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Scientists reject proposed ‘IPCC for food’

Winter wheat harvested in a field farmed near McCracken, Kansas in 2018. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Talk of a new global body to bring together science and policy at the UN Food Systems Summit causes a rift.

Over 200 scientists worldwide have signed an open letter rejecting the creation of a new science-policy interface on food, which they claim would exclude key voices from the governance process, like those of indigenous peoples and farmers. 

The new SPI, sometimes called an “IPCC for food” in reference to the widely known Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “would redirect food systems governance and scientific advice away from democratic principles”, the letter published on Wednesday states.

In a strategy draft from 5 July, the scientific group of the UN Food Systems Summit called on governments “to explore options, existing as well as new, for a global Science-Policy Interface (SPI) for a sustainable food system”, although no proposals have been formally submitted yet. 

The objectors argue that a new mechanism would undermine an already existing legitimate body of experts, referring to the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE), which conducts assessments, advises policymakers and is viewed to be inclusive of all types of actors.

Professor Joachim von Braun, chair of the FSS scientific group, which is holding a series of online events this week, said: “Proposals are coming on the table at Science Days from HLPE to strengthen existing science-policy interfaces and other proposals for instance from academies suggest some new mechanisms.”

“We note that some existing mechanisms such as the HLPE of CFS feel uncomfortable about the independent Scientific Group and articulate that clearly,  and we stress, we welcome that discussion to move to productive cooperative conflicts,” he added.

The Food Systems Summit, to be held in the fall and called by UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres in 2019 to shift the way we produce and consume food towards a more sustainable model, has been under fire since the beginning. 

Rights groups claim that the forum is promoting the interests of big business and leaving out smaller players who are the worst affected by the global warming, pollution and social inequalities caused by global food systems, with some of them going as far as to boycott the meeting. 

The deputy envoy for the summit, Martin Frick, rebutted the claims, speaking to Geneva Solutions in March.

Read also: Human rights overshadowed by big business in UN food summit, says UN expert

Christophe Golay, senior research fellow and strategic adviser on economic, social and cultural rights at the Geneva Academy, who was one of four Swiss researchers to sign the letter, told Geneva Solutions that it could be problematic if the new mechanism is “unbalanced and driven by the interest of corporations and could then lead to results that are detrimental for example for the rights of peasants and indigenous peoples, who represent 80 per cent of the hungry in the world”.

The authors accuse the proposal of lacking “accountability mechanisms and other important features for legitimate and effective science-policy work”.

Unlike the Food Systems Summit, the HLPE which was established in 2009 by the Rome-based UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS), is viewed positively by a number of peasant and indigenous movements for having produced “research and recommendations that are useful for them”, Golay added.

A new panel would on the other hand “fragment public food governance through the CFS/HLPE and create new spaces that a handful of powerful actors can more easily control and dominate”.

The signatories of the letter call on governments and policymakers to also reject a new body and instead support the existing HLPE.

“Indigenous people, peasants, and so called ‘lay’ people (…) are not stakeholders to be consulted by scientists, but rights holders and knowledge holders around whom food systems transitions should be built,” the authors of the letter conclude.

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