“This is a most reluctant decision.” These are the words of a spokesman for the agriculture-industry body CropLife International speaking to Nature this week. The decision in question is that by two CropLife member corporations, Monsanto and Syngenta, to pull out of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology. This is an ambitious, 4-year, US$10-million project that aims to do for hunger and poverty what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has done for another global challenge.

The scale of the ambition is clear both in the project's promised outcome, as well as in its internal workings. When published later this year, its reports promise to map how science, technology and accumulated good-farming practice can be used to reduce hunger and improve quality of life for rural people in developing countries (drafts can be accessed from http://www.agassessment.org). At the same time, the writing and review teams (some 4,000 experts in all) comprise a grand coalition including scientists, government officials, representatives from seven UN agencies, farmers' groups, a rainbow of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and industry, including chemicals manufacturer BASF and agri-biotech giants Monsanto and Syngenta.

But these last two, part of the assessment from the beginning, have now decided to quit. No public statements have been offered, but the spokesman for CropLife told Nature that the decision was prompted by the inability of its members to get industry perspectives reflected in the draft reports. One of these perspectives is the view that biotechnology is key to reducing poverty and hunger, and it is based in part on high (and rising) levels of demand for biotech crops from farmers across the developing world.

Insiders agree that the current draft is decidedly lukewarm about the technology's potential in developing-world agriculture. The summary report, for example, devotes more space to biotechnology's risks than to its benefits. The report says that evidence that biotech crops produce high yields is not conclusive. And it claims that if policy-makers give more prominence to biotechnology, this could consolidate the biotech industry's dominance of agricultural R&D in developing countries. This would affect graduate education and training, and provide fewer opportunities for scientists to train in other agricultural sciences.

CropLife says that it does not take a “dogmatic” position and remains open to rejoining the assessment if the other team members are willing to be more even-handed. But the views outlined in the draft chapter on biotechnology, although undoubtedly over-cautious and unbalanced, nonetheless do not represent the rantings of a fringe minority. The idea that biotechnology cannot by itself reduce hunger and poverty is mainstream opinion among agricultural scientists and policy-makers. For example, biotechnology expansion was not among the seven main recommendations in Halving Hunger: It Can Be Done, a report commissioned by former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan. The writing team for this report included Kenya's Florence Wambugu, perhaps the strongest proponent for biotechnology in Africa.

If Monsanto and Syngenta maintain their current position, it will be a blow to the credibility of an important scientific assessment.

The assessment's secretariat and chairs, too, need to ask themselves some searching questions. For starters: how come these founding members of the assessment got to the point of walking out? This is not the first time an initiative has sought to find common ground between NGOs and industry on a major issue involving science and public policy. There are many lessons that can be learned by talking to, for example, the organizers of the Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development project, or the World Commission on Dams, both of which produced consensus reports that have had far-reaching impacts.

Whatever happens next, the status quo is not an option. A meeting to agree the final text is expected to take place in April. Monsanto and Syngenta must get back to the table before then. If they maintain their current position, it will be a blow to the credibility of an important scientific assessment. In addition, public confidence in the biotech industry and in its ability to engage with its critics will have been undermined.

Perhaps most important of all, believing as they do that biotechnology is an essential response to hunger, the two companies will be letting down those that they most want to help.