The status of international agricultural research as a global public good (GPG) has been widely accepted since the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. While the term was not used at the time of its creation, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) system that evolved at that time has been described as a ‘prime example of the promise, performance and perils of an international approach to providing GPGs’. Contemporary literature on international agricultural research as a GPG tends to support this view and focuses on how to operationalize the concept. This paper adopts a different starting point and questions this conceptualization of the CGIAR and its outputs. It questions the appropriateness of such a ‘neutral’ concept to a system born of the imperatives of Cold War geopolitics, and shaped by a history of attempts to secure its relevance in a changing world. This paper draws on a multi-sited, ethnographic study of a research effort highlighted by the CGIAR as an exemplar of GPG-oriented research. Behind the ubiquitous language of GPGs, ‘partnership’ and ‘consensus’, however, new forms of exclusion and restriction are emerging within everyday practice, reproducing North–South inequalities and undermining the ability of these programmes to respond to the needs of projected beneficiaries.