Mandatory farm audit measures could lead to an era of data monopoly

  • With mandatory supply chain due diligence measures, collecting data on coffee farms has become a priority
  • JDE Peet’s has partnered with Enveritas in more than 20 countries for comprehensive coffee farm audits
  • Who is really auditing, and who ends up owning the data?  

AS mandatory supply chain due diligence becomes increasingly prevalent in the coffee industry, a wave of data collection tools and companies is reshaping how auditing and compliance are conducted within producer countries.

The emergence of these technologies has brought the question of data ownership to the forefront, with concerns arising about the privatisation of data and the implications for transparency and accountability in the coffee supply chain.

“Data is the new oil, and specifically in the coffee sector now,” says Auret Van Heerden, Founder & CEO at Equiception Business and Human Rights.

“A big commodity trader told me some years ago that we have entered an era where the data is worth more than the commodity itself. Data is essential to companies in order to evaluate all sorts of risks, model supply and demand scenarios, and meet their reporting obligations, like for example the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD), the EU Deforestation Regulation (EUDR), and others coming into play.” 

As such, it’s no wonder that private sector players are seizing opportunities, the more data becomes sought-after. JDE Peet’s, for example, is “pioneering an inclusive approach to responsible sourcing,” partnering with Enveritas in more than 20 coffee producing countries around the globe, “including farms beyond the reach of certification programmes”– according to their own website.

Such initiatives seek to address the audit gap in producer countries, leveraging data-driven solutions to enhance traceability, sustainability, and ethical sourcing practices. 

However, as data collection becomes more centralised and proprietary, the issue of who ultimately owns and controls this valuable information raises complex ethical considerations that warrant careful examination.

There are data disparities and gaps in coffee producing countries

Producer countries often face significant challenges in establishing robust auditing structures and services to monitor and verify compliance with sustainability standards and ethical practices. 

While some countries have made strides in implementing auditing mechanisms, there remain notable disparities and data gaps, particularly in regions like Africa where access to resources, technology, and expertise may be limited.

The lack of comprehensive auditing frameworks in producer countries poses obstacles to effective data collection, monitoring, and reporting, hindering efforts to ensure transparency, accountability, and fair practices in the coffee supply chain. 

“I have not researched this directly, but I believe that the authorities in developing countries are playing catch-up and have little digital and structured data on farms, farmers, production, processing, value addition, social and environmental conditions, etc.,” says Auret.

Addressing these challenges requires strategic investments in capacity building, institutional support, and technology infrastructure to bridge the auditing gap and promote sustainable coffee production practices.

Ahead of the EUDR kicking in – and with it the demand for compliance by coffee suppliers – some coffee producing countries are looking to set up their own legal frameworks in response, to manage their own data.

Michael Mugisha and Yusuf Kiranda, for example, two LSE scholars based in Uganda and London, have issued a policy brief that advocates for urgent intervention by the Government of Uganda in the country’s coffee sector to provide a legal framework to regulate the impending emergence of the coffee digital data economy. 

The brief advocates for a centrally coordinated National Coffee Registry and National Traceability System with user and ownership rights reserved by the Government of Uganda.

“There is a lack of a proper legal framework to govern the digital data and the coffee data resource emanating from the geo-mapping of producers’ farms/gardens in the coffee sector, provoked by the demand for compliance with the EUDR,” the paper states. 

“This policy paper advocates for a legal framework to clarify ownership and user rights of the coffee digital data. We underscore that the absence of such a framework against the looming heightened competition for the production and control of the coffee digital data raises the lurking risk of enclosing many current users out of the coffee digital data market, with emerging dominant forces being multinational corporations, who currently exercise greater control over Uganda’s coffee sector.”

The privatisation of coffee production data: Ownership and ethical implications

“Given the high percentage of smallholder farmers in coffee, and the low level of digitalisation in the coffee value chain, there is a vacuum that needs to be filled. However, we don’t have the governance structures needed to protect the rights holder’s and ensure data protection,” says Auret.

The increasing reliance on data-driven auditing solutions raises concerns about the privatisation of coffee production data and the implications for transparency, accountability, and ethical stewardship in the industry. 

As data ownership becomes concentrated in the hands of private entities, questions arise about who ultimately controls this information, how it is used, and what impact it has on the livelihoods of coffee farmers and the integrity of the supply chain.

“Public actors in coffee producing countries have been blindsided by all sorts of private sector players who have rushed into the space with few legal constraints,” says Auret. “These data collectors are mostly privatising the data and not paying for it.”

Digital exclusion exacerbates the trend of big companies claiming ownership of data collected from individuals or cooperatives. This means companies can use this data in any way they see fit, without sharing the benefits with farmers – a form, some argue, of data colonisation.

The flow of funding and influence in the coffee industry raises questions about the alignment of interests, the protection of farmer rights, and the potential for data exploitation in pursuit of commercial objectives.

Some initiatives are emerging to address this. Fairfood, for example, is a project that seeks to establish farmer-centric data governance. They develop innovations to improve smallholders’ position in food production chains, and have worked with Dutch spices company Verstegen to empower nutmeg farmers in Indonesia, leveraging a data premium system to incentivise data collection and ownership through fair reward for these efforts.

“Data has a value just as nutmeg, coffee, or cocoa have a value. As farmers sell both in a way, they should be rewarded,” says Marten van Gils, Fairfood Tech Director.

Looking at the evolving data landscape in coffee production, it is essential to consider the ethical implications of data ownership, the need for transparency and accountability in auditing practices. Empowering producer countries to establish robust monitoring frameworks that uphold the rights and well-being of coffee farmers is also crucial. 

As the industry grapples with these challenges, stakeholders must collaborate to develop sustainable solutions that prioritise ethical data management, promote responsible sourcing practices, and safeguard the interests of all participants in the coffee supply chain.

Coffee Intelligence

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