Governing the Food Data Collaboration commons: the story so far

On Tuesday 13th September 2022, the Food Data Collaboration governance circle gathered in Bristol, ready to take the next steps in building our data interoperability commons to strengthen agroecological supply chains. Having established our collective vision and mission at our project launch meeting in London earlier this year, it was now time to start identifying the parameters and boundaries of the commons.

We all share a common aim to create a food system which is good for people and the planet.

Martyn Bragg, Shillingford Organics

Having established our collective vision and mission at our project launch meeting in London earlier this year, it was now time to start identifying the parameters and boundaries of the commons. Before we could do this, though, we needed to clearly define what the resource of our commons is. Commons of all types are built around accessing a shared resource, ranging from physical resources such as land, fishing areas, and waterways, through to less tangible resources like information and data.

Photo by Louis Tripp on Unsplash

So what is it that an organisation that is part of our commons would have access to, that one that isn’t would not? After careful consideration, it was agreed that the primary resource of this new commons is a shared route to market, with a secondary resource, in time, being the data itself, once moving through the system.

Who then would be accessing this shared route to market as members of the commons? How could we categorise the different sorts of actors within it and what sorts of requirements would be met by each in order to participate?

Thankfully, we didn’t have to navigate these significant questions alone. Dr Emilia Melville of Praxis Research was on hand to facilitate our discussions over the course of the morning, drawing upon her experience of commons building in a variety of sectors, including community energy. Her insights from outside of the food space were invaluable in steering us towards asking and answering the right questions.

Together we identified the following categories of members as a starting point:

  • Primary producers (e.g. growers, farmers, fishers, etc.)
  • Secondary producers (e.g. bakers, jam-makers, butchers, etc.
  • Traders (retailers, wholesalers, food hubs, etc.)
  • Technical platforms (e.g. Open Food Network UK, Ooooby, Big Barn, etc.)

and, in future stages of the project, also

  • Logistics and delivery partners

Splitting the categories into ‘primary producers’, ‘secondary producers,’ ‘platforms’ and ‘retailers’ allowed us to differentiate the ‘rules’ for each category.

Martyn Bragg, Shillingford Organics
Photo by Ante Hamersmit on Unsplash

So what criteria – or ‘rules’ – would those accessing the commons need to adhere to? Would these requirements be fixed or offer some flexibility in order to encourage positive change from those at the ‘edges’?

Ahead of the session, each member of the group had been asked to consider potential examples of these criteria, and through them, suggestions of the sorts of enterprises that should be embraced, those that should definitely not be included, and those hovering on the margins. This could potentially relate to a host of different aspects, from organisational values and levels of commitment to agroecological standards to membership of certification schemes (e.g. organic) and more.

The discussion we have just started on boundaries is critical. Set them too narrow and we don’t get the scaling up and out that we need. Set them too broad and we end up with Amazon. It’s a difficult line to tread, with all sorts of sticking points to address. What is agroecological? What is a small farm? How do we define local? What systems do we want to see in place to build integrity? What is the project’s role in ensuring standards? All of these and more!

Tony Little, Landworkers’ Alliance

The potential for complexity  – and a need for weighted preferences rather than rigid specificities – became evident as we considered a variety of scenarios or test cases.

Test Case A: when organic meets monoculture

Company X are a very large scale primarily non-organic outfit, with some mono-culturally produced organic produce. They are ultimately aiming to supply supermarkets but are also supplying veg box schemes. Taking recent research on large-scale organic farming into account, would including some items sourced from Company X in a veg box ultimately exclude the veg box scheme from participating in the FDC commons?

Test Case B: navigating the ‘hungry gap’

For many small-scale agroecological growers, there is not enough food for year-round produce directly grown on site to meet demand. This means that it is potentially supplemented with produce from smaller scale local suppliers (who may not necessarily be certified organic) and/or also from suppliers who, whilst certified organic, cannot offer similar levels of local traceability. Would this scenario be acceptable within the boundaries of the FDC commons?

Test Case C: sourcing from further afield

Popular items such as bananas, citrus, olive oil, chocolate and coffee would not meet a requirement of being sourced within the UK, with the potential risk that a ban on non-UK-grown produce might also compromise the ability of the FDC commons to incorporate the diversity required to support culturally appropriate diets. Would these products be excluded at a retailer level or would there be additional requirements in place to ensure standards such as Fairtrade, organic and sustainably shipped rather than air-freighted?

Further questions also arose during the course of our discussions, in relation to the potential for limitations on the size and scale of retailers (ruling out, as a starting point, any of those subject to the Groceries Code Adjudicator), Real Living Wage guarantees, and more.

Photo by Henry Doe on Unsplash

Key discussion outcomes

  • The emphasis on serving producers’ needs is fundamental, with the producer boundary as primary and the trader boundary as secondary
  • Hierarchies and weightings (when might local trump organic and vice versa?) commonly come into play – increasingly so during times of demand shock – and require a need for a responsive and flexible approach with no one size to fit all
  • There is a need for further research on each of these fronts – producers and traders –  to identify the conditions that must be met for produce to be sold through the network to ensure that the produce traded through the commons enables our vision

Overall, it was difficult to envisage how, to what extent, or even if the FDC team would be able – or should even attempt – to adequately monitor restrictions relating to provenance and sustainability at an individual product level, without this overwhelming the time and resources available. Is it the role of the project to be doing this or would we risk becoming bogged down in bureaucracy that would reduce our ability to deliver on the overall aims and purposes of the project?

All of these questions will continue to be grappled with, aided by the expertise and experience available within the governance circle. Both Better Food Traders and Ooooby have already dedicated significant time to drawing up standards and stipulations which they expect – or at an absolutely minimum positively encourage – their members and users to meet. What is clear is that a careful and considerate approach will be required by the governance group at each and every stage of our commons building journey.

The in depth governance discussions have enabled a clear shared understanding that builds confidence, safety and trust.

Pete Russell, Ooooby

Next steps

We are looking forward to consolidating the progress made together in Bristol at our next virtual meeting of our governance circle in December. In the meantime, we will be working to develop a brief for the aforementioned research project, which will help to:

  • Build background understanding of what’s out there and what has already been tried.
  • Develop a guiding framework that will help us to classify the scale of a farm enterprise. The framework should be simple to use and should be applicable across the food and farming sector, such that it can be used to classify arable farmers, salad producers, dairy farms, jam makers, bakers, etc.
  • Understand appropriate monitoring activities that will help to ensure that the vision is being realised, based on the classifications of scale identified above. The Governance group recognises that monitoring activities will need to vary based on the scale of the farm enterprise, and has the potential to create multifunctional benefits eg peer support, tracking change over time.

The tender for this research opportunity is now open for applications until mid-January. Please do share with anyone you know of who might be interested in working with us.

Finally, don’t forget that you can follow our project Week Notes as our work progresses and sign up to our occasional newsletter for updates straight to your inbox.

Main photo by Kier… in Sight on Unsplash.

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