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A study has been set up to investigate the potential value of setting up an international body to advise governments on the scientific issues facing global agriculture.

The advisory body would aim to provide an open, transparent assessment of issues such as genetically modified crops and organic farming to guide policy on agricultural production, food safety and food security, broadly comparable to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

"Feeding an ever increasingly wealthy world and a world with a growing population is going to be a big challenge over the next decades," says Robert Watson, the World Bank's chief scientist, who recently stepped down as the chair of IPCC, and is leading the new initiative.

"The goal is to do this in a way that utilises resources in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner while improving the livelihoods of the world's poorest. A good assessment of science and technology can help take this forward."

The World Bank is providing funds of US$500,000 for a feasibility study to evaluate whether different groups — including governments, industry, consumers, farmers, scientists, international agencies and environmentalists — feel there is a need for such a comprehensive international assessment of science, technology and agriculture.

The study, which will be finished in 12-18 months' time, will involve setting up an interactive website to gauge public opinion about the proposal, creating a multi-stakeholder steering committee, and carrying out a series of regional meetings with relevant stakeholders.

Extra funding will be sought from developed-country governments and from US foundations for the regional consultations, which will bring the total price tag for the feasibility study to around US$1 million.

"We need to see whether there is a demand for this," says Watson, who until last month was the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global body that assesses scientific data on climate change. "It has to be demand-driven, and 'owned' by all the relevant stakeholders."

The feasibility study will also define the scope and audience of the international body, whether it should be intergovernmental or nongovernmental, and how to select lead authors and peer-reviewers.

If the international consultation gives the thumbs up to the proposal, Watson estimates that the assessment process itself would take about three years. It would involve hundreds of experts in the preparation and peer-review process, at a total cost of US$15-25 million — comparable to the cost of a comprehensive IPCC assessment report.

Watson believes that the need for such a body is very real. "Future advances in science and technology will be key to finding ways to use our resources wisely," he says.

"But an assessment of the social and ecological costs and acceptability of any technological path is critical."

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