The ethics of digital technology in the food sector – the future of data sharing

12 Nov 2021

Imagine a world in which smart packaging for supermarket-ready meals updates you in real-time to tell you about carbon footprints, gives live warnings on product recalls, and instant safety alerts because allergens were detected unexpectedly in the factory.

But how much extra energy would be used powering such a system? And what if an accidental alert meant you were told to throw your food away for no reason?

These are some of the questions asked by team of researchers, including Professor Louise Manning from the Royal Agricultural University, which looked at the ethical implications of using Artificial Intelligence in the food sector by creating objects from a ‘smart’ imaginary new world.

Their article, Considering the ethical implications of digital collaboration in the Food Sector, is published today in the November issue of the data science solutions journal Patterns.

Food production is the largest sector in the UK manufacturing industry, and complex food production and distribution processes and systems, involving millions of people and organisations, produce huge amounts of data every day.

But, says the article, for opportunities to be fully realised, there is a need to be able to securely work together and to share, and access, a wide variety of data sources across the entire food sector. Sharing data, and using it more effectively, such as with AI and other new technological innovations, can potentially reduce waste, increase sustainability, and protect health.

Meeting this need requires a trusted mechanism to enable the different parties within the supply chain to make informed decisions about the credibility of the separate data sources. But organisations can be wary of sharing data that may be commercially sensitive so new systems are being developed that can be trusted to protect privacy while allowing wider use to be made of the collected data.

The Patterns article warns that new technology may also introduce ethical issues and unexpected, potentially harmful, consequences.

“To create such a data collaboration would require the integration of both cutting-edge technologies and surrounding social, institutional, and policy elements to ensure that the system works equally well and equitably for all parties involved,” says the article.

“For example, if AI is to be implemented, we need to address ethical challenges that are well-known in this area, such as bias and accountability, to create systems that are responsible in their implementation and prioritise human well-being.”

Professor Manning, Professor of Agri-Food and Supply Chain Security at the RAU, said: "To reduce the environmental impact of food production we need to improve our methods and systems and key to this is data sharing. In order to share data, there must be a high level of trust in the data itself and also in others with whom we share that data. How the data is ethically collected, analysed, and used sits at the heart of the building of these trust-based data sharing networks."  

The project brought together people with different types of expertise and used a method called ‘design fiction’ to help explore the ethical implications of sharing data about food and evaluate technologies that don’t, as yet, exist.

Lead author Dr Naomi Jacobs, from the Imagination Laboratory at Lancaster University, said: “Rather than ask general questions about what might go wrong, or have to wait until something is fully built - when it is probably too late to change things without huge costs or starting all over again - we imagined what the world might look like if ‘data trusts’, designed to protect private data while allowing others to make use of it, already existed.”

As part of a wider project, established by the Internet of Food Things Network+ and led by the University of Lincoln, to explore data trusts related to the food sector, the research team created objects that acted as ‘props’ from that fictional world such as a ‘documentary’ film about a supermarket recall and the real-time supermarket ready meal packaging.

These props were used with a set of cards designed to enable engagement with the ethics of technology called the Moral-IT Deck. Using these, the team worked with experts in food and technology to evaluate the potential ethical benefits, risks, and challenges they posed.

Dr Jacobs added: “Through this process we learned about important issues. For example, it is key to consider where power lies in these systems, how large companies, small companies and individual consumers might be positively or negatively impacted, and how different ethical aspects, such as sustainability and wellbeing, and privacy and transparency, might need to be balanced.  These need to be considered when developing these types of data trusts in the future.”

The article sets out an approach by which the ethical implications of technological progress can be considered, specifically here in the context of digital collaboration in the food sector and with a particular focus on the use of AI in shared data management and usage and the importance of responsible innovation.