Later this year, politicians and policymakers are to meet to make crucial decisions on protecting biodiversity, mitigating climate change and eradicating hunger, all of which are part of the Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. United. Delegates to two of these meetings – on biodiversity and climate – benefit from advice from organizations in which thousands of scientists periodically review research in the field. There is no similar system of scientific advice informing policy-making in food and agriculture. But that could be about to change.
September sees the United Nations Food Systems Summit. “Food systems” integrate the processes and people involved in the capture and cultivation, processing, transport and consumption of food. Delegates will discuss how to strengthen scientific advice, possibly by establishing an intergovernmental group of scientists, which would review relevant research, for example on improving diet and nutrition, or on how to raise the bar. standard of living of small farmers – enabling policy makers to make evidence-based decisions.
It’s an idea inspired by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), whose reports inform conferences of world leaders – such as the United Nations climate convention, which will meet in Glasgow, United Kingdom, in November. IPCC reports led to the 2015 Paris Agreement to keep the global average temperature rise below 2 ° C of pre-industrial levels, and the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on emissions reductions.
Hundreds of food systems researchers advise various UN bodies, including the Food and Agriculture Organization and the Committee on World Food Security, both in Rome. But the Sustainable Development Goals as a whole do not have a political body of world leaders similar to the United Nations climate convention, and most individual goals – including ending hunger – do not. have no intergovernmental scientific group with budget and profile of IPCC or intergovernmental science-policy. Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).
The UN has appointed a scientific group to channel research contributions to the Food Systems Summit. Last week, the group held two days of discussions, during which many researchers expressed frustration over their inability to communicate with decision-makers. They say it is more urgent than ever to raise the profile of the process from science to politics. Over 800 million people go hungry every day. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the sustainable development goal of ending hunger by 2030 was out of reach.
The idea of creating an intergovernmental group of scientists on food systems is not new. And as talks to develop it begin, at least two things need to happen. First, it will be important to review existing and past efforts to organize science advice related to food systems. Second, those responsible for developing any new science-to-policy process need to study and learn from the IPCC and IPBES: how they are structured and governed; how they start to work together; how they address issues that, like food systems, are both deeply political and must include the voices of industry, non-governmental organizations, farmers, indigenous peoples and others. And, most importantly, how they address under-represented groups, integrate their knowledge and protect their interests. Between them, the IPCC, the IPBES, the experts advising the Committee on Food Security and the United Nations environmental conventions have a pool of experience.
Integrity and independence
A primary lesson from the IPCC and IPBES is the need to maintain integrity in the research review process. It is not easy. This requires a high degree of trust among the participants, and the governments that fund the panels must protect the independence of the processes.
Throughout much of the 1990s, lobby groups representing governments and companies with fossil fuel interests sought to interfere with the work of the IPCC. They came closest in the mid-1990s, when researchers concluded that humans were warming the planet. The stakes were high because this discovery effectively marked the beginning of the end of the era of fossil fuels. Instead of accepting it and leading the necessary energy transformation, some governments and companies have challenged the findings and criticized the scientists involved, both during the review process and after the publication of the IPCC’s second assessment report in 1995. Fortunately, IPCC leaders stood firm and the conclusions were not altered; it was only through the design of the body that they were able to do this.
The world of the Sustainable Development Goals has many of the same stakeholders as climate change. And an intergovernmental scientific body of today must value the knowledge and perspectives of small family farmers, artisanal fishermen and large numbers of indigenous people, whose knowledge and needs have long been overlooked by science and science. policies.
Hunger – along with biodiversity loss and climate change – is an existential threat facing much of humanity. Scientists who advocate closer links between science and policy need to exercise due diligence. Whether the result is a new intergovernmental process from science to politics, or more power for those that already exist, a stronger partnership between scientists, key stakeholders and politicians is now more necessary than ever.