Science as a basis for optimism (?)

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Wen Wu sharing her passion for fundamental science.  (photo: https://www.facebook.com/WUR/_)

On September 4th I took the stage with two younger scientists to reflect on the theme of the Opening of the 2017-2018 Academic Year: Science as the basis for optimism.

We followed the controversial keynote Matt Ridley (see here, also here).

I tend to be an energetic speaker; comfortable on stage, happy to speak freely without notes. This was not one of those occasion. I planned my speech carefully, with guidance from colleagues and friends. My typically animated style was subdued. As optimistic as I am as an individual, I wanted to be clear that on this occasion, I was advocating for caution.

I found myself in a difficult position. I wanted to respond to his speech, but it was not clear in advance what he would say. I supported the faculty who decided not to attend out of concerns which they raised in a letter, but I also believe in the importance of engaging and responding when you are in a position to do so, which in some ways, I was. I wanted to be critical; I did not want to disappoint my colleagues or students. At the same time, I did not want to necessarily alienate myself from the mainstream of the university. I wanted to respect the tone of the event, while also highlighting key concerns.

Several people have asked for a copy of the text as apparently the live feed was not easily accessible. So, here it is. All comments, questions and visions for the future, most welcome!

Reflections on science as a basis for optimism

As we lead up to the celebration of 100 years of this university we are being called to think about the contributions of science to the world. And it is clear, science and scientific progress offer a strong basis for optimism. Yet alongside all of the wonder, and wisdom, and progress, there are rational reasons to be cautious of adopting an optimistic trope.

Technologies today can be differentiated from those of the past in so far as they are more powerful, more all-encompassing, and more impossible to avoid. We just heard about a technology that can fundamentally change who we are. Anthony Giddens, former director of the London School of Economics, has shown that our societies now face risks marked by a high level of human agency involved in both producing and mitigating such risks. He calls these manufactured risks.

At this university, we are at the cutting edge of many scientific and technological advancements. We are also aware that there will be good and bad outcomes as these technologies roll out. There are enormous uncertainties, and complex dynamics.

With new discoveries and advancements in science comes responsibility. With radical science comes radical responsibility. As we push forward with exciting developments, we are also increasingly aware we can no longer afford to get it wrong. The consequences are simply too great. We need to proceed with caution.

This means we walk a difficult line in science, one we sometimes try to ignore: we need to be true to our methods, to our ambitions, to our instincts, but we also need to be aware of public values. What’s more, is that these values differ, and at times, they are irreconcilable. This reminds us that science, and the technologies that emerge from science, have politics. To be clear, our job is not to say what these politics should be and we should maintain our independent positions as much as possible. But we do need to engage in deliberation about them.

If science is to be with and for society, we need to be actively deliberating amongst ourselves and with others. We need to move outside our comfort zone and echo chambers and have difficult conversations about the direction we want society and science to take us.  To do this, we need to know, or at least imagine, the kind of futures we want.

I propose we make use of utopias as a tool. Utopia is used to describe a place where we might desire to live. To imagine utopias, to formulate alternative scenarios to re- imagine how we live on the planet, is an active response to some of the key problems we face, both real and imagined. Imaging utopias is not a childish or a naïve pursuit.

Louise Fresco (2016:8) has remarked that utopian thinking is so “powerful that it cannot be dismissed as unscientific religious doctrine, or naive mythology”. Carolyn Steel (2009: 305) argues that “utopianism represents the nearest thing we have to a history of cross-disciplinary thought.” Physicist John R. Platt has noted that “The world is now too dangerous for anything less than utopia.”

Imagining utopias can expand the number of places we look to make sense of the world.  Utopias can be used as a tool to experiment with the multiple, with broad experiences, and to foster dialogue around what ideas and values matter to people. In this way, designing utopias can move us from the monoculture of scientific knowledge to what Santos (2004) has called the “ecology of knowledges”.

To design a Utopian society often means to be at once imaginative and optimistic, but also critical and subversive (Marshall 2016). It is through proposing utopias, challenging utopias, and reimaging utopias, that we can foster fundamental conversations about the future we want and what this future might look like. This is key. Science may continue to solve problems (many of its own creation), and economies may continue to grow, but they may not lead to the society we want.

Let us reflect for a moment on the mission of our university: ‘to explore the potential of nature to improve the quality of life’.  Applying the tool of utopia, we may find that there is no consensus around what quality of life means and that we have ignored much of the diversity of values, of ambitions, and aspirations of people the world over. Further, to improve quality of lives, we need to try to identify potential risks and problems before they happen. We also then need to engage in the very difficult process of assessing related trade-offs.

We are no longer in a moment where we can maintain a blind faith in science or the mechanisms which mediate the outcomes of our science. At the same time, we need to rebuild public faith in science.

So let us be creative with our visions for the future, and let us continue to develop interdisciplinary science-supported pathways towards these visions. But in doing so, let us be wise, and let us wonder about the implications of our work. Let us move forward with reflection and with caution. And finally, let us remain optimistic. As Jean-Claude Servais said, “The hour calls for optimism; we’ll save pessimism for better times.”

Local Public Policies for Food Sovereignty – A recap of the International Seminar in Donostia, Spain

By Jordan Treakle

This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here. This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know: foodsecuresolutions@gmail.com

This week we take a diversion and focus on the outcomes of the International Seminar on Local Public Policies for Food Sovereignty that took place in mid-November in the Basque Country.  In this post Jordan Treakle identifies key themes to emerge out of the Seminar. We note that these themes relate to discussions taking place at the CFS and are thus relevant for this special series. Further, while focussing on global policies, there is a need to also address local-level policies.

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In mid-November over a hundred participants from across Europe, the Americas, and Asia convened at the International Seminar on Local Public Policies for Food Sovereignty in Donostia (San Sebastian), Spain to share experiences and perspectives on four inter-related topics linked to food sovereignty:

  • Land access and the commons
  • The role of education in public food policies
  • Linking urban and rural spaces through territorial development approaches
  • Local public policies to support agroecology

Donostia is known as a food capital of the country with its famous tapas culture, as well as having a fiercely independent regional political identity. In this delicious and inspiring socio-political environment one of the core issues of the Seminar was the recognition that “urban” food policies (such as the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact) and agendas (such as the role of urban policies in the Sustainable Development Goals) are gaining prominence in the international policy arena. And to illustrate this trend, much of the Seminar focused on presenting urban-centered food sovereignty initiatives in Spain, such as the work of Red TERRAE on supporting municipal agroecology platforms and Llaurant Barcelona on mapping and reorienting Barcelona’s tourist food economy toward food sovereignty.

As pointed out by representatives of the NGO FIAN, the international policy turn to “urban” spaces is not only a response to an increasingly urbanized world, but also reflects certain urban-focused political agendas, and thus presents both opportunities and challenges for more holistic systems-based approaches to supporting social justice and environmental sustainability in agriculture and food systems.

Drawing on the event’s presentations and participants’ discussions, below are some topics for thought and debate:

Continue reading “Local Public Policies for Food Sovereignty – A recap of the International Seminar in Donostia, Spain”

Agroecology for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems

This week I am in Budapest attending the Regional Symposium on Agroecology for Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems in Europe and Central Asia. There are over 170 participants registered representing 41 countries. The meeting will be web-streamed with simultaneous interpretation into English, Spanish, French and Russian.

I am presenting on Friday afternoon in Module 6: Transformative policies and processes where I am mean to give an introductory speech on “Reflexive governance for environmentally sustainable food security policies”.

Read more about the symposium here (you can also find the link to the webcast).

Click here to review the Participant Handbook.

Nitty-gritty details that matter: Evolving decision-making process at the CFS

By Jessica Duncan and Matheus Zanella

This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS) – The Future of the CFS?: Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here.

This week we continue with the thematic cluster The CFS: What for? We reflect on the process of policy negotiations at the CFS and consider tradeoffs between having negotiations completed in advance of the Annual Sessions or giving space to the final negotiations during the Annual Sessions.

This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know: foodsecuresolutions@gmail.com

Last week, Josh’s contribution focused on how broader aspects of discourse and framings influence CFS debate. This week, we will discuss more specific aspects related to the negotiation process. Certain details can actually mean a lot for a key function of the CFS: to develop and endorse policy recommendations and guidelines on a range of food security and nutrition topics.

Since its reform, CFS’ Annual Sessions have included negotiations on the final policy text to be endorsed in Plenary by the Committee – that is, during that key week in October where all members and participants meet. This year, all the negotiations were completed before the Annual Session.

What are the implications of this change?

In what follows, we discuss some reflections on opportunities and risks.

Before that, let’s briefly review how the CFS has functioned as a policy body. If you already know the standard CFS negotiation process, you can jump directly to Potential Limitations below.

One of the primary roles of the CFS is to

“[p]romote greater policy convergence and coordination, including through the development of international strategies and voluntary guidelines …” (CFS 2009:para 5.2).

After the reform, policy roundtables were established to support these aims. It generally works as follows, as also illustrated in the graphic below:

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The CFS identifies a theme (step 1) and tasks the CFS’s independent High Level Panel of Experts (HLPE) to produce a related report with recommendations (step 2). In preparation for the roundtables, the CFS also forms Task Teams (step 3). These Task Teams draft discussion papers and compile “decision boxes” informed by the report of the HLPE (step 4). Decision boxes (sets of actionable policy recommendations) preface the discussion papers and form the starting point of the policy negotiations, although this year “Proposed draft recommendations on sustainable agricultural development for food security and nutrition, including the role of livestock” were issued as a separate document. Open-Ended Working Groups (OEWG) are formed where interested parties start negotiating the recommendations in the inter-sessional periods to prepare for the larger negotiations (step 5).

Each roundtable begins with a panel of experts, including experts identified by civil society and private sector actors (step 6). These experts provide context from multiple scientific perspectives to help frame the negotiations. Still, the negotiations are facilitated by a Chair (a country delegate) and chronicled by a Rapporteur (these are usually volunteers from country delegations or experts in the area), and a scribe. The Rapporteur is responsible for identifying key outcomes, points of agreement and advancing recommendations. As noted above, the negotiations start from the text included in the decision boxes, or the draft recommendation.

Member states and participants identify themselves to the Chair and then the Chair calls on them to make interventions in the order they are seen (step 7). It is not uncommon to hear the Chair say “Civil Society Mechanism please, to be followed by Canada, and then the World Bank” illustrating not only a fundamental change in the way the CFS operates, but also in the ordering of intergovernmental negotiations.

The text being negotiated is projected onto a large screen. Scribe make use of Microsoft Word track changes to note the contributions and changes.

The Chair works with the members and participants to come to consensus. With consensus on the text, a roundtable is concluded and the negotiated decisions submitted to the Plenary for approval (step 8).

The important change is that this year, there were no side negotiations during the Annual Session. The negotiations took place in the Open-Ended Working Groups and were completed in advance so that the CFS plenary only needed to approve them.

So let us turn now to the tradeoffs we see with this change in CFS procedure. Let’s consider three potential limitations, then turn to opportunities (although these are, as you will read, not clear cut categories).

Potential Limitations

  • Restrictions on number of people participating in policy-making: The clearest impact is that having negotiations during the year restricts the number of people that can participate, for time, and for financial reasons.  While this could challenge the inclusive vision of the CFS, it could also mean more committed participation (see more on potential opportunities).
  • Limited visibility: During policy roundtable negotiations, all participants can watch, understand and react to the negotiations. Moving to a format focused on inter-sessional negotiations might limit the visibility of these political dynamics. Part of the excitement around, and hope for, the reformed CFS until now has been linked to the political debates between member states (who even if not actively negotiating, were at least present) and participants.
  • Reduced engagement: Associated with a reduced number of participants, engagement might also be reduced. This is particularly important because engagement is key to the uptake of CFS outputs. By having a wider group of actors involved in the negotiations, you get more organizations aware and invested in the outcome. The debates and discussion are also central for members and participants to gain insight into the politics and concerns embedded within the policies. This insight and enhanced awareness, we argue, is key to ensuring that these policies move beyond the CFS.

Considering the above, we wonder what value the participants now see in taking part in the CFS annual sessions if political negotiations are left to inter-sessional activities. We see the possibility of participants shifting their attention from the political negotiations to side-events and networking activities. Many participants that we spoke this year refer to the CFS not only a negotiation platform, but also as a true meeting point for those working on food security and nutrition.

Besides simply changing the negotiation dynamics, shifts in decision-making processes have implications for how member-states representatives understand interactions with non-state actors, as each year, new people come to the CFS. These people may not be aware of the CFS processes. The opportunity to engage in the policy roundtables presents in some ways a “crash course” in the inclusive and deliberative methods employed by the CFS to arrive at decisions.

This can be a very frustrating process (especially, for who are not used to being challenged by non-state actors), but we have also seen that many of those who experience this approach come to see the value of it. We have interviewed and witnessed several higher-level diplomats express deep frustration at their first CFS event, only to become proponents of the CFS and its participatory approach in a later stage once they saw the benefits of greater interaction.

Potential Opportunities

  • More efficient and reliable plenary: Since the reform, it has been common that policy negotiations go on late into the night. This is certainly exhausting for the participants, leaving some unable to engage in the CFS plenary the following day (a key issue for countries with small delegations). Additionally, it is also exhausting for the budget of the CFS, as when a session is extended, interpreters and staff must be paid and the buildings need to be kept open. Completing negotiations in advance of the annual session might result in a more reliable schedule and reduced costs for the Annual Plenary.
  • Increased commitment: It is expected that those participating in Open-Ended Working Groups are invested in the process and not last-minute arrivers that can express dissent on recommendations that were already crafted through careful negotiation and consensus. Yet this calls for reflections on representation within Open-Ended Working Groups, for example,  shifting the balance of power since some organizations cannot afford participating in all meetings.

From interviews and discussions we had at the CFS, we noted that some participants appreciated the time that was freed up by not having to be preparing for negotiations during the Annual Session. They noted that this provided more opportunities to network, strategize and organize.

In Conclusion

We have here focused on questions related to process, with little regard for content. Much more time and care is required to be able to make claims as to the implications of this approach for policy outcomes. You can however judge the results of the negotiations yourself by reading the final report of the 43rd Session, available here.

The Civil Society Mechanism also has an archive of the policy negotiation processes:

  1.   Sustainable Agricultural Development, including Livestock
  2.   Connecting smallholders to markets with an analytic guide is available here

We would be most interested to hear your thoughts: What are the opportunities, benefits and risks associated with having the policy recommendations negotiated entirely in the inter-sessional period?

Advances in Food Security and Sustainability

The first volume of Advances in Food Security and Sustainability has been released. I have contributed a chapter on the post-political condition and global food security governance.

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Advances in Food Security and Sustainability takes a scientific look at the challenges, constraints, and solutions necessary to maintain a healthy and accessible food supply in different communities around the world. The series addresses a wide range of issues related to the principles and practices of food sustainability and security, exploring challenges related to protecting environmental resources while meeting human nutritional requirements.

 Key Features

  • Contains expertise from leading contributions on the topics discussed
  • Covers a vast array of subjects relating to food security and sustainability

Table of Contents

Continue reading “Advances in Food Security and Sustainability”

FAO e-conference explores contribution of small farms to food security and nutrition

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From October 10-23  you can participate in an FAO e-conference exploring contribution of small farms to food security and nutrition.

 

Here is what you need to know:

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La Vía Campesina and the UN Committee on World Food Security

The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) will meet next week in Rome for its 43rd session.  It is thus rather good timing that a new paper on the CFS has just been published in the Review of International Studies. 

The paper, written by Josh Brem-Wilson, Research Fellow, Coventry University, is called “La Vía Campesina and the UN Committee on World Food Security: Affected publics and institutional dynamics in the nascent transnational public sphere

Continue reading “La Vía Campesina and the UN Committee on World Food Security”