efficient, as well as help to address rising world hunger. In reality, the digitalization of agriculture is set to benefit mainly large corporations, while small-scale food producers, Indigenous peoples, and other marginalized groups risk losing out. Smallholder farmers 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. After all, there are enormous power imbalances between rural communities and multinational technology conglomerates.

The Indian government began digitizing land records in the 1990s and launched its ambitious Digital India Land Records Modernization Programme (DILRMP) in 2008. By 2019, the state of Jharkhand had digitized more than 99% of its land registry records. However, with only 2.3% of land physically surveyed in the fast-paced process, the land rights and claims of many communities, such as those in Naya Toli, disappeared in the newly digitized registries. When villagers there tried to pay their land taxes, officials refused, claiming that they could not pay taxes for land they did not own, according to DILRMP records. The villagers have since tried, with great difficulty, to correct the information in the registry.

Communities across India relate similar experiences, especially smallholder farmers and Indigenous peoples, who possess traditional claims to common lands or collective forms of land ownership. The new digital registries have proved unable to document the diversity of tenure types, further disenfranchising marginalized groups. Indian communities are not alone: from Brazil to Rwanda and Georgia to Indonesia, people face similar challenges.


The pitfalls of “digital agriculture”

The digitization of land records is one part of a rapid and far-reaching transformation of food systems, sometimes referred to as “digital agriculture.” The Indian government announced in 2021 that newly digitized land records would be included in Agri Stack, a government-backed data exchange that enables the integration of land data with farmer profiles and other non-human sourced agricultural data (weather, soil health, hydrology, etc.). The stated goal is to create a pool of aggregated data to create customized products and services for farmers.

But as in other sectors of the economy, there is a race underway for profitable data and data collecting and processing technologies—including artificial intelligence. In recent years, several of the world’s leading agribusiness companies have partnered with large technology companies such as Alphabet, Microsoft, and Amazon. These provide the technical infrastructure, such as cloud-based systems and artificial intelligence, that underlies a range of new applications and services that agribusinesses sell to farmers. In India, massive farmers’ protests challenged new agricultural laws adopted by parliament in September 2020, which opened up the country’s agricultural sector to corporations. The new laws coincided with the launch of Agri Stack, reinforcing farmers’ fears of a new wave of data-driven land grabs. 


Just digitalisation 

Two important lessons can be drawn from the experiences of communities in India and other countries. First, the development and use of digital technologies are firmly embedded in a given socioeconomic context. Technology does not develop in a bubble but is shaped by money and power, both of which are highly concentrated in a few large companies. Second, the implications of digitalization go beyond data protection and privacy. More specifically, digitalization impacts equity and the distribution of resources and wealth. It must be shaped proactively to make our societies more just rather than reproducing patterns of exclusion and discrimination. There is an urgent need for strong human rights–based governance frameworks that establish principles and standards for the use of digital technologies in the context of food and agriculture.

Governments and the United Nations appear to be finally rising to this challenge. The UN Human Rights Council recently adopted a resolution on “new and emerging digital technologies and human rights.” While highlighting the potential of these technologies, the resolution also recognizes the risks they may pose to human rights, including the economic, social, and cultural rights of marginalized groups such as Indigenous peoples and people living in rural areas. In addition, it calls on states to establish governance frameworks to prevent, mitigate, and remedy the adverse effects of digital technologies on human rights, including regulating the activities of technology companies.

The UN’s Committee on World Food Security also recently agreed on a set of policy recommendations on the collection and use of data in the context of food security and nutrition. This document includes the first formal attempt to describe how data and related technologies are affecting food systems and to propose guidance on how to manage the associated opportunities and risks. Significantly, the recommendations, to be adopted in October 2023, recognize farmers, Indigenous peoples, and other small-scale food producers as rights holders over their data and related knowledge, with the right to an equitable share of any benefits generated from that data. 

Whether these global initiatives will help to shape the use of digital technologies in food and agriculture in a way that supports human rights remains to be seen. However, they clearly demonstrate that the issues raised by digitalization are inherently political. We cannot leave it to technicians and corporations to shape the future of our societies. 

As seen with the massive farmers’ mobilizations in India, food producers’ organizations are putting forward an alternative vision in which technologies are at the service of people and the planet, not financial interests.