Out-Law / Your Daily Need-To-Know

The problems of food poverty, emissions from food waste and food price inflation, and compliance with food standards, could all be addressed through a new trust framework for sharing data from across the food system, a legal expert has said.

In an article co-written for Nature magazine with academics from a number of UK universities, Andrew McMillan of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, highlighted the potential for a “digitally transformed food system” to be enabled through mechanisms such as data trusts, which  envisage independent stewardship of data through a legal structure that both allows for the pooling of data from various sources and the making available of those datasets to organisations to use for their own purposes.

Data is already exchanged under contract within the food system, but McMillan and the academics, who included Simon Pearson and Steve Brewer of the Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology at the University of Lincoln, highlighted the limitations of this framework in their article.

“While a multitude of such arrangements exist, they were generally developed as local ad-hoc contractual arrangements and require continuous adaptation as trading relationships evolve, new data sources become available, where novel approaches are developed for extracting value from data, or where inequalities from the exchange of data become apparent,” they said. “These pragmatic, but short-term, approaches may succeed in addressing an immediate concern, but can also result, ultimately, in greater friction and inefficiencies being built into the system.”

“As food systems undergo digital transformation, a new approach for data governance is required, one that is legally robust, secures a wider public purpose and facilitates the necessary trust to stimulate data exchanges across the whole food sector,” they said.

According to McMillan and the academics, the potential of a digitally transformed food system can only be realised if “permissioned and trusted data can flow seamlessly through complex, multi-lateral supply chains, effectively from farms through to the consumer”.

“What we thus foresee is an intelligent, decentralised food supply chain focused on securing a common good by the secure exchange and sharing of information,” they said in the Nature article. “This can range from secure sharing of regulatory compliance information, through to gaining unique insights from artificial intelligence harnessing secure collection(s) of distributed data. Achieving this goal requires robust and resilient data-driven services, aligned with secure and independent artificial intelligence services potentially accessing anonymised, but traceable, independent data, and a strong human-centred governance process representing all food system stakeholders, including the consumer.”

“We contend that regulatory compliance can and should be better enabled through data trust frameworks and as a result contribute to a more resilient and robust food chain. This vision could be realised over a relatively short time period; considerable exchangeable data are already collected by supply chain actors for their own private or commercial purpose. The challenging step is the gain of consensus to exchange data between what would normally be highly competitive organisations operating in the food chain,” they said.

McMillan and the academics said that “the full potential of a data-driven transformation that secures common benefits … has not yet been realised” and called for the establishment of a pilot food standards trust framework to test the power of data trust frameworks and that the underlying governance arrangements are sustainable and do deliver “public good”.