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An ambitious new attempt to establish a global dialogue on the future of world agriculture must be prepared to grapple with the realities of political decision-making.

It is often said that if the industrialised world had put the same effort into solving the world's food problem as it has into the development of weapons of mass destruction, the problem would have disappeared many years ago. Some argue that the shortcomings have been on the technical front, and that insufficient research has been carried out on, for example, increasing the productivity of crops grown in tropical – rather than temperate – climates. Others, pointing to the way that intensive farming has led to extensive over-production of basic crops (such as wheat) in Europe and the United States, blame the failure on a lack of adequate redistribution systems, and of the political will to implement them.

The reality, of course, is that the food problem has not been solved, and that 800 million people around the world remain chronically undernourished. There are multiple reasons. High among these is the continuing lack of appropriate technologies to meet food needs, particularly in regions with rapidly growing populations, and the limitations on redistribution imposed by market forces through which producers seek to maintain their profit margins. Other factors range from worsening soil degradation – often the result of population pressures – to shifting weather patterns.

The overall picture is complex, involving technical, environmental, economic and political factors, and both objective and subjective judgements. All the more reason, therefore, to welcome plans for a broad international assessment that have been drawn up under the guidance of Robert Watson, the World Bank's chief scientist.

The proposals, agreed to in principle last week by a wide range of stakeholders who have been invited to participate (and now awaiting funding from various UN agencies), will involve researching and preparing reports on a series of questions that determine "the role of agricultural science and technology in reducing hunger and improving rural livelihoods" (see Stakeholders back global review of future agriculture).

But caution is also justified in welcoming this initiative. This does not stem from any lack of determination or good will among those involved; the statement announcing agreement on the assessment's basic terms of reference was welcome by individuals representing groups as divergent as Greenpeace International, the Third World Academy of Science, and the agribusiness multinational Syngenta. The challenge is in ensuring that any agreement arrived at by these groups is able to engage with the political process in a meaningful way, and does not merely express the lowest common denominator of their various positions.

Logic vs ideology

Take, for example, the first question outlined in a concept paper on the proposed assessment that was circulated earlier this year: "What are the underlying causes of nutritional insecurity and resource degradation and how do we overcome barriers to alleviating hunger". It is easy to imagine the range of stakeholders described above giving their name to a list of factors, from a lack of relevant research to insufficient delivery mechanisms for putting the results of this research into effect.

The root problem, as Watson himself acknowledges, is that much of the debate is, and is likely to remain, rooted in ideological commitment. The issue is most clearly visible when it comes to the question of genetically-modified crops, where there is frequently little contact between those that promote such crops in the name of productive efficiency, and those who oppose them as both antisocial and 'anti-nature'. But, given the extent to which the production of food has always been a central feature of social activity,

"...any attempt to characterise the issue of food production as a purely scientific or technical one is itself doomed to failure..."

and thus
always carried a heavy cultural significance, it is perhaps not surprising that subjective factors (such as the fear of control by 'outsiders', whether scientists or multinational corporations) affects the debate across the board.

An immediate response to this difficulty, and one that is widely promoted, is to seek to make a distinction between the ideological and the scientific. To his credit, Watson has been central to one of the most successful efforts at taking this approach, namely the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Faced with an issue as contentious and divisive as global warming, the panel, set up under the auspices of the United Nations, successfully divided the issue between its scientific and social components. It then went on to establish a scientific consensus on the first of these, embodied in its acknowledgement of the increasing strength of evidence that – in the words of its third report – "most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities".

Modest expectations

Can the same approach be applied to agricultural science and technology? There are certainly grounds for optimism that it can; for example, a global scientific review of the evidence of the actual or potential health threats of GM crops would certainly be welcome, particularly if it were to accurately estimate the likelihood of these threats occurring. Even here, however, consensus is likely to provide elusive. And this will be even more so – as many recent reports have demonstrated – when it comes to sketching out the likely environmental impacts of such crops, given that there is even widespread disagreement on the definition of the term 'impact'.

The IPCC may not, therefore, prove an entirely appropriate model to follow. After all, in the case of climate change, the scientific issue the panel addressed – namely, whether human activities were contributing significantly to global warming – lay at the heart of the debate on the need for action (subsequently manifest, for example, in the Kyoto Protocol on emission reductions). But in the agricultural field, no such single, overriding scientific question exists. Indeed, any attempt to characterise the issue of food production as a purely scientific or technical one is itself doomed to failure.

Expectations for the outcome of the new assessment, therefore, should not be placed too high. Certainly not if these are based on waiting for a consensus to emerge from any of the dialogues to be set up around relevant issues and questions. But this is not to deny the potential value of the process. Facilitating dialogue between opposing camps is always useful, and the 'alternative scenarios' likely to be produced in the course of the assessment will also be of value to decision makers.

At the end of the day, however, the key decisions will need to be made by politicians, with the inevitable mix of ideological commitment and pragmatic compromise. The best one can hope for is that such decisions will be adequately informed. If the assessment can help achieve that relatively modest goal, it will have justified its existence – even if it does not pretend to have solved the problem of world hunger in the process.

[Photo credits: FAO / IISD / FAO]