Joachim von Braun, former Chair of the Scientific Group for the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit, lays out the importance of an inclusive process and multi-disciplinary scientific collaboration to meet the calls for food system transformation. Dr von Braun joins us to talk about his experience as Chair, what he sees as the successes of the summit, and what work remains to be done. We also discuss who should be involved in knowledge production and how, and we hear his thoughts on whether we should create an Intergovernmental Panel for Food (not unlike the IPCC) that would have the power to work towards scientific consensus on food system issues.
For more info and transcript, please visit https://tabledebates.org/podcast/episode29
A quick note before we start. This conversation with Joachim von Braun was recorded in early February before the Russian war in Ukraine, Therefore you will not hear us discuss how the war has worsened the food crisis.
If you look at the 50 documents, which the scientific group has put out, you'll find inconsistencies there. And that is by design, because the debate must go on. This food system summit has not closed the debate on the future of the food system.
Welcome to Feed, a food systems podcast presented by TABLE, I’m Matthew Kessler.
And I’m Samara Brock. And today we’re speaking with Joachim von Braun.
Joachim von Braun. I'm a professor at Bonn University in development economics and agriculture.
Joachim von Braun has a long career in food systems. From 2002-2009, he served as the Director of IFPRI - the International Food Policy Research Institute. Though we are mostly speaking to him for the unique role he held in respect to the 2021 UN Food Systems Summit. Joachim von Braun served as the chair of the Scientific Group which convened 28 members from across the world and produced papers on a variety of issues."
We talked with him about the work of the Scientific group and who should be involved in knowledge production, and how? As well as his thoughts on creating an IP for food – this Intergovernmental Panel would have the power to work towards scientific consensus on food system issues.
As always, if you have any questions, comments or suggestions for future guests, send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org/
So we might jump right into the theme of this series, which as you know, is power in the food system, and we're trying to think broadly about power. And one of the reasons we were really excited to talk to you is thinking about sort of knowledge and the scientific process and academic power to shape food systems thinking and policy and action in the world. So the first question we wanted to start with is how do you think of power? There's lots of different ways we can understand it, how do you think of power in the food system?
The concept of power, I think, is it's changing over time, it relates to the level of influence. So, I would define power as having high level of influence, maybe excessive influence. Power can be exploited. And sometimes in the food system, it is being exploited. We need to balance power, including in the food system, for instance, the power of corporate and the power of consumers. The lack of power of smallholders in agriculture and the power of media, so of influence, I'm not only thinking in terms of power of politicians, but in the food system mainly about power structures, that shape supply, demand, innovation, or the likes thereof.
and do you think your training as an Agricultural Economist has shaped how you understand power?
Yes, as an economist, you learned even in economics 101, the pitfalls of monopolies and the difficulties of checks and balances to facilitate sound competition. That in a way, structured and regulated social market economy is essential. So that benefits of productivity increases are spread through groups of society.
And much of your life's work has been to improve food security and nutrition across the world. You've been working in this field for some decades now. What are some factors that keep hunger and malnutrition at such a high level?
I have worked in very serious hunger and food insecurity situations in the context of the Ethiopian and Sudanese famines in the 1980s, but also thereafter. The factors that lead to food insecurity and the prevalence of hunger, which, as you know, has increased again in the last five years are primarily related to poverty, the lack of social protection, disturbances in the markets and bad governance. More and more of the food insecurity situations and the hotspots in that respect in the world relate to conflicts, armed conflicts. So, we cannot simply talk about power in markets and hunger and the food system malfunctioning. We also have to look at the bigger framework of political and armed conflicts that undermine the functioning of the food system. Food System is really not just markets with supply and demand and production. Food systems relate to services to health, to education in rural areas, building infrastructure, and all of that. And, of course, innovation. It’s a great pity, to put it mildly. It's a scandal that today, hunger is especially strongly coming back in the environment of armed conflict.
You mentioned that five years ago, which predates the pandemic, which we've also seen a spike in hunger and food insecurity in that time. Is there a particular event or does that correlate with a rise in armed conflict that has increased food insecurity in this time?
It's interesting to compare today's increase in hunger with the situation in 2008, 9, 11. The so called food price crisis. The two are completely different. The now and then. To what happened then was a major financial crisis, the banking sector overheated partly through corrupt processes, the price spikes in the wheat and corn markets driven up by speculation. So, these developments partly were driven by supply demand imbalances and lack of stocks of grain and then interacting with interventions from countries who got nervous and stop their exports. Today, we have a very different pattern in the COVID crisis. We have very volatile prices in many low and middle income countries because of the needed interventions to control the pandemic. So, food value chains were disrupted. Secondly the impact of interventions that came out of these violent conflicts which we mentioned. And the debt and fiscal situation in countries who had to scale up their social security policies in order to cope with the COVID crisis protect poor people have exchange rate changes, so there comes macro economic causes in. So the hunger crisis today is a complex story, in which much more complex forces of power and weakness are setting in.
Just wanted to shift gears and talk about your involvement with the UN Food System Summit. So you were Chair of the scientific group of the Food System Summit. What was that like to chair that group? You had scientists from over six continents? So it must have been a fairly complex process to guide? Can you speak to us a little bit about how that went?
First of all, let me say that the scientific group for the UN Food System summit was a unique invention, not by me, but by the UN Secretary General. For the first time, UN leadership called on an independent scientific group, not appointed by governments, to advise on the agenda, and the priorities of a Food Summit. That has never happened before. We had six or seven summits since 1943 on food, so this was new. To lead that group and having been part of the recruitment of the group was a tremendous experience. The group was highly diverse. And it was, I can tell you, not easy to deal with conflicts in the groups given very different perspectives, from different hemispheres. I think it's an important exercise that on other issues should be repeated in the UN system.
And how were the members chosen for the scientific group?
Well, as I said, they were not chosen by government like panels of Rome based agencies. They were chosen through consultations with leading science organizations, Academies of Science, the professional scientists, organizations, such as the world crop scientists, the agronomists, the food processing researchers, food technologists, they're called, the International Union of nutritionists, the International Association of agricultural economists. So we explicitly called on them for nominations, and all members had to have two credentials. One, in the past of their career, or recently been elected to lead an independent science organization such as an academy or one of these organizations that I mentioned. And secondly, they should have a strong science record in terms of their publications.
As you know there were some critiques during the summit that a lot of people on the panel were either economists or natural scientists, do you retrospectively wish there had been more diversity in terms of disciplinary background or other backgrounds?
No, I think it was a very diverse group. And each and every one of these group members have a fairly broad perspective on the food system. So they are not single issue specialists. Even the soil scientists or I should say, especially the soil scientists, Professor Rattan Lal, who is a World Food Prize Laureate, understands as much about climate and as much about a farmer behavior as he does about soil and land degradation. So I think if one takes a careful look and not a superficial look at the composition of the group, one should be pretty satisfied that understanding of political issues, power, sociology of consumption and nutrition was sufficiently well represented as were the hard science.
You mentioned that there were conflicts - which is an area that we're interested in exploring, as an organization of TABLE and also in this podcast series is seeing how people deal with seeing issues differently. And I'm wondering if you could lay out what were some of the clearer areas of consensus or at least broader agreement within the scientific group? And where were there areas where there were more tensions? And then also, how were those tensions or disagreements dealt with?
You know, in science, we try to deal with tensions by peer review. We asked the third party to assess early products. So we exposed the key papers of the scientific group to external peer review. So members outside the group had to have comments. That by the way, I can tell you that we also were asked to do with propositions and proposals that came from other actors in preparing the Food System Summit. So it was not only us, but you know, there were many stakeholder groups that prepared action tracks and so on. Now one of these difficult experiences was that many of these groups are not familiar with peer review and considered it something unfair, that someone writes a critique, even anonymous critique about a paper. So there we have to do more learning. I think, we got there.
Conflicting issues, which you mentioned, are the typical ones. Number one, the future of livestock. Climate here, poor people's income source there. Part of healthy diet or excessively consumed unhealthy diet. So that are big issues, unresolved. There's a livestock paper on our website of the scientific group, which came together rather late, was the last paper, which the group produced because it was pondering it for a long time. So you asked, how did we solve conflict, sometimes time helps solve conflicts. So we had discussions ad nauseam in some cases.
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A second major issue is sustainable production systems and agroecological approaches. So we have a series of papers produced and peer reviewed. And they also do not agree with each other. And this is by design. If you look at the 50 documents, which the scientific group has put out, you'll find inconsistencies there. And that is by design, because the debate must go on. This food system summit has not closed the debate on the future of the food system. So I gave you these two examples. There are more. But I think what the group fairly quickly agreed on was that science innovation meaning that institutional innovations and technological innovations have to play key roles for the transformation of the food system. And we all agreed this food system needs to be transformed.
So you mentioned the process by which people were chosen for the scientific group, you know, and something we encounter a lot in our work, and I'm sure you encounter as well, when it comes to food systems debates and food systems. There's a lot of different knowledge sets out there. So you know, whether it's farmer knowledge, traditional knowledge, indigenous knowledge, and by the definition of who was chosen for the scientific group. There weren't representatives necessarily from indigenous groups, and, farmers groups. How would you see including those knowledge sets in in the scientific process?
You see one of the great surprises, and I believe breakthroughs, of the process of the Food System Summit and the scientific group was the close cooperation with indigenous peoples. I personally and colleagues in the group had series of meetings with indigenous peoples knowledge carriers. In the run up to the summit, making sure that the pre-summit had their voice, making sure that the so called Science days where we organized in July last year, for a week 60 sessions with partners in one week, on all aspects of food systems, strong participation of indigenous peoples. So I'm pleased to see that in the foreword to their main paper, the scientific group and its chair, was highly praised for this openness. And this will not go away. I think the respect, the mutual respect of the traditional scientists and the indigenous peoples has changed in this process in the last one and half years.
Can you name any specific examples where through these interactions or consultations that changed the way you or the group as a whole thought about a particular issue?
Yes. There are a number of aspects. One is the long term perspective needed in order to come to a sustainable food system. The advantages of mixed cultivation and, and integration of crops and, and forestry, in mixed cropping systems, but also the whole perspective of how our food system needs to transform in the future. And even more, the mindset that we humans are part of the food system that needs to be protected, and it is not just serving us, but that we have to have respect for this Mother Earth and the water and the biodiversity. I think that many in the scientific group have absorbed from these consultations. I had been in touch with indigenous peoples in my own research in the western mountains of Guatemala, or in Rwanda, and had anthropologists, local anthropologists in my research team. So this was not new to me. But that it was at a global scene coming about, is for me one of the most rewarding experiences.
So I excitedly attended all of the science days that you held as the scientific group. And something you said during the science days was scientists are spending too much time talking, talking about each other, and not enough time talking to each other, which I thought was a great quote. And we're wondering if you could expand on what you meant by that, and how we might better get scientists and others to talk to each other.
Well the science days took place at a time of tensions. And I found it very important to overcome these tensions. Even at that time, there were people who were not convinced that a food system summit, called by the UN Secretary General, was a thing to be supported. And these were groups in industry and these were groups in civil society. And both of them tried to instrumentalize scientists. And that I think is part of power play. You started this conversation on power, which needs to be overcome. A world that is brought to the brinks by a malfunctioning food system, which is responsible for 1/3 of greenhouse gas emissions, which is responsible for a major deterioration of biodiversity, and is not serving the poorest of the poor needs to change. And so we have to be serious in this game, rather than talking about each other - was referring to these tensions. We need to come together because the transformation of the food system requires that we deal with these with actions that have synergies, but also trade offs. And we must debate these trade offs. For instance, related to unhealthy and unsustainable diets, from which some profit, and others lose. For instance, the conflicting issue of livestock production and utilization, which have pluses and minuses. So this was at the back of my mind when I was calling on the science communities. Let's get together, let's do hard peer review, let's check our facts. Let's look into the best models which we have in order to assess synergies and tradeoffs , if we do A versus B, what's the outcome for people for planet? And then sit down rather than come with ideological positions.
You said that people were instrumentalizing science, can you expand a little bit on what you mean by that?
You see, we have 10s of 1000s of academics related to the food system. Actually, my hunch, my rough estimate would be that we have about 100,000 up to 500,000 trained academics that cover parts of key elements of the food system. So, it would not be surprising if some academics align themselves with certain interest groups and try to cater to them. I think we would be naive not seeing that. So, but we must not marginalize anyone. So, from the scientific group's perspective, I opened up the discussions as I said, to the indigenous peoples, but also to scientists in the corporate sector, and scientists which pursue research on diet and nutrition with a very strong position say on vegetarianism. So, they all have something to say. But if they are bought by any interest group, or are not willing to let facts speak or get nervous when a peer review is proposed - their work is reviewed by third parties - then my willingness to be conciliatory stops.
Do you think that it is possible for values and facts to be divided from each other?
Great question. You know, the first thing we did in the scientific group was a paper to define what's a food system. Very contentious. Everyone wants to have their building block shown big. And then you get something very complex all over the place, which is not saying anything. Lots of such graphs about food system exist. That paper was later than published in Nature food. The second one, which is equally difficult at the beginning, talking systematically about food systems was defining a healthy diet. What's a healthy diet. And three of the most renowned diet, nutrition food security experts, three ladies were drafting that, and was peer reviewed, and it went back and forth, it took a while. It has become a very important paper that helped shape the discourse thereafter. So at the beginning, I think it's very important, to note at the beginning of the process of food systems summit agenda setting, basic concepts needed to be clarified. They can change in the future, but at least, we made some contribution for clarifying concepts, so that people don't talk besides each other, using almost the same words, but meaning completely different things. And I think we achieved it, that this would not happen.
Yeah and we will link to some of those papers in our show notes, as well as a letter that you shared with us before between you and the Deputy Secretary General, which was written upon the completion of your work with the scientific group. And I think there's a lot to dig into there. I really appreciate the transparency of the process, you have all your meeting minutes available for people to go and look at if they're interested. And I'd like to ask the question, following up on this, leading towards what are the next steps. Because the landscape of food politics, which we've been discussing is quite messy, and it's polarized and also, depending on who you ask the UN Food System summit was a great success, or it wasn't seen as a success. And I imagine you're on the side and also looking through the letter that sees it as a success. So I'd like to ask you, what do you hope people take away from this summit? And what do you hope comes next?
You see, I would say yes, it was a success, but by my own yardstick. But I also think it is a glass somewhat more full than half, but not really full. On the big pluses is, the world has never talked about food system, hunger, nutrition sustainability, as much as it did with almost 1000 dialogues virtual dialogues, and more than 150 countries engaging before the summit has never happened before. So the world has talked. And that was triggered by the summit and by independent stakeholder based, and not just government based processes. Summits were always business of governments, actually, that has antagonized some governments who were not happy about that, that this was supposed to be a “people's summit” and with stakeholders and independent science not listening to anyone. That's a big change. It has changed mindset, that's a big plus.
Secondly, we have an action agenda that was prepared and released by the UN Secretary General, which has key points in them, emphasizing equity, emphasizing the role of innovation. And in science, actually, and this has resonated, or he resonated what countries said, because if you look at the 160 plus statements from countries, what should happen, there is at number one their main concern to get a sustainable food system out of the COVID crisis. Number two, address the food security issues. And number three, to increase science, innovation and research. So 70 to 80 countries statements had these three. There are important others issues, such as the right to food, and not violating the human right to food, which may not have been emphasized enough in the country dialogues, but these dialogues continue, by the way, continue for a year. And we have already now although the scientific group no longer exists - it was closed down appropriately as the terms of reference had defined them by New Year's Eve last year. But we must look on the other side of the coin, what has not happened.
Dr von Braun felt that a lot of work remains unfinished. He lays out his top priorities.
Number one, there is no clear cut finance agenda. You cannot transform the food system without money with a few tricks. Doesn't work. So that's missing, and the Washington based organizations, the international finance community has to step up to the plate in order to facilitate the required investments. Secondly, we have a long way to go with national level implementation of actions because most of the action needs to happen at a country level. That was recognized and implementation plans are coming about. But the international agenda of trade, of climate, of the oceans – the so-called Blue economy related to food, needs further follow up and and lastly, the idea of a improved science policy interface where science and policy interacts independently but constructively has not yet been settled. These points I made in my farewell letter to the Deputy Secretary General and she echoed them, which I was pleased about. The Secretary General has decided that in two years, there should be a follow up meeting and reporting. So he has put the system under stress, and that's good. So there is a follow up process.
And you've called in many papers you've written and also in this letter for kind of an IPCC for food. Why do you think that needs to exist?
An IP food or IP food system is required, because we have a global problem for which we need to mobilize the global science community. The 10s of 1000s of knowledge carriers, I explicitly say knowledge carriers, not just scientists, but we talked about indigenous people, people with experience, with experiential knowledge should be part of this. And it needs to be a fairly diverse community. It's actually more complicated than an IPCC. We have global issues. And we have a lot of national and regional issues to fix in the food system. That's why it cannot be a copy of the IPCC. It must be a networked system. That became so clear in the process of the food system summit, a network system which is built bottom up with the country knowledge networks, where at the country level, the Academies of Science, the Universities and National Agricultural Research Systems, the indigenous peoples communities, the knowledge carriers in in the private sector need to be at the roundtable that orchestrated not just by themselves, but meet with government, civil society and business on the other side of the table. But it has to be the knowledge community at the table. And at the global level, we need this IP in order to address some of the global public goods issues of food - trade, food safety, food system / climate linkages, they cannot be done at the national level. But this would be a useless exercise if we just had a committee up at the global level, which would not have its feet on the ground at the national level.
There have been numerous critiques of this idea of an IP - an Intergovernmental Panel for Food systems. We’ll link to some examples in the show notes. Some say this kind of body already exists in the form of the HLPE, the High Level Panel of Experts - which is a science-policy interface of the CFS - the Committee on World Food Security. We asked Joachim von Braun what his thoughts were on this?
I think the HLPE has done some good work, clarifying concepts, which is so important, as I mentioned earlier, ‘what's the food system?’ They played some role in that. Or the work of the scientific group on what's a healthy diet. And our thinking on what's a sustainable diet, a diet that is healthy, but also is not hurting the ecology. But the CFS with the HLPE cannot and should not be taking a monopolistic position. Any monopolistic attitude, speaking for the world does not fit well with the diversity of the World Food System. And secondly, we must recognize that we need to mobilize much, much bigger communities than a group of 16 to 20 people to talk about food security, it's a high level panel of experts serving food security. The talk about food system must embrace the whole environment agenda, the whole nutrition and health agenda related to food, the production, and the consumption and diet issues. So look where we are in the climate agenda. We are nowhere near a constructive engagement, unleashing the powers of knowledge around the food system where the climate policy is. Imagine the climate policy, the Paris Agreement, Glasgow or coming up Sharm el-Sheikh COP27. Without IPCC, it wouldn't be there.
How would you go about building trust and legitimacy in such a body?
The research community has mechanisms of elections. All respected Academies of Science, elect their members on the basis of quality of their science in secret ballot. That's legitimate. All recognized global and national food and agriculture related organizations elect their leaderships by secret ballot. So this is not some club, the science community has governance issues, but they also have solved them to a significant extent. And quality control comes into peer processes. But such a body needs to develop peer culture, also, not just looking at elections and sound governance.
So you've been building out this vision of a more equitable and sustainable food system. And that's informed by this inclusive science policy interface. I wonder what specific aspects of power might be getting in the way of bringing us to realize that vision.
You see, it's not just in the vision of an equitable food system. But also a world without hunger. And the tragedy, which we are confronted with is that it doesn't cost so much. Our estimates are, it's 40 to 50 incremental billion dollars per annum, between now and 2030. On the other hand, we see that the true cost of food, so the food costs due to environmental destruction and impaired health, are about three times of the food in the marketplace. 30 trillion per annum versus nine or 10 trillion in the market. So, it does not make sense that we have a wasteful food system that is wasting environment and people on the one hand, and we shy away from doing the necessary investments to even come out of hunger. So that's a key message for the follow up to the food system summit. The finance and the banking sector needs to come in from the public and private sector to deal with these issues. It can be done.
And you call for this food system transformation. What other aspects of power are keeping the food system on its current course that are preventing this more sustainable transformation?
Matthew, you see fundamentally it's the powers of greed, the powers of ignorance and they are not yet haunting, as always, in the world which think they can live on happily ever after, without solving the equity, hunger and misery problems. So that's a fundamental one and I very much agree with Pope Francis’s sentiments that unless we address these fundamentally misguided powers and turn them into positive forces for a sustainable food system, we will not achieve our goals.
And just the very last question, whose greed specifically?
Well, if you look at people, like in the countries from where you and I are currently talking to wasting about 17 to 20% of their food and not helping to invest to reduce the losses of food in the value chains in the emerging economy countries, which is another 15% or so, adding up to about 1/3 of food produced. I consider this a greed and ignorance. So let's not fingerpoint at individuals. That will not help us. I think we all need to change our mindset. So that the positive forces of care in consumption doubled up with the positive opportunities of science helping towards sustainable production.
Thank you very much for your time. We really enjoyed speaking with you.
Thank you so much.
That wraps another episode of the Feed podcast. A big thank you to Joachim von Braun for joining us and to you for listening.
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This episode was edited and mixed by Matthew Kessler and TABLE intern, Alex Häuser. Music in this episode by Blue dot Sessions. Stay tuned for a new episode on power in a couple weeks.