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January 27, 2011

Please sir, not another international food assessment

So, let me begin with a confession. I am addicted to international scientific assessments. I can’t fully explain why, but I am.

It could be the knowledge that a big global assessment, say in climate change or food security, is not just the work of a small team but of scientists from many countries and different disciplines.

You know when you go through one of these weighty documents that groups have been poring over the literature, arguing late into the night to agree about whether the planet is warming or genetic modification has a big part to play in food security. And you know that they are doing this often at great financial and personal expense. The objective of defeating hunger or combating global warming is worth it.

At home, the fruits of my addiction began to populate a small box file, the kind you can buy at IKEA. When that was full, I had to clear out a whole shelf; then two. I have lately begun to shift perfectly good reading-books into the garage to make way for my affliction.

I can proudly attest to having the full set of reports from the Millennium Ecosystems Assessment. I also have the complete set of reports from the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology in Development. I have the original and scandalously much-ignored Global Biodiversity Assessment. I have far too many reports from the IPCC—including the one with the smoking-gun phrase “the balance of evidence suggests a human fingerprint in climate”, from which all subsequent climate policy has gushed forth.

For the past few weeks I’ve been on a bit of a high—not one, but two global assessments in food security. One published by the UK government’s Foresight group and another, Agrimonde from France. They seem to be getting bigger and bigger. Time to clear out some more shelf space. Children’s literature? History? Popular science?

And that is my problem. Only it's not just a problem for me, I am sure it’s also a problem for those who think that big global assessments are the answer to what look like intractable problems in public policy.

I’m beginning to wonder if they are.

The IPCC is everyone’s favourite model. An example of an international  scientific assessment that has changed minds and changed laws. But there are two things to say about it.

First: an IPCC-style style of assessment has more or less failed in every other arena where it has been tried—and especially in food security. Often this is because it is not linked to an ongoing policy process. And often because what is being recommended is often wildly unrealistic. Regardless of what these reports recommend, intensive agriculture is not going away and—unless you believe in miracles—developed-country governments are not suddenly going to start massively ramping up their investments in agricultural R&D. Spending on agri R&D has been in decline for many years—having themselves eradicated hunger in their own countries, governments such as the UK and the US have other priorities for their scientists. Is plant science about to come alive? I doubt it.

Second (and I have only lately come to appreciate that this is a problem): a big global study often needs everyone to come into the same tent. You have scientists talking to other scientists talking to economists talking to ethicists talking to biotech firms talking to government talking to NGOs talking to banks talking to supermarkets talking to farmers groups talking to...

There are inevitably many arguments between study members, but these are held in private. So all the public sees is a big smiley consensus when a report is launched. Also, the numbers of experts involved can be so vast that there often isn’t anyone left to provide a good critique.

The UK government’s Foresight Report is a case in point. There are several names of individual experts that Research Fortnight could have called upon to assess the report independently—but as they are a part of the process, this is something we cannot do.

The problem with everyone being in the tent is that its harder to find genuinely independent voices.

I am on the road to recovery now. Do others recognise that they need to recover as well?

Ehsan Masood is editor of Research Fortnight and Research Europe



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