I’d rather have a bottle in front of me . . .

There are occasions, I hasten to add, when a frontal lobotomy might have been a better option.

I’m not a very good committee sort of person, and I have quite a low tolerance level for poorly planned and chaired meetings. A particular grouch of mine is an unrealistic agenda. I remember one meeting more than 15 years ago that had an agenda with 14 or more items for discussion. After almost three hours we’d only worked our way through a couple of these. I don’t think we ever did get back to some of the points – although they must have merited some attention having been included in the first place. Better for the meeting chair to seek endorsement of various options by email than wasting everyone’s time (and at what dollar cost) sitting around a table getting nowhere. It’s no wonder that some organizations have taken radical measures in the way they organize meetings – and who they invite. Oh, and woe betide a meeting convener who hadn’t organized coffee and cookies!

Some meetings also appear to challenge the very laws of physics: time stands still (or even seems to go backwards), while other meetings expand to fill the available time and space. Much better in my opinion, on many occasions, is simply to bring together a group of informed folks to carefully work up some options, and actually get something done than sitting around ‘democratically’ and interminably discussing pros and cons – and in many instances identifying just what isn’t possible. Frustrating!

Over the decades I’ve had to sit through my fair share of meetings that I wish someone else had been deputed to attend. Perhaps the most mind-numbingly depressing meetings were those of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture I often had to attend on behalf of IRRI in the 1990s. Having accepted a job offer at IRRI at the end of January 1991, I couldn’t actually join the institute until the beginning of July as I had teaching and examining commitments until then at the University of Birmingham. But in April 1991 IRRI asked me if I would travel to Rome and represent the institute at the Commission’s meeting that year. I’d only been to Rome once before, so was quite keen to visit again, as well as get a better perspective on what was happening in genetic resources internationally. After attending several more meetings during that decade, my enthusiasm quickly waned.

The Commission has just celebrated its 30th anniversary, and has (and I quote directly from its web site)  ‘. . . provided a unique intergovernmental forum to reach global consensus on policies relevant to biodiversity for food and agriculture. It has prepared global assessments, negotiated global plans of action, codes of conduct and other instruments relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources for food and agriculture.’

No doubt. There have been achievements and agreements – but at what cost and at what pace? The Commission meets periodically – usually at FAO headquarters in Rome – to discuss and agree (and I use that word advisedly) policies relating to the management and use/exchange of genetic resources for food and agriculture.

Forum? Read ‘talking shop’, because that was what it felt like on many occasions, square brackets [  ] notwithstanding. It’s a wonder that anything is ever agreed in these international meetings when so many different perspectives, by country or even geopolitical blocks, ‘confront’ one another. In the early 1990s there was clearly an expectation among several countries that their genetic resources would make them rich. After all, this was the decade of the Convention on Biological Diversity that set frameworks for the exchange and use of biodiversity and the expected benefits that would stream therefrom.

Negotiation by committee. I don’t even recall how many years it took to agree a revised set of genebank standards, for example – something that you would never imagine, in a thousand years, could be controversial. Always detailed scrutiny of the draft language of any document/agreement in the five official languages of the United Nations (and the French always complaining that the English and French versions of drafts did not agree). And of course constant use of the famous square brackets – enclosing text that had yet to be agreed. Again, it fades into the mists of boredom how often I had to sit (as a mere observer) through discussions of [  ]-enclosed text. International diplomacy – don’t you just appreciate it? Get two lawyers in the same room and there’s trouble – and lawyers were prominent in many of the delegations of FAO members. While agreements were completed or policies approved, it always seemed like an eleventh hour thing, with discussions continuing late into the night before agreement was reached, and after what appeared earlier in the day as irreconcilable positions were overcome as one [  ] after another was removed.

And it was at these Commission meetings that I first thought that a frontal lobotomy might just be happy release. The two saving graces about the whole experience were the many opportunities of visiting and getting to know Rome, its sites and excellent restaurants; and some of the friendships I made with delegates to the Commission from around the world. Not all totally hopeless, after all.

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