Data al dente!

When was the last time, you spoke about food with a family member, friend or co-worker? Probably not too long ago. After all, there are few topics that are as central to our every day life like food. We need it to survive and more than that most people also thoroughly enjoy everything related to food – indulging in knowing its origin, preparing it and most of all enjoying it (often with the family, friends or co-workers).

When was the last time you spoke about data with a family member, friend or co-worker? Unless you are in an IT-relate job, probably it might have been some time ago.
Even though we live in a digital world, data just does not “touch” us as much as food does.

Yet, they are intrinsically related. For our increasingly complicated food system increasingly relies on data. So do we as individuals – to be able to tell the nutritional value of a produce, estimate the necessary grocery purchases or to ensure we get “value for money”. On a societal level, food data is essential for example for upholding quality and safety, ensuring food supply and safeguarding food supply chains.

Consequentially, decision makers would love to get access to more data, generating the necessary insights to increase the level of food safety, personal health, animal wellbeing and sustainability. The European Commission for example follows it´s “Farm to Fork” strategy, which clearly asks for data-based measurements and adequate monitoring throughout the entire food chain, while ensuring an effective internal market[1].

All these ambitions will require a considerable amount of (open) data made available and supplied by individuals like you and me. Yet, these efforts to gather this very individual data and information lag far behind. A recent study finds that “significant strides have been made in improving the availability of food system related data, but gaps persist across all components of the food system, including supply chains (especially post-farmgate), food environments, diets, and diverse health, livelihood, and sustainability related outcomes”[2].

This is not merely a question of having the right technological tools and infrastructure. It is one of seriously answering the end user question of “what´s in there for me?”. In the end that´s the key demand to be met – why should an individual go through the effort and take on some risk in sharing their personal data?

Individuals will share their data if (a) they see a benefit (positive utility) in doing so, (b) there  is low or now risk related to doing so. Arguing with EU policy or “the greater good” might not always be enough to convince of positive utility. Hence, digital business models in food need to provide additional value beyond mere sharing of data. Examples include diet tracking apps, recipe apps and food communities.

This would not be enough, however, since technology currently meets a trust-deficit from consumers. Too many bad experiences like data scandals and abuses have diminished the trustworthiness of the digital technology landscape. To regain trust, technology providers need to take a more pro-active, more diverse and human-centric driven perspective. In doing so, they could build applications that are eventually trustworthy and granted trust by the users. To truly design for trust, the entire chain of activities and underlying assumptions towards developing technology has to be based on fundamental values like responsibility, privacy and user control – especially when dealing with valuable and sensitive food data. And hence, even if food data serves a greater good and helps in making the food system just a bit more safe, secure and sustainable – the starting point of all assumptions needs to be the user and their values – not a business model or (legitimate) state interests.

[1] Food Safety (

[2] Marshall et al. 2021, You Say You Want a Data Revolution? Taking on Food Systems Accountability