The Scientific Group
Soon after the Summit was announced, the UN Deputy Secretary-General invited Joachim von Braun to serve as the chair of a new Scientific Group that would provide expert input into the Summit’s planning. Per its terms of reference, the group was charged with ‘ensuring the Summit brings to bear the foremost scientific evidence’ and ‘ensures the robustness and independence of the science underpinning dialogue of food systems policy and investment decisions’ (SciGroup 2020). To this end, the Group would help link ongoing initiatives, including the UN system, the CFS High Level Panel of Experts, the CGIAR, science-based institutions, and ‘any other relevant knowledge that will help advance the quality of evidence for future food systems’ (SciGroup 2020). Von Braun was authorized to identify 24 members to join the Scientific Group, who would be globally renowned and come from universities, international organizations, and standards-setting bodies. Three vice-chairs were also appointed who, alongside their Scientific Group peers, were asked to serve as public spokespersons for the Summit, as well as informing Summit content and recommended outcomes. Structurally, the chair would serve on the Summit Advisory Committee (the top-level UNFSS decision-making tier) to ensure that the Group’s ideas would be conveyed to the Secretary-General.
In The Scientific Life (2009), science historian Steven Shapin delves into the lives of highly-respected scientific experts—people authorized to describe and interpret the world and to transform knowledge into power and profit. Shapin’s concern with the authority of science is not, however, about why some groups of scientists may prefer theory A while others prefer theory B. Rather, he suggests, he’s interested in ‘the conditions in which what is taken to be science is or is not considered credible, in which those responsible for the knowledge are or are not thought to be reliable sources, in which their way of life in the making of scientific knowledge is or is not reckoned to be one that conduces to the reliability of that knowledge’ (Shapin 2009: 2). It is in this sense that we are interested in the Scientific Group—not to assail anyone’s individual credibility or character but to understand the conditions under which a particular interpretation of the ‘food system’, its problems and its solutions, becomes authoritative and imbued with the power to transform material food system conditions.
Now a professor at the University of Bonn, von Braun trained in agricultural economics and has built a distinguished academic career while also leading the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC between 2002 and 2009. He is also chair of the federal government Bioeconomy Council in Germany. Von Braun is not alone in the Scientific Group in being trained in economics, nor in his CGIAR connection. Of the Scientific Group’s 28 members, a full third (ten members) have doctoral degrees in either agricultural economics or economics, nine have training in the biophysical sciences, eight are specialists in food and nutrition science (food safety, food processing, food security), and two are medical doctors. At least eight members have self-declared interests in advancing agricultural biotechnology and agri-food technologies. At least eight members have worked for CGIAR centers, where Green Revolution science and technology was birthed from Cold War geopolitical tensions of the twentieth century.
A few profiles of Scientific Group members are illustrative of the material networks they comprise. Before taking on her current position as Managing Director of the CGIAR, Dr. Claudia Sadoff was Director General of the International Water Management Institute of the CGIAR and the Global Lead for Water Security and Integrated Resource Management at the World Bank where she spent nearly 25 years working in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. She is also a member of WEF’s Global Agenda Council on Water Security. Peruvian economist Dr. Maximo Torero, currently serving in the Economic and Social Development division at FAO, until recently served at the World Bank Group in Washington, D.C. as the executive director for Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. Prior to this, he led the Markets, Trade and Institutions Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) of the CGIAR, where, among other things, he became renowned for his work on property rights, arguing in favor of urban and rural titling and crop choices (The Economist 2006).
Dr. Louise Fresco brings similarly strong networks and track records of policy advocacy. Invited to serve alongside von Braun as a Vice-Chair of the Scientific Group, Fresco is president of the Executive Board of Wageningen University & Research in The Netherlands. Her biography points to ‘extensive involvement’ in policy and development and features high marks of scientific legitimacy, including membership in eight Scientific Academies, four honorary doctorates, and ten years at FAO. Her CV also clearly connects public and private sector networks: Fresco is a non-Executive Director on the board of Syngenta and has previously served on supervisory boards of companies like Unilever and Rabobank, the Dutch multinational banking and financial services company (Clapp et al. this issue). Over her decorated career, Fresco has become well known for championing precision agriculture, bioscience investments, and the deregulation of biotechnology across Europe. The continent’s anti-GMO position, she has consistently argued, essentially ‘reflects a wider distrust of science’ (Fresco 2013).
Fresco is hardly alone in the Scientific Group in representing a ‘scientific life’ where corporate and academic profiles have melded, metamorphosed, and redefined the foundations for producing scientific knowledge, basic and applied. Because conflict of interest statements were not required of Scientific Group members, we did not have ready access to full COI data. But easily discoverable documents indicate that three members have been employed by the World Bank, and another handful have connections to the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and the EAT-Lancet Commission, both of which serve to mobilize public private partnerships in line with their self-expressed commitments to multi-stakeholder governanceFootnote 9 and to ‘sound science, impatient disruption and novel partnerships’.Footnote 10 Indeed, members of the Scientific Group appear to have been particularly sought out for their record in establishing ‘excellent networking with the food industries, government, and professional societies on food policy formulations for education, science and technology’.Footnote 11
Certifying Knowledge, Constructing Consensus
Through its scientific advisory practices, the Scientific Group helped UNFSS organizers legitimate the Summit as a global food policy-making process. Invoking science as a powerful epistemic resource, the Group worked both implicitly and explicitly to make a case for transformative change of food systems through the 4th Industrial Revolution. This work involved an array of strategies that STS scholars have previously identified as playing an important role in making and certifying authoritative knowledge for use in policy processes, such as the Summit. Here, we focus on three interlinked aspects: staging evidence, constructing consensus, and depolarization.
Using a case study of US National Academy of Science committee reports on nutrition and dietary recommendations, Hilgartner (2000) examined the social process of how the credibility of expert advice is created and maintained through dynamic interaction between advisory groups and their audiences. He portrays the committees as performers on ‘stages’ who manage the presentation of their potentially contentious advice, by using narratives of science-as-truth, accentuating technical expertise, selectively revealing some things while hiding other things, and issuing information releases. Similarly, on the UNFSS stage, the Scientific Group attempted to build credibility in an ontologically and epistemically diverse global food space. It worked to cultivate an audience that supports its particular interpretation of science, and to justify a bridge from science-advice to policy work. Importantly, in its attempts to reach a mix of other scientists, governments, and companies, the Group also showed its awareness that science isn’t inherently persuasive just because (in its view) science is universally and objectively true. With increasingly many publics contesting the hegemony of capital, science, and the state (van der Ploeg this issue), the Scientific Group realized it had to show why science matters to food systems transformation. At the same time, the Group had to demonstrate its institutional relevance in a world where it’s unclear if old standards of science-policy governance still hold, as numerous startups and private ventures now regularly fund and put technologies into circulation.
Towards demonstrating that science matters, the Scientific Group compiled and portrayed extensive scientific evidence in support of its claims. The chair and vice-chairs were particularly active: authoring several major assessments of what the Scientific Group views as the prevailing scientific knowledge, proposing a definition of food systems (von Braun et al. 2021a), and outlining key ‘innovation priorities’ to guide the Summit’s work (von Braun et al. 2021b). Additionally, Scientific Group members produced numerous technical briefs, both alone and in tandem with the group’s ‘global partners’; they described these activities to the public as ‘helping mobilize scientific communities around the world’ (von Braun et al. 2021d).
The staging of scientific evidence was seen in multiple public and private spaces, long before the Summit itself. Early in the year, leaders of the Scientific Group, notably von Braun and Fresco, made numerous presentations at forums such as the China Agricultural University (2 June 2021), the G20 Meeting of Agricultural Chief Scientists (15 June 2021), and the World Food Convention (24 June 2021). In July, a 2-day event called ‘Science Days’ focused on ‘highlighting the centrality of science, technology and innovation for food systems transformation’.Footnote 12 In late August, the chair and vice-chairs published a commentary in Nature summarizing their priorities (von Braun et al. 2021c), and in September, one week prior to the Summit, it released a mammoth 452-page compendium, ‘The Scientific Reader’ (SciGroup 2021). In what amounted to a spectacular evidence dump, the reader collected all of the Scientific Group’s and partner’s writings to date, alongside an online bibliography of ‘relevant literature’. The accompanying press release (von Braun et al. 2021d) noted that most of the papers had been both scientifically peer-reviewed—and further evaluated by governments, civil societies, and the general public, implying the use of non-traditional extended peer review (Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993). The same release affirmed that ‘Science, technology and innovation can and must play a pivotal role in the necessary transformation of food systems’ (von Braun et al. 2021d), effectively affirming the centrality of STI through invoking public participation.
A second key focus of the Scientific Group was to cultivate the appearance of scientific consensus around its understanding of relevant innovations. To gather endorsement for technology-led, investor-friendly approaches in line with the 4IR, the Scientific Group convened events that visibly gathered leading scientists, entrepreneurs, and policymakers to sketch the STI landscape and demonstrate buy-in for its proposals. One important event was a workshop at the Pontifical Academy of Science in Vatican City on 21–22 April. Most Scientific Group members participated, along with many people who would later speak at the Science Days, Martin Rees (former president of the British Royal Society), Frances Arnold (Nobel prize-winner for chemistry), and other scientific luminaries. The workshop yielded a statement which declared, among other things, ‘science and innovation are essential to accelerate the transformation to more desirable food systems’.Footnote 13 The ‘Science Days’ event also aimed to orchestrate consensus on what needs to be done. The presence of the Director General of the FAO, the chairperson of the Committee for World Food Security, the editor-in-chief of Nature journal, and several national science academy members and World Food Prize winners suggested world-class expert endorsement for a simple vision: that the answers lie in ‘unlocking the potential’ for STI to catalyze food system transformation (see Fig. 1). In many ways, the Scientific Group was the most publicly visible part of the UNFSS organizing process, an effect it amplified through self-advertisement: ‘The event brought together more than 2,000 participants from research, policy, civil society and industry…’ (Science Days 2021). These combined efforts attest to the active work of legitimating the 4IR vision that animated the Summit.
Third, the emphasis on creating science-based consensus was linked to a discourse of depolarization. Here, the Scientific Group portrayed itself as acting as a peacemaker via science, suggesting that heated contestations—for example, over the role of biotechnology in agriculture—can and should be defused. For example, a key Science Days panel asked: ‘Why the fight? Getting to grips with missed opportunities and contentious issues in science and innovation for food systems’. Four panelists were invited to discuss how contemporary science might help reconcile tensions and move beyond polarization (Fig. 2). Critical observers, however, would quickly recognize old tropes in new skins. Headlined by David Zilberman, a UC Berkeley agricultural economist with a record of lambasting critics of GM crops and praising Monsanto for its business acumen,Footnote 14 the panel suggested that only uninformed, emotional people (lacking the cool reason of science) could not overcome the impasse between agroecology and biotechnology. Urs Niggli, a Swiss Agronomist, attempted to defend organic farming while proposing a win–win in ‘diversifying agroecological systems with smart farms and precision farms—and that is something [beneficial] for the big ones’.Footnote 15 Ertharin Cousin, a distinguished fellow with The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, inserted science’s peacemaking role into the wider ambit of politics: ‘Achieving the food system is a complex…it’s almost as complicated as democracy. But we make democracy work. We can make collaborative action across these diverse groups work’.Footnote 16
In sum, the Scientific Group courted diverse audiences, worked to organize consensus for its proposals, and presented itself as an arbiter of sound (and peaceable) judgement. In so doing, it cast critics of the 4IR agenda as not only unmoored from a growing scientific consensus (however self-produced that consensus might be) but also anti-democratic and antagonistic to the inclusive politics the UNFSS purports to cultivate. Here, it was noteworthy that Cousin was not just anyone.Footnote 17 A powerful Black woman lawyer, she and others were there to move the needle on broader orientation emerging across the UNFSS: the rise of ‘inclusive’ STI.
Anyone prepared for white men in suits at Science Days and the Pre-summit would not have been disappointed. But these events also revealed to anyone paying attention that representational dynamics had shifted. From Black and Brown women occupying key positions of powerFootnote 18 to sessions explicitly entitled ‘Achieving more inclusive food systems’, the berth for recognition (identity and identification); representation (democracy, community, belonging); and even redistribution (concerns with class, social difference, and inequality) had clearly shifted. In one day alone at Science Days, sessions appealed to Youth (‘how to effectively and appropriately engage, include, incentivize, and empower youth in science and innovation for food systems transformations’), to Indigenous People (‘how to effectively and appropriately support and use traditional and indigenous peoples’ knowledge’), and to Women ‘strengthening rights, and how to effectively and appropriately engage, include, and empower women in science and innovation for food systems transformation.Footnote 19
Volumes could be written about the shortcomings of these strategies, including the difference between words and practice, the murkiness of ‘support and use’ Indigenous knowledge, and more. For our purposes, we point to just two core issues. First is about politics of representation. UNFSS organizers spent months recruiting youth, Indigenous people, women, and other ‘diverse’ participants in an attempt to appear inclusive and benefit from the legitimation that BIPOC and other marginalized communities would bring to the process. Eventually, they also billed the UNFSS as a ‘People’s Summit’. This practice perpetuated a longstanding colonial tradition that Indigenous peoples know well: a few amenable tribal members are enrolled and enabled to speak for a larger community that has neither consented nor often been engaged at all. The UNFSS case is particularly remarkable because the Civil Society and Indigenous Peoples Mechanism—representing more than 600 million peasant and Indigenous farmers and workers—was actively protesting against the Summit and disavowing its legitimacy.Footnote 20
Such politics of representation are hardly lost on social movements. On Democracy Now, Million Belay, general coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA), spoke to the issue of Dr. Kalibata’s role in the Summit, pivoting attention from the individual to the institutional:
Maybe they have selected her because she’s a woman, she’s a Black woman, she’s an African woman, as a form of representing this as a global agenda. Maybe, in terms of image, she fits that bill. But the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa has 13 board members. Eight of them are from outside Africa. And [AGRA] is registered in the U.S. The Rockefeller Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and some companies are on the board of AGRA. So this is an outside-controlled institution. This shows that the corporate world wanted to control this event.Footnote 21
The second, related, shortcoming of UNFSS inclusivity was the structural failures it obscures. In the US context, Nancy Fraser’s ‘progressive neoliberalism’ describes an alliance of mainstream currents of new social movements (feminism, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and LGBTQ rights), on the one side, and high-end ‘symbolic’ and service-based business sectors (Wall Street, Silicon Valley), on the other. In this alliance, she suggests, the former unwittingly lend their charisma to the latter and ‘ideals like diversity and empowerment, which could in principle serve different ends, now gloss policies that have devastated manufacturing and what were once middle-class lives’ (Fraser 2017). This is how it came to be that the US buzzed with talk of ‘diversity’, ‘empowerment’, and ‘non-discrimination’ even while its manufacturing cratered in the post-NAFTA years. In the context of the UNFSS, international women’s rights movements, a global racial reckoning, and hard-won Indigenous and Peasants recognitions in international lawFootnote 22 have similarly become fodder for liberal capture and multi-stakeholder inclusivity. Unsurprisingly, in the long shadow of COVID-19 and the climate crisis, the UNFSS was abuzz with inclusivity at every turn.
The results on the UNFSS stage were straight from Fraser’s playbook. Identifying progress (here ‘sustainable development’) with meritocracy instead of equality, inclusivity at the Summit was equated with the rise of a small elite of ‘champions’, of women, minorities, Indigenous people, and youth. The goal remained a winner-take-all corporate mentality instead of the smashing of hierarchies altogether. What is arguably different now is that science, technology, and innovation have become the handmaidens of this pursuit. Previously satisfied to protect entangled epistemic tracks of white science and Green Revolutions (Eddens 2019), dominant scientific actors appear self-aware of whiteness, patriarchy, and privilege. Awkwardly, as the UNFSS illustrates, they are carving out a woke science—‘to put all the people together’—and moreover, to emulate social movement scripts (Fig. 3). But as progressive neoliberals do, the UNFSS studiously avoided baseline forces of systemic inequality. Ignoring uneven political-economic power, ecological debt, and the hierarchies of knowledge and being that colonial-modernity assumes, its woke science nudges a few lucky ‘diverse’ spokespersons up the ladder of meritocracy while propping up the status quo atop a mountain of ‘neutral’ scientific evidence. As executive director of Focus on the Global South, Shalmali Guttal, told us: ‘I would like to see the Science Group’s innovations to address rights to land and territory, debt, suicides, distress migration….’
In sum, while the Scientific Group has reinforced certain boundaries around science, it has eroded other boundaries that typically define ‘science’ and who participates in its making. The fact that woke science collapses under the weight of its own contradictions has not, however, prevented further counter-boundary work at the heart of a fourth-industrial vision.