Inclusive science must follow the UN Food Systems Summit

If we are to have a chance of ridding the world of hunger and malnutrition, Summit leaders must return to a participatory science model.

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2021/09/23: Hybrid press briefing on the UN Food Systems Summit by Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed in UN Headquarters.
Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed reacts during a press briefing on the UN Food Systems Summit at the UN headquarters on September 23, 2021 [Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images]

With almost 768 million people facing hunger in 2020, up some 118 million from the previous year, the global food system is in trouble. World leaders gathered in New York on September 23 for the United Nations Food Systems Summit to address this crisis and make commitments leading to meaningful progress on ending hunger by 2030, one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development goals.

But many experts and non-governmental organisations boycotted this event out of concern that the process has been hijacked by corporate agricultural interests and been less than participatory and transparent. It is imperative that global leaders recommit to an inclusive process following the Summit.

Like any arena, ideas about addressing hunger are hotly contested, and some academics and farmers fear that commercial food interests and their allies are seeking to dominate how problems and solutions are framed at the Summit. For decades, global decision-makers sought to address hunger via a fairly narrow, technocratic approach: grow more food using improved seeds, pesticides and fertilisers. But this tactic focused on production, also referred to as the Green Revolution approach, could only take us so far as many food and malnutrition issues are not related to underproduction.

New approaches to addressing hunger have emerged in recent decades that move beyond this “productionist” approach and seek to address the multiple dimensions of malnutrition, including poor or unstable food distribution and trade, limited access to healthy food, a lack of water and sanitation facilities needed for food preparation, unsustainable farming practices, and people’s limited control over their food options.

A key science and policy space for new ways of thinking about malnutrition has been the Committee on World Food Security (CFS) and its science advisory group, the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE). Following the 2007-08 global food crisis, the UN and its agencies underwent an arduous, but necessary, set of reforms that reinvigorated this uniquely participatory and inclusive science and policymaking arena.

The CFS not only includes representatives from member states, but from civil society, the private sector, UN organisations (such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, World Food Programme and International Fund for Agricultural Development) and foundations. The HLPE, sometimes referred to as “the IPCC of food security” after the more well-known Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, commissions and oversees the writing of scientific reports that pull together the best information and thinking on critical issues related to malnutrition, with recent reports focusing on topics such as agroecology, global narratives, and youth employment in agriculture.

As a member of the HLPE, I have been impressed by the level of outside input incorporated into the conception and writing of these reports. Both the initial concepts and draft reports not only go out for scientific peer review, but for comment from the public at large. This feedback is taken seriously and debated by a committee that represents many different disciplines and scientific perspectives. Dare I say that I can think of no better example of participatory science at the international level today.

The ideas put forth in these reports are then debated by a broad group of stakeholders with varied political interests (in the CFS) before they are turned into policy recommendations that countries can put into action. This process has brought forward new ways of thinking about global hunger, including the food systems thinking that is central to the UN Food Systems Summit.

Unfortunately, this process that so many have worked years to build has largely been sidestepped by the UN Food Systems Summit process.

Some Summit leaders have even suggested that a new science policy interface should be created to implement the agreements and commitments of the group. But why create a new system when we already have one that is working? It is proposals such as this, as well as the less than participatory nature of many of the pre-Summit deliberations, that have led many academics and civil society organisations to boycott the Summit.

A key issue here is trust. Over the past 12 years, a broad range of experts and organisations came to trust that their voices were being heard (within the CFS and HLPE) when scientific reports were produced and policy recommendations developed. While these actors certainly did not always agree, they had confidence in the process. Sidestepping this process feels like a slap in the face and a return to top-down decision-making and narrower understandings of food security and nutrition.

In the wake of this event, Summit leaders must return to a participatory science model. While the existing CFS-HLPE science policy interface could certainly be enhanced, and those within and outside this group have made suggestions for improvements, creating a new mechanism would waste valuable time in the fight against global hunger, be less participatory, and create an unnecessarily fractured global food security apparatus.

World leaders need to be cognisant of the policymaking process that will unfold following the Summit. Should this process continue to be less than inclusive, the Summit will not only miss out on some of the best science, but it will marginalise and exclude many of those actors it needs to successfully attain its goal of zero hunger by 2030.

The biggest breakthroughs in the way we understand hunger and malnutrition in recent decades have come from a more inclusive and participatory scientific process. We need to embrace these same principles after the Summit if we are to have a chance of ridding the world of hunger and malnutrition any time soon.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.