Why we don’t need an “IPCC for food”

In 2015, the role of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in global climate policy prompted some German academics to propose an equivalent platform to support food system transformations. These calls today are finding new momentum in the context of the upcoming United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), scheduled for September 23 in New York.

But do we really need an “IPCC for food”? Do we really need a new interface between science and policy on these issues? In our opinion, no. This is why we share the risks that some Dutch researchers highlighted in an article published a few days ago in Science, in which they point out the risks of such a move. Their contribution casts doubt on the legitimacy of this initiative and underlines that the need for multidisciplinarity of such a body is not adequately recognized. Perhaps because – as is also the case in climate science – the experts who draft scenarios and proposals at the highest level would be appointed by governments. In the IPCC this determines that the vast majority of experts has a technical-economic background, and that the mechanism of governmental appointments narrows the choice to individuals who have good relations with political institutions, possibly reinforcing the tendency to self-censorship or conformism. Finally, such an approach produces results like those we see in climate reports: enormous and unjustified reliance on experimental technologies and little attention to deep political-economic reforms that would have far more impact on this systemic crisis.

Techno-optimism is also a feature of the Food Systems Summit organized by UN and the World Economic Forum, together with the Rockefeller Foundation and the Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation. This alliance, built to exclude millions of people from rural and farming communities and civil society organizations, is seeking to change the current governance. It wants to do so by building new spaces for negotiation and influence, starting with a panel of technicians cherrypicked to provide scenarios and forecasts. In the front line to support this proposal we find the EU and some governments. Yet there is no lack of intergovernmental initiatives to translate knowledge about food systems into policy. There is already the High Level Panel on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE), an interface of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS). This body was created in October 2009 as an essential element of CFS reform and aims to facilitate policy debates and inform decision-making by providing independent analysis and advice.

The “problem” is that the HLPE holds consultations with different stakeholders and makes its recommendations based on different views and forms of knowledge: genetic manipulation and agroecology are just two examples. Among these positions there is not only a conflict between opposing interests, there are also disputes about the knowledge behind the paradigms. It’s called, in a nutshell, political debate. This is a debate that the Food Systems Summit and the theorists of a “IPCC for food” want to wipe out. Creating a new panel of scientists disconnected from society but linked to institutions and the private sector would allow governments and companies to shake off the combative civil society, the majority of Southern countries, depoliticize the food issues and accelerate the revival of the green&digital revolution around which the private sector is organizing its greenwashing strategies.

We cannot accept this, not after the thirty-year effort to have a space for discussion at the tables where the global food strategies are decided. In 1996, the declaration that the NGO Forum submitted to the World Food Summit stated:

“We[1] represent more than 1,000 organizations from at least 80 countries, from all regions of the planet. We will try to make the voices of more than a billion hungry and malnourished people, mostly women and children, heard. Through regional and global consultations, we have discovered and affirmed our mutual solidarity. Our collective vision comes from the realization that food security is possible…. The shame that causes planetary hunger and malnutrition demands action by all. At the same time, we insist that governments have the most important and inalienable responsibility to ensure national and global food security… The globalization of the economy, as well as the lack of any effective control over the actions of Multinational Corporations (TNCs) and the spread of unsustainable consumption patterns have increased poverty in the world… The global economy today is characterized by unemployment, low wages, and the destruction of rural economies and family farming”.

Since then, we have made our way to the negotiating tables of the FAO, the Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA) and the Convention on Biodiversity, we created mechanisms of participation for social movements and civil society. We basically contributed to democratizing a high-level process that until then had not been able to intercept the voices of small producers all over the planet.

We built spaces for dialogue, sometimes of collision, but that’s normal because they are political spaces. The same spaces that some people are now planning to restrict arguing that we have to react quickly to restore food systems after the pandemic.

We find contradictory and ambiguous this new compassionate spirit coming from personalities, charitable organizations and corporations that in recent years have pushed to accelerate the agricultural industrialization, particularly in the global South. It’s not easy to accept the “conversion on the road to Damascus” of those who regularly take advantage of crises (whether they be economic, ecological, health-related) to strengthen their neocolonial grip on peasant agriculture and family production.

That’s why the proposal to create an “IPCC for food” seems to us more of an attempt to delegitimize the political and democratic space we have built in recent years. The necessary rules are already there, from the ITPGRFA to the Declaration of the Rights of Farmers and People Living in Rural Areas (UNDROP), and also the Cartagena Protocol and the Convention on Biodiversity. We don’t need to think about new measures, we need to put enforce the existing provisions. To do so, we need to put the human rights legislation above trade&investment law and intellectual property rights.

Only if the United Nations and governments find the courage to adopt this perspective, we’ll see the end of this multidimensional crisis into which we have been dragged by old paradigms.

[1] PROFIT FOR A FEW OR FOOD FOR ALL. Food sovereignty and security to eliminate the globalization of hunger. NGO FORUM declaration presented at the World Food Summit – FAO, Rome, Italy November 17, 1996.