Call for an IPCC-like science panel on food security

New panel food security_Oxfam
Copyright: Oxfam International

Speed read

  • A panel could explore problems and give scientists a voice, says an expert
  • It could be modelled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
  • But other attendees say it would be better to support existing initiatives

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[NOORDWIJKERHOUT, NETHERLANDS] Setting up an impartial platform for the science of food security could be an important step towards improving the weak link between researchers and policymakers, an international meeting has heard.
The need for better engagement was a prevalent theme among researchers who attended the First International Conference on Global Food Security in Noordwijkerhout last week (29 September-2 October), said co-chair Martin van Ittersum during his concluding address.

“A mechanism to bring together the best science to explore the problems and solutions and to make our voice heard is critically needed.”

Martin van Ittersum, Wageningen University 

While some scientists suggest trying to engage more effectively with current processes, van Ittersum, who is a professor in plant production systems at The Netherland's Wageningen University, believes that an entirely new set-up similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) could be a better way to provide the visibility necessary to bring improvements.
"A mechanism to bring together the best science to explore the problems and solutions and to make our voice heard is critically needed," he tells SciDev.Net.
Although there is value in finding consensus as the IPCC tends to do, any new body would have to make room for varied opinions to reflect the complexities of the food security field, he says.
A desire to speak with a united voice when there are often "two sides to the story" has damaged the panel's reputation in the past, he adds.
Furthermore, steps to reduce the IPCC's "overly organised" structure, which is extremely demanding on scientists' time and leads to long gaps between reports, would have to be addressed in any food security-focused version, van Ittersum says.
The details of how to set up such a body was not discussed during the conference, but with the need for scientists to find ways to get their voices heard now established, van Ittersum was confident that the issue would be part of future discussions.
Others at the meeting believed that scientists' efforts should be focused on current initiatives that could be given more support.
One participant highlighted a meeting of the Committee on World Food Security, which is taking place this week (7-11 October) in Rome, Italy, as an existing mechanism around which scientists could rally.
At the meeting, this international and intergovernmental platform, which reports annually to the UN Economic and Social Council, will discuss how to optimise its influence within regional, national and international governance.
But van Ittersum says that, while undoubtedly a valuable resource, the committee is just one of many disparate forums, underscoring the fragmented nature of the food security science-policy interface.
"There are bits and pieces that try and bring different stakeholders together, but one comprehensive mechanism could be much more effective," he says.
Paulus Verschuren, special envoy for food and nutrition security for development at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, saw the almost total lack of politicians at the conference as an indicator of the disconnect with food security researchers.
"Where are the politicians?," he asked the audience.
"This place should be crawling with policymakers on a subject that is so high on the political agenda."
But van Ittersum says this imbalance was deliberate: as the meeting was the first time that researchers from virtually all the relevant disciplines met to examine global food security, the organisers mainly invited scientists with the aim of giving the scientific community time to consolidate their views on the subject ahead of future meetings which could involve more politicians.