The Montpellier Process: an audacious experiment in pooling collective intelligence for the planet and a potential bridge between knowledge communities

Montpellier process_HLPE

©William G. Moseley


By William G. Moseley

Collectively humans have the capacity to solve just about any problem, but when the main decision-making pathways are not working together or as well as they should, sometimes we need to experiment with other fora. The Montpellier Process is such an alternative forum and it is truly an experiment, an experiment that may or may not work. A bit off the beaten path, Montpellier is a university town in southern France that has been a site for learning, science and intellectual refugees since the 10th century. It is also the kind of medium-sized city that is audacious enough to think it can make a difference.

On 19-20 March 2024, some 300 researchers, civil society members and decision-makers from around the world gathered in Montpellier to discuss how various actors from the environment, food and agriculture, and health sectors could better collaborate to improve food systems. While the event was curated for sure, there was also an element of letting go to see what would come of the process. Herewith I describe the concerns that drew us together, the key principles of the Montpellier Process, the science-policy interfaces (SPIs) that formally and informally participated, the broader knowledge and policy communities involved, and some of my own thoughts on the future of this process.

Polycrisis: humanity and the planet are in trouble

The planet and humanity are in trouble. We are racing towards environmental and social catastrophe, yet we know how to do things better. Something is not working. For those gathered in Montpellier, the working hypothesis was that we are stymied because different knowledge communities, be it those focused on environment, food and agriculture, or health, are working in silos, not adequately bridging different forms of knowledge, not effectively working with policymakers, and not managing to be effective at different scales (international, regional, national and local). This is a polycrisis of such proportions that we must continue to work within existing channels and think outside the box by developing new pathways.

What is the Montpellier Process?

The Montpellier Process has three guiding principles. The first is to offer a safe space (under Chatham House Rules) for scientists and policymakers to have frank and honest discussions free of institutional mandates. The second is to be an inclusive and action-oriented space where people come together from diverse knowledge communities to imagine different ways forward. The final principle is that this is simply a process that is collectively owned and there is no intent to create a new institution. The group decided to focus on food systems in this initial round, as a cross cutting theme that impacts climate, agriculture and food, and environment, but it could look at other themes in the future. In some ways, the March 2024 meeting was a test run, or proof of concept, to see if different groups could work together across divides.

Read more about the Montpellier Process via Nature

Read more about the HLPE-FSN engagement

Science-Policy Interfaces and the broader ecosystem of knowledge communities

Part of the initial thinking behind the Montpellier Process was to involve the international scale Science-Policy Interfaces (SPIs) that work on themes related to the environment, food and agriculture, and health. SPIs exist in all shapes and sizes. In most cases, these are formal bodies of scientists who produce reports and provide advice to policymakers on agreed upon topics. The most effective SPIs are those that are independent, transparent, accessible, consultative and evidence-based.

Among those international SPIs formally represented in Montpellier were the High Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE-FSN) and the One Health High Level Expert Panel (OHHLEP). Informally represented by some of their members were the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). SPIs have varying levels of autonomy, with some able to participate in international fora without the explicit consent of member states, whereas others need a formal charge to do so.  An important step at this meeting was an informal consensus to improve communications between the different SPIs. One of the challenges of the polycrisis is that we can no longer afford to think in silos, as such all of the SPIs could potentially benefit from greater cross-pollination.

The meeting was not limited to the members of international SPIs, but also included a broad cross section of scientists, policymakers, UN agencies and civil society organizations from around the globe. Perhaps most notably absent were members from the private sector. It is important to note that SPIs also exist at the national scale in some countries and not at all in others. This uneven landscape of national-level SPIs has implications for the way science and policy insights move around the world.

Read the article "Science–policy–society interfaces must be independent, transparent, accessible, consultative and evidence-based"

Conclusion and hopes for the future

The meeting that happened on 19-20 March in Montpellier was an important first step. It showed that actors from various knowledge communities and decision-makers from around the world who have shared concerns at the intersection of the environment, food and agriculture, and health can get together to not only discuss issues of concern, but diagnose the impediments to better knowledge-based decision-making. For those who were there from various international SPIs, a lot of informal learning and relationship building occurred. Furthermore, while many SPIs will continue to do what they do well, producing reports that synthesize the latest scientific information on a given topic and making related policy recommendations for decision-makers, these SPIs operate in an institutional ecosystem with other actors that can help translate and amplify their work. As such, the Montpellier Process can also serve as a bridge that helps international SPIs (such as the ones present at the 19-20 March meeting) better connect their work to other actors operating across a variety of scales.

That said, the process was not perfect. Given the fairly open and quasi-curated format of the encounter, many participants struggled to grasp the key objectives of the meeting and process. Now that the principles of this process have been established, moving forward I believe future gatherings should focus on more specific topics such as, for example, agroecology, food system zoonotic spillover, or proliferating agrochemical use. While narrower, these are all topics that span the traditional environment, food and agriculture, and health silos. Such a narrower focus might lead to more concrete informal (or safe space) discussions between scientists, civil society and policymakers on the best way to move forward. Lastly, the location of the meeting does influence who may attend. As such, holding a future meeting at a location in the Global South might open up this process to other important stakeholders

Montpellier process_FEB 2024


William G. Moseley is DeWitt Wallace Professor of Geography at Macalester College, Saint Paul, USA, former steering committee member of the High Level Panel of Experts for Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE-FSN), and Montpellier Process programme committee member.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CFS nor its HLPE-FSN, Macalester College, HLPE-FSN or the Montpellier Process.