Food (Policy) For Thought

A recent grad's musings on sustainable food systems, agriculture and more!

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First Day of an Exciting Time!

Walking up and down endless stairways in search of your own office, confusing the cafeteria with the exit, having in-depth heart-to-hearts with IT help desk people… This feels like a new job! At the first station of my Mercator year, I’m going to get to know the ins and outs of European food policy with a traineeship at the DG (Directorate-General) Agriculture and Rural Development!


I am particularly excited about being in Brussels at such an interesting time… Tomorrow, for example, the European Parliament will examine the new Commissioner-designate for Agriculture, Phil Hogan from Ireland. As of November 1, the new Commission is supposed to start its job, and furthermore, this is the first year of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) coming into force, with many crucial questions still to be settled. Then, there is the plethora of interest groups that all coalesce in the heart of Europe – from the WWF to industry and other interest groups, this is the closest I have ever come to lobbying and to seeing how policy is really set, especially in such a complex international environment. It promises to be an exciting time, and I will be sure to report back from my forays into the world of food policy in Brussels, although much of my job will need to be kept under wraps for confidentiality reasons – but I’ll gladly take the chance of talking about the European ag policy agenda in much more depth and laying out how it all works in the future, so I hope you are on board!

And of course, the practical part of foodie Brussels won’t be left behind – this weekend, for example, I will be going on a couple of Slow Food Walks organized by Slow Food Brussels. Plus, I foresee quite some chocolate and frites in my future… Let the fun begin!


Two New Ideas To Combat Food Waste – Are They Any Good?

I love stumbling over new policy ideas and strategies that try to tackle problems rather than just drawing attention to the bad. In that vein, in the last two days I found two new projects that want to reduce food waste – here they are!

1. Seattle fines food wasters

First, and extremely surprising for me, the Seattle city council voted to distribute fines for residents and businesses that do not separate their food waste from the normal trash. Seattle is actually the second US city after San Francisco that thus makes composting mandatory in order to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions attached to the food system. The city currently recycles around 56% of its waste, but aims even higher.

What perplexed me most is how a project is actually implemented. According to the plan, the city’s waste collectors will have to monitor whether there is more than 10% food waste in a particular garbage bin, and are supposed to log the garbage offenders in a central system. The residents will then be given a fine that is added to their waste management bills.

The catch? The fine is only $1 for households; apartment buildings and businesses will get two warnings before being billed $50. This seems a lot of administrative effort for a very low incentive for people to actually change their behavior. Furthermore, how do you differentiate between 7 and 10% of food waste? And what happens if people just change to throwing all their food into composting bins? I guess that is better than the landfill, but the issue of food waste would still not be addressed fully. Maybe this could be the first step of many in mandating sustainability.

2. Innovative anti-waste food label wins award

A graduate student from Brunel University has created a tactile label that helps consumers determine whether their food is still good at the touch of a corner of the packaging. The label is composed of a gelatinous substance that is filled in over a bumpy surface. With time, the gelatin turns to liquid and exposes the bumps, which then signal that the food is no longer edible. As long as the label is smooth, the food can be consumed with no worries. The idea is so innovative – at a time that producers are actively searching for packaging ideas to reduce food waste – that it has received the James Dyson award. Its creator Solvegia Pakstaite will receive funding to develop a prototype and test it in lab conditions.


At first I was extremely excited about this, but if I understand correctly the gelatin-desolution has nothing to do with the actual condition of the food. Rather, it’s all based on a set time frame and thus has the same function as an expiration date on the package. However, given the confusion surrounding best-by and consume-by dates, and the success of alternative ways of communicating information – for example with infographics – I do see the potential to draw consumers’ attention to a reduction of food waste – if only as a novelty effect along the lines of “what is this gel thing and what does it mean?!”

What do you think? In your opinion, would either idea have any lasting effects on our consumption behavior?

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Hospital Tales, Rides Against Food Waste and Monsanto Connection – Link Love!

I hope you had an excellent weekend! I have been enjoying a fabulous time with alumni from my program, but of course we do find time to decompress and read a bit – these are some of the things that caught my eye.

Around The World In 8 Hospital Meals showcases the stark differences that exist between countries in what food recovering patients are served. It’s always baffled me how little attention is paid to the nutritional and culinary quality of hospital meals, especially as food is so central to health especially in times of weakness. The article collects stories and pictures of eye witnesses and it’s fascinating to see how it is being done, and what could be achieved – the overwhelming leader in this regard being Japan.

To Spotlight Food Waste, This Activist Is Biking Across the U.S. and Only Eating out of Dumpsters. Though it sounds like a Buzzfeed headline, this is a pretty nice feature article of environmentalist Rob Greenfield, who decided to turn the spotlight to the huge amounts of food wasted in the US by relying mainly on dumpstered meals for sustenance on his cross-country ride. The problems aren’t new, but any bit of extra publicity helps – and these kinds of pictures don’t disappoint:

dumpster ride

And finally, apparently Monsanto Woos Mommy Bloggers by inviting them onto the fields and informing them about the company’s aims and strategies. The article gives a fascinating insight on the controversy around the company, including links to a number of recent articles on them (including a great long read on Monsanto’s really poor ability of spin control and subsequent PR problem), and brings up the question – are sponsored tours like this which bloggers thereafter report on a necessary and justified awareness-raising effort or, as Anne Lappe argues, “stealth marketing techniques [which] reveal how the food industry — from biotech behemoths to fast-food peddlers — is working surreptitiously to shape public opinion about biotechnology, industrialized farming and junk food”?

What are your thoughts on the juxtaposition between awareness-raising and stealth marketing?

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September Food For Thought

Howdy! I’m very sorry for the disappearance, I’m in a fascinating but time-consuming seminar these 3 weeks and can barely find a free minute to read the news, much less report on them. Still, there are a couple of articles that have tickled my fancy, including these:

  • Buen vivir: the social philosophy inspiring movements in South America. This is a fascinating interview with a leading scholar on the issue on how to insert the mission of ‘Buen vivir’ – living well while respecting the rights of nature and other living beings just as much as our own – into policies. I’m hoping to work on one project attempting to implement this during the coming year, cross your fingers for me!
  • Deciphering the menu. This NY Times article follows a linguist around who is trying to explain why we describe our food the way we do, and what advertizing mechanisms different restaurants and retailers use. As interesting as the linguist’s blog, The Language of Food.
  • The FAO just published its latest numbers on hunger. According to them, there is a positive trend in the reduction of malnutrition, but there are still 805 million chronically undernourished. Check out the hunger map below for a more differentiated picture:

hunger map

  • And finally, the CGIAR challenges you:”Could the gamification of agriculture development help the public to understand the interconnected nature of water, energy, food and the environment?

    Given $3 billion, how would you develop a river basin over 50 years? With the “SimCity of the environment and development world”, you can do just that.

    Want to play the game? Go to:

Let me know how you liked the game!

I’ll be back with a couple of updates over the next days, but with more in-depth analyses as of the beginning of October. Happy reading!

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Drought in Central America – Sequía en Centroamérica


Sometimes, it´s easy to get caught up in the news of the day – Ukraine, Gaza, ISIS – that other news items go unnoticed. So, for example, that Central American agricultural producers are being hit extremely hard this year after a disease called coffee leaf rust destroyed many export crops. Now, on top of that, a drought has set in that might leave as many as 2.81 million in the need of food assistance, according to UN estimates.

Dry soils (here in Argentina in 2007-08) = no food :(

Dry soils (here in Argentina in 2007-08) = no food :(

Though the drought is affecting much of Latin America as well, it is countries in the ‘dry corridor’ of Central America – southern Guatemala, northern Honduras, and western El Salvador – that are suffering most. Guatemala has called out a national state of emergency after 256,000 families lost their crops. Particularly corn and beans, staple foods in the region, have seen stark reductions of up to 80 – 90%. Furthermore, thousands of cattle have died of undernutrition. The region is extremely reliant on agricultural self-sufficiency, with over 60% of the 42 million inhabitants living below the poverty line.

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New Ways of Banking [ISEE Recap 3]

Two posts ago, we reviewed what is problematic with the current way the financial system works. Now, let’s put a more positive spin on things – what can we do about it to change it? There are a number of different propositions on the table, both in terms of regulation and policy (which I will talk about first) and in terms of your own behavior. Let’s take each one in turn!

1. Creating a sovereign money system 

The organizers of the Positive Money campaign think that the best way to change the system is to lobby politicians to do three things:

a) Take the power to create money away from the banks, and return it to a democratic transparent and accountable process

This could be a committee or the central bank, but it should ensure that there is sufficient money in the economy – not too much and not too little – because the people involved in this process would have a much more long-term vision and no immediate profit goals the way bankers do right now.

b) Create money free of debt

This point follows on the next – if commercial banks cannot inflate the money supply by giving out loans, money creation won’t be hinging on debt creation. Rather, money would enter the economy through governmental spending on goods and services.

c) Put new money into the real economy rather than financial markets and property bubbles

Again, following on the last point – when governmental spending is the way money enters the economy, it prevents much of the new money to be caught up in short-term, high-risk investments such as in the housing market or in exotic derivative products. Consider this (from this report):

According to Bank of England figures, between 1997-2007, of the additional money created by bank  lending, 31% went towards mortgage lending, 20% towards commercial property, 32% to the financial sector (including mergers and acquisitions, trading and financial markets). Just 8% went to businesses outside the financial sector, whilst a further 8% financed credit cards and personal loans. Yet it is only ultimately the last two – lending to businesses and consumer credit – that have a real impact on GDP and economic growth. In short, we have a system where very little of the money created by banks is used in a way that leads to economic growth or value creation.

Check out their video for a quick run-through of their proposals:

The end goal is a money system that transfers the ability to create money exclusively to the state – a truly sovereign money system. Their report (pdf) explains it in 56 pages – a pretty enlightening read actually, in very understandable language and with arguments that make a lot of sense to me! Positive Money is running a campaign right now to lobby British PMs to consider their proposal, so if you are from the UK consider heading over and signing the petition!

2. ISEE proposals going even further

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Of Water and of Meat

Hi y’all, welcome to a new ‘what I’ve been reading!’ So much good information out on the internet these days…

First up, National Geographic (my love) has an awesome article on The Evolution of Diet. It talks about scientists trying to analyze what the last hunter-gatherer societies on the planet are eating, in order to reconstruct how our diets evolved – and how we could go back to more sustainable eating.

Through the article, as we trace back our ancestors’ diets from hunter-gatherers to the first agriculturalists, some stereotypes – and today’s food fads – are turned on their heads. Take the Paleo diet, for example.

“There’s been a consistent story about hunting defining us and that meat made us human,” says Amanda Henry, a paleobiologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. “Frankly, I think that misses half of the story. They want meat, sure. But what they actually live on is plant foods.”

What’s more, she found starch granules from plants on fossil teeth and stone tools, which suggests humans may have been eating grains, as well as tubers, for at least 100,000 years—long enough to have evolved the ability to tolerate them.

Interesting, right? Furthermore, case studies including cool pics and videos of the diets of several traditional societies – in Greenland, Bolivia, Tanzania, Greece, Afghanistan and Malaysia are interspersed in the article, making it a visual as well as an intellectual pleasure.

Also cool: this interactive graph of diet similarities across countries and time. Moral of the story: we all eat more and more of the same stuff. Sigh.

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 6.23.55 PM


Then, continuing the talk about meat, this article on California’s drought draws up some stark facts to consider:

Most people shower every day an average of about seven minutes of hot water with the showerhead flowing out about two gallons of water a minute. The Water Education Foundation calculates that every pound of California beef requires about 2,464 gallons of water to produce. You would save more water just by replacing a pound of beef with plant foods than you would by not showering for six months!

Think about that when you turn off the tap when putting on soap, eh? The article is a good overview in general of what is called ‘hidden water footprints’ – the embodied water you cannot see, but that was definitely used.

This topic is also taken up by the WWF Germany’s new report on The Imported Risk – highlighting the fact that as a major import nation, Germany is reliant on the supplying countries’ water security as well. In particular, it addresses German businesses that are importing intermediate inputs from low-income countries or have subsidiary factories in water-scarce countries. Consider these words by Eberhard Brandes, WWF Germany’s CEO:

Consider any of the 21st century’s major global challenges – climate change, population pressures, political upheaval, food security … a common undercurrent is water. No longer a concern limited to the poor and powerless – water has emerged as an issue that has resonance in boardrooms, corner offices, and the halls of power around the globe.

We have to understand and acknowledge the provision of water for human purposes as a service of nature – provided by ecosystems around the world. Without significant reduction of our footprint, impacts will be severe. These negative repercussions are already hitting the economies and the way we produce, process, and transport our commodities in a globalised market. Due to its strong dependency on the international trade of goods, Germany bears a special responsibility. Therefore, wise and sustainable water solutions have to be on the agenda of every single corporation. For the sake of our planet – and out of economic self-interest of any business.

Wise words! This infographic also gives an overview of the water dependency of some German import products which originate in particularly water-insecure environments, and their associated market values (not to state the obvious, but clockwise it says tomatoes from Spain, clothes from Bangladesh, roses and cut flowers from Kenya and raw materials, metals and ores from South Africa):

Screen Shot 2014-08-28 at 7.11.36 PM

What do you think about these links? Informative? Thought-provoking?


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