The IAASTD – the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development – which ran between 2003 and 2008, involving over 400 scientists worldwide, was an ambitious attempt to encourage local and global debate on the future of agricultural science and technology. Responding to critiques of top-down, northern-dominated expert assessments of the past, the IAASTD aimed to be more inclusive and participatory in both design and process. But to what extent did it meet these objectives? Did it genuinely allow alternative voices to be heard? Did it create a new mode of engagement in global arenas? And what were the power relations involved, creating what processes of inclusion and exclusion? These questions are probed in an examination of the IAASTD process over five years, involving a combination of interviews with key participants and review of available documents.
The paper focuses in particular on two areas of controversy – the use of quantitative scenario modelling and the role of genetically-modified crops in developing country agriculture. These highlight some of the knowledge contests involved in the assessment and, in turn, illuminate four questions at the heart of contemporary democratic theory and practice: how do processes of knowledge framing occur; how do different practices and methodologies get deployed in cross-cultural, global processes; how is ‘representation’ constructed and legitimised; and how, as a result, do collective understandings of global issues emerge? The paper concludes that, in assessments of this sort, the politics of knowledge needs to be made more explicit, and negotiations around politics and values, framings and perspectives, need to be put centre-stage in assessment design.