Interview with Mute Schimpf, Friends of the Earth Europe
24 Sep 2021
Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) is the largest grassroots environmental network in Europe, uniting more than 30 national organisations. FOEE work towards environmental, social, economic and political justice and equal access to resources and opportunities on the local, national, regional and international levels and seek to increase public participation and democratic decision-making.
Together with FIAN and CAWR, FoEE supports food producers in the food sovereignty movement ‘Nyeleni Europe’, to become more prominent policy interlocutors regarding data sovereignty and Automated Decision Making (ADM) in the digital transformation of the farming sector (including AI and ADM). The network is working towards increasing the capacity of food producers to take part in policy and political discussions that shape data infrastructure based on the recognition of farmers’ rights, needs and priorities. In short, by supporting them to become actors in shaping, governing, and holding to account the technologies they use.
To find out more about FoEE’s work and how digital transformation affects the farming sector, we have talked to Mute Schimpf, FoEE’s Food Campaigner.
Why are you working on digital and tech more broadly?
Mute: The debate on digital farming is run by a rather small group of tech developers, researchers, global corporations and decision makers. All of them present digitalisation as a silver bullet for the global challenges in the farming sector, particularly the climate crisis, ecological collapse and poverty / low wages. Farmers’ communities haven’t been involved, for example in the debate on data sovereignty in the farming sector in which personal data, machine produced, and public data are produced and aggregated. Our view for digitalisation is that farmers and other food producers should be involved in technological development and not only seen as end users.
Why are you working on AI specifically?
Mute: In the grey zone between automated decision making and AI, we focus on knowledge sharing and production in farming. Tactic knowledge combined with new knowledge and decision-making tools, can improve farming – as long as it is transparent and solutions and problem definitions are developed together with the communities. Our concern is that it can drive more monopoles and increase the control of a handful of Big Tech and Big Agribusiness companies.
Why do we need an organisation like FOEE in these debates?
Mute: We run the project together with FIAN and the Coventry University. Our three organisations work with the wider food movement and are in constant dialogue how to sharpen joint assessment on new political or economic trends and our demands. This grassroots approach has a unique potential to reach out and increase capacity on AI in the food sovereignty movement.
In your view what are the main risks and opportunities of AI and tech in the environmental sector more broadly?
Mute: The debate on the environmental impacts of AI is still in an infant period. Energy and resource consumption of AI is not captured by the Artificial Intelligence Act, which is a lost opportunity in the new law. Even binding environmental impact assessment is not foreseen. Human rights and further environmental impacts to exploit resources needed to run data centres and the cloud are weakly presented in the wider debate. The economic model behind AI relies on extracting ever-more resources from a finite planet, leading to environmental degradation, conflict and social inequality. Friends of the Earth Europe calls Europe’s resource use to be measured, and to dramatically reduce our consumption levels – this includes AI.
However, Friends of the Earth also sees a high potential for AI to increase and speed up knowledge and learning about the state in protected areas and reduce our general consumption level. And why not think about ways of using AI to fight the climate crisis?
Would you like to share anything you have learned so far?
Mute: I was shocked to realise that the Artificial Intelligence Act keeps most economic sectors such as farming completely unregulated. In addition, any environmental impact assessments are widely voluntary. Links to the machinery regulation are weak and the AI act won’t sharpen the rules and ensure more transparency and a more democratic approach for AI in farming. It also fails to introduce rules to limit corporate power in the farming sector. Without laws that block corporate power in AI, I’m rather worried what it means for Human Rights, the climate crisis, and the future of the farming sector. Besides all technical tools, we all need food.