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

Friday, 12 November 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 away your food for no reason?

These are some of the questions asked by a team including researchers from the University of Nottingham’s Future Food Beacon and Lancaster University who have created objects from a ‘smart’ imaginary new world to look at the ethical implications of using Artificial Intelligence in the food sector.

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. 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 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 throughout the supply chain to support each party 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 article warns that new technology may also introduce ethical issues and unexpected, harmful consequences.

The researchers suggest that 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

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.

The project brought people together with different types of expertise, and used a method called ‘design fiction’ to help explore ethical implications of sharing data about food and evaluate technologies that don’t 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+ (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, we worked with experts in food and technology to evaluate the potential ethical benefits, risks and challenges they posed.

Dr Peter Craigon, Research Fellow in Ethics, Legislation and Engagement in Food and Agricultural Innovation at the University of Nottingham, contributed to the development of the design fiction world and props, and led on the ethical assessment with the Moral-IT Deck. He said: “The combination of the innovative approaches of design fiction and the Moral-It Deck by a multidisciplinary team provided a really rich engagement with the ethical complexities of data sharing in the food sector. This approach enabled engagement with technical and social elements of technology revealing perspectives on potential benefits and harms and how elements such as trust and wellbeing interact in data sharing across the complexities of the food system. Such insights need to be taken into account in the design of systems for data to be shared in a responsible way”

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.

The project was funded by the Internet of Food Things Network+ and AI for Scientific Discovery Network+.Co-authors included: Imagination Lancaster, LICA, Lancaster University; The Lincoln Institute of Agri Food Technology, University of Lincoln; Future Food Beacon of Excellence and School of Biosciences, University of Nottingham; School of Chemistry, Faculty of Engineering & Physical Sciences, University of Southampton; School of Business and Management, Royal Holloway University of London, and Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester.

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More information on the is available from Dr Peter Craigon on

Jane Icke - Media Relations Manager Science
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