Establishing an ‘IPCC for food’ is one of the subjects being given priority at the UN Food Systems Summit on 23 September. But the question is whether a new institution of this kind would represent a step forward, as researchers Esther Turnhout (University of Twente), Jeroen Candel, Jessica Duncan, Anna Roodhof (Wageningen University & Research) and other scientists contend in a new article in Science. They question the legitimacy of this initiative and are concerned that the need for knowledge diversity would be inadequately recognised in a platform of this kind. They also wonder what contribution such a new platform, an ‘IPCC for Food’, could make to better food policy.
The food systems in existence in the world today are not suitable for solving major global food supply problems. A lack of coordination and conflicts of interest between the various actors will continue to form an obstacle to the fair distribution of healthy food and will mean that food producers and processors in many parts of the world will live in poor conditions and food systems will fail to make an adequate contribution to sustainability, climate adaptation and climate mitigation. Food systems urgently need transformation, the authors of the article argue. And for that to happen, knowledge is needed. But it is not only scientific knowledge that matters. And that is where the shoe pinches, because current mechanisms for translating knowledge into policy are inadequate. In their article, they cite as an example the developments around the upcoming UN Food Systems Summit starting on 23 September in New York. Discussions around the Food Summit highlight the potential risk that this important convention will be too strongly influenced by the agenda of the business community and its ‘techno-optimistic’ approach. This is too one-sided: transitions in food systems are only possible if they are relevant and acceptable to all actors within those systems – not only governments and large corporations but civil society and local populations as well. All these actors play a crucial part in food systems, and it is important to bring their knowledge on board.
No input from civil society or food producers
As the authors point out, there is no lack of intergovernmental initiatives to translate knowledge about food systems into policy. The issue is that there are many different visions of food systems, and different forms of knowledge can sometimes clash. Genetic modification and agroecology are just two examples of this. It is not merely a question of conflicts of interest in these areas; knowledge controversies also exist.
New ‘interfaces’ are needed between knowledge of food systems and policy, the authors contend. But they warn that new initiatives only make sense if they actually contribute to legitimate and fair policy. This requires the participation and involvement of all actors in a food system. The question is, how do you achieve this? One possibility, the authors suggest, is to develop entirely new knowledge platforms, such as an ‘IPCC for food’, in which a large number of scientific and community stakeholders could contribute to knowledge that would influence policy at all levels. The UN IPBES biodiversity platform is another example of a pluriform platform that has a strong influence on international policy.
It sounds good – an IPCC for food that makes headlines every day and has a major influence on global food policy. But it would cost a lot of time and money to make such an influential platform a reality, the scientists warn. It would also require a major commitment from policy makers, stakeholders and experts from different disciplines to ensure that this platform truly focuses on the urgent challenges facing the world today. This would also prevent knowledge being used selectively for policy and implementation and would ensure a participative approach that is open to various forms of scientific, local and indigenous knowledge. Experience gained with the IPCC and IPBES has taught us that governments can sometimes be selective in deciding which or whose expertise to use or not.
The bottom line is that effective food policy cannot be established solely on the basis of scientific knowledge. Implicitly, this is still often hard-wired into the connections between science and policy. The assumption that making scientific knowledge more easily available automatically leads to better policy is misleading and simplistic, the authors conclude. For this to happen, reforms of political institutions and more leadership are also needed. But inclusivity, justice and equality must always come first.
Professor Esther Turnhout is Professor of Science, Technology and Society at the Department of Science, Technology and Policy Studies (STePS; Faculty of BMS). Together with Jessica Duncan, Jeroen Candel and Anna Roodhof (Wageningen University & Research), Timo Maas (Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency) Robert Watson (University of East Anglia) and Fabrice DeClerck (CGIAR and Eat-Forum), they published their paper entitled: "Do we need a new science-policy interface for food systems?" in the scientific journal Science.