Food (Policy) For Thought

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


Of Mangoes and Chocolate…

Hey hey, just popping in after two suuuper interesting conference days – of which I will soon share the contents! Until then, and because my eyes are getting all droopy after a long day, let me share the following with you:

1. A video about how (sustainable) mango is made:

2. A scary article about how we are running out of chocolate (noooo!)

3. An interesting piece on whether hipsters can become the future of farming…

4. An eye-opening blogpost that puts into question “what farmers want” and how we can really find out about that.

5. And finally, this super cool website by NatGeo (who else) that uncovers the story of food through different themes. There will also be a matching TV show if you are lucky enough to get their channel!

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Guess What – The Private Sector Can Help Itself!

Hey hey hey! Long time no news, eh? Sorry for that. The last week was pretty intense, but now it’s Friday and I was at a lunch conference again, which means I have interesting thoughts to report :)

The talk was titled “Best practices in engaging with the agricultural private sector in ACP [African, Caribbean, and Pacific Island nations] countries, and featured the Europe-Africa-Caribbean-Pacific Liaison Committee (COLEACP). They are the main implementer of the PIP project that is funded by the European Union.

They are an association of more than 300 private businesses, both in Europe and in ACP countries, that have “come together to promote a competitive, sustainable horticultural trade, and to contribute to the development of the ACP agricultural sector”, according to their website. Overall, they represent 87% of fruit and vegetable exports from ACP countries to Europe.


The mission of PIP is to connect producers that furnish the goods we cherish in Europe with the consumer base they cannot currently reach because of the high European standards regarding food safety, and develop their operations with a focus on environmental and social sustainability.

Their structure is pretty unique: a centralized hub of around 40 people sits in Brussels and receives applications from tiny to large entrepreneurs in any ACP country. The application is for support in capacity-building, knowledge dissemination, getting up to par to apply for standards such as organic or Fair Trade, or installing food safety or environmental management systems.

They then sit down with the company and devise a management plan that is adapted to its needs and implemented through local service providers. Those could be giving seminars on food safety, advising in how to navigate EU import legislation, or help install a working hygiene protocol.

The service provision is centered around a train-the-trainers principle, where around 57% of beneficiaries are later contracted through COLEACP to train other new applicants. It also supports the development of local consultancy firms, which end up getting around a quarter of their work through the PIP contracts and diversifying their clients for the other three-quarters.


The presentation given outlined some other key principles that I found extremely inspiring:

  • It’s demand-driven intervention: it sets up structures through which resources are offered, but doesn’t dictate what they are used for. Projects are defined mainly by the local companies and there is a lot of shared responsibility.
  • Local ownership is key for the intervention being sustainable. Many times, help is offered on condition of other parts of the plan being implemented independently by the local company. Also, co-financing is applied to many of the interventions – on average , 60% comes from COLEACP coffers, and 40% through the company or other partners.
  • The approach tries to avoid the substitution of local stakeholders through other outside actors.
  • The project clearly excludes any infrastructure financing. The resources are supposed to make long-lasting impacts and are thus mainly dedicated to HR development.
  • The pooling of problems and solutions at headquarters allows the economies of scale in identifying the appropriate solution. Thus, there is a centralization in management, but a decentralization in the actual implementation.
  • The long and continuous duration (the program has run without break for over 10 years so far) allows reliability and patience in implementation, and a focus to move with the companies’ action plans rather than pushing them unduly.

Oh, and look at the main lesson learned: trust local HR at all levels.

They had some really nice examples of projects they supported – all sizes, from the single woman who decided she could also open her own exporting business and, 5 years later, employs more than 20 people, to the cutting-edge exporting enterprise that wanted to get fair trade certified.

I think sometimes it’s easy to forget that private companies can be just as much “partners” in their own right as just sub-contractors of development agencies. And while, yes, the money for the PIP initiative came through the European Union, I found it inspiring that they really listen to what local entrepreneurs want and need. A welcome change from development work from years past.

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Rurban Africa: Challenges in Modernization

Another day, another lunch seminar. This time, though, with scientists! They presented a project called “RurbanAfrica“. The research questions included the following: Will agricultural modernization stimulate rural income generation? Is rural-urban migration a major development challenge? What is the relationship between rural-city connections and poverty dynamics?

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, is an example of rapid urbanization in Africa. Photo by Andrew Moore, via Flickr CC.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, is an example of rapid urbanization in Africa. Photo by Andrew Moore, via Flickr CC.

They have only just started their project, and thus presented their literature review and some preliminary research. I loved their approach, though – because they want to make it as relevant to policy-making as possible, they gathered information about the current policy framework and goals before starting their data collection, and thus included many stakeholders’ voices about the policy challenges today into their research questions. Thus, they held country policy dialogues in the four countries the project is carried out: Cameroon, Rwanda, Tanzania and Ghana.

These stakeholder voices were, in my opinion, the most interesting. Despite the huge differences between countries – concerning size, government system, agricultural system etc., there were points that were raised time and time again. These included:

  • Land is a huge issue everywhere. The fact that there is very little data on land ownership, use and availability, as well as poor communication between ministries, but also between governments and the private sector, leads to great amounts of double-counting. In Tanzania and Rwanda, participants in the workshops estimated that the land allocated to different projects is much more than actually available. Furthermore, the proportion of fertile and agriculturally productive land is frequently overestimated, while the effects of environmental change on land degradation is underestimated.
  • Agricultural modernization is still the preferred policy avenue for law-makers, since they see the agricultural sector as their main workhorse for exports and development. However, as this modernization often entails mechanization and land use consolidation, it has negative impacts on lower income rural groups and job availability. This is frequently ignored by policy-makers.
  • The positive of urbanization: Denser settlements offer opportunities for efficient resource use. Generally, extending services like water, electricity or sewage systems is much more cost-efficient if you can reach heaps of people. However, a lack of coordination between municipalities, the private sector and other actors means that these benefits cannot be reaped. Instead, urban expansion typically precedes planning, and access to services in low-income areas (in particular sewage systems) can be poorer than in rural areas. There is a clear need for inter-sectoral and spatial coordination.

It’s interesting to hear these facts coming from a scientific approach, rather than anecdotal evidence. And as the project continues, I’m sure they will make even more focused policy recommendations – what are, for instance, best practices to improve coordination between ministries? How can one set up cross-cutting working groups that actually work?

If you would like more information on the project, check out their website and their policy briefs (nr. 1 and nr. 2!)


Who Gets The Money? On Helping Africa To Feed Itself – in the US.

Philanthropy is an interesting concept. Here is one person, or a board of people, with more money to distribute than small nations have budgets. If they choose to concentrate on a topic, their impact can be immense and drive research, NGO actions and government policies in the direction of their liking because of the financial incentive. What a responsibility.

The NGO Grain decided to check on that responsibility and have a look at where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation spent their money. The Guardian (hilariously – look at who they are sponsored by) reported.

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Isn’t that interesting? Of course, development spending can occur in a variety of ways, but it is striking nonetheless where the Gates Foundation thinks most support is needed. And they have become a massive player in supporting agriculture and food issues, with more than $3 billion to date given to various organizations.

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Almost a quarter goes to the network of agricultural research centers CGIAR. According to Grain,

“In the 1960s and 70s, these centres were responsible for the development and spread of a controversial ‘green revolution’ model of agriculture in parts of Asia and Latin America which focused on the mass distribution of a few varieties of seeds that could produce high yields – with the generous application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

“Efforts to implement the same model in Africa failed and, globally, CGIAR lost relevance as corporations like Syngenta and Monsanto have taken control over seed markets. Money from the Gates foundation is now providing CGIAR and its green revolution model with a new lease of life, this time in direct partnership with seed and pesticide companies.”

Another big chunk funds AGRA, the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, which was set up by Gates himself; international organizations like UN agencies and the World Bank, and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation.

The rest of the money is distributed to hundreds of service-delivery NGOs. This, according to the report, was the largest surprise: “The north-south divide is most shocking, however, when we look at the $669m given to non-government groups for agriculture work. Africa-based groups received just 4%. Over 75% went to organisations based in the US”.

Grain also published this map which makes the divide even more visually apparent:

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Now, some of this information may be oversimplified, since the European and US-headquartered organizations include NGOs like Oxfam, CARE, or Heifer Project, most of which implement projects on the ground.

And yet… much of this money does remain within the West, whether through Western NGO workers’ salaries, the overhead of the headquarters, or the influx in funding for Western universities. Imagine the positive multiplier effect if $3 billion had been spent on African universities, African NGO wages, and African ideas.

This is, in a nutshell, what Grain has the most problems with – the fact that the entire funding scheme seems to ignore on-the-ground knowledge and solutions and continue to focus on a top-down, scientist-driven and highly elitist way of solving global issues.

“We could find no evidence of any support from the Gates Foundation for programmes of research or technology development carried out by farmers or based on farmers’ knowledge, despite the multitude of such initiatives that exist across the continent. (African farmers, after all, do continue to supply an estimated 90% of the seed used on the continent!) The foundation has consistently chosen to put its money into top down structures of knowledge generation and flow, where farmers’ are mere recipients of the technologies developed in labs and sold to them by companies.”

This approach, sadly, is also much of the reality that exists within the Eurobubble so far. Much is made of improving seeds, improving infrastructure, and ‘climate-proofing’ agriculture through innovation. However, innovation is frequently seen in a very narrow sense. Grain again:

“Listening to farmers and addressing their specific needs” is the first guiding principle of the Gates Foundation’s work on agriculture. But it is hard to listen to someone when you cannot hear them. Small farmers in Africa do not participate in the spaces where the agendas are set for the agricultural research institutions, NGOs or initiatives, like AGRA, that the Gates Foundation supports. These spaces are dominated by foundation reps, high-level politicians, business executives, and scientists.

Listening to someone, if it has any real significance, should also include the intent to learn. But nowhere in the programmes funded by the Gates Foundation is there any indication that it believes that Africa’s small farmers have anything to teach, that they have anything to contribute to research, development and policy agendas. The continent’s farmers are always cast as the recipients, the consumers of knowledge and technology from others. In practice, the foundation’s first guiding principle appears to be a marketing exercise to sell its technologies to farmers. In that, it looks, not surprisingly, a lot like Microsoft.

This brings up again the whole food sovereignty debate and the question whether smallholder farmers’ knowledge and traditional methods are the future of society or a bucolic and sentimental dream of idealists. I think the answer lies somewhere in between; but if the odds are always stacked in one particular way, it’s hard to give both a chance.

Grain’s report can be found here; they also provide the spreadsheet they used for their findings online, which I liked a lot.

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Fun Links Friday V!

Yesterday, as I was closing my computer for the end of the workday, I was convinced (CONVINCED) it was already Friday. Maybe it has something to do with the tradition of Thursday night happy hour in Brussels. Or all the pretty lights that guide you into the weekend…

Nevertheless, the weekend is around the corner and so is some free reading and TV-viewing time. Enjoy!

When have you ever seen food policy on late night TV? John Oliver might be a first. And he does a hilarious job drawing attention to the debate on mandatory added sugar labeling in the US:

Then, this World Economic Forum blogpost by a development economist draws interesting links between savings and food security, and in the process unpacks some of the difficulties of impact evaluation. Worth a read.

The New York Times discovers that it is, indeed, possible to survive on fast food wages – only not in the US, but in Denmark. Interesting insight in two very different social systems. This is especially interesting in a globalization context where it is exactly the same business – whether McDonald’s or Burger King – that is operating in these different systems. Favorite quote:

Measured in Big Macs, McDonald’s workers in Denmark earn the equivalent of 3.4 Big Macs an hour, while their American counterparts earn 1.8, according to a study by Orley C. Ashenfelter, a Princeton economics professor, and Stepan Jurajda, an economics professor at Charles University in Prague.

Oh the irony of measuring big mac-making wages in big macs…

The Environmental Working Group has released a new food database that, upon scanning a brand-name item or searching for it on the website, will tell you nutrition facts as well as what could be hidden concerns – from “contaminants like BPA in canned foods, mercury in seafood, antibiotics in meat, arsenic in rice and pesticide residues in produce, to food additives, like preservatives, artificial and natural flavors and colors, low-calorie sweeteners and fat replacers”, as the Time reports. Combined out of nutrition, ingredient and processing concerns, the site will then give your choice a grade – just as an example, the oatmeal I made this morning got a 1.1 (very good), whereas the alternative choice my kid-self would have preferred, frosted flakes, got a 5 (due to high sugar content, moderate processing concerns, and apparently it contains something called “butylated hydroxytoluene” – I can’t even pronounce that). Super cool to play around with! And I can’t imagine how much work it must have been to input and rate all these foods…

And finally, this report claims that ‘vegetarianism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be’ because plants can sense when they are being threatened and respond to danger. AKA eating a carrot is still murder. Uh-oh…

Have a happy weekend!

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A Farm In The City: Via Campesina Event Review

As I was standing up from my desk yesterday at noon, took a stretch and packed my sandwich in my bag, I was so excited to get outside and see something different. I’d seen that Via Campesina Europe was organizing a “Farm in the City” event on Place Luxembourg, one of the main squares at the heart of the European quarter, and chatted a friend into checking it out.

Now here is the thing about outreach events like this: I am new in town, I don’t know these organizations, I am super eager to learn more because I have a blog to write – I should be perfect bait for people wanting more participants to join their causes. I was expecting a vivid, positive event, with loads of stands of farmers and community organizers wanting to tell their stories, and had even taken my camera to document everything.

Sadly, the whole event was slightly disappointing.

First things first – it was raining. Of course, that is not their fault, but definitely affected the mood intensely. Maybe they could have gotten a bigger tent under which to mingle, or at least cranked up the energy of the volunteers (music? dancing?) to counter it. As it was, there were very few people in the square that didn’t seem to belong to the organizations present. Well, my friend and I thought, at last we will be able to talk to a lot of organizations.


There were different organizations, ranging from those supporting small-scale farmers to those fighting food waste.

But half of the tables we approached were non-staffed, and only covered by flyers haphazardly distributed across the space available. I grabbed a few of those, but that info is always available, ya know? So we moved on to one table that did seem staffed and where we saw people chatting. However, the volunteer was engaged in such an intense discussion that we left after waiting 10 minutes whether somebody else would show up. Sigh.


Then we saw two calves hanging out – the only nod to the ‘Farm in the City’ idea – and my friend asked me to translate the sign hanging over their heads. It was a rather depressing reminder that they would soon be euthanized because they cost their farmer more than their worth in feed and keep (blamed on the low meat prices due to policy) and a call for rescue. Not really something to lighten up the mood or to get people energized to act.


At the final booth we went to, volunteers from an urban farm somewhere in Belgium were busy with making fresh vegetable juice for the guests. Which was nice, of course, and we thoroughly enjoyed our carrot-beet-apple juice, but again, while we were waiting for the juicer to do its job, we would have loved to know more about the farm idea, but couldn’t find any volunteers that were available to chat. Those that were making the juice were talking to each other, and in general it rather felt like everybody knew everybody and were having a rather exclusive get-together of activist friends. Maybe we should have been even more aggressive in trying to approach people, but then again – that is not necessarily the role of the visitor of such an event, is it?

The only thing I could think is that with such an approach, it seems pretty hard for Via Campesina to reach out beyond its existing support base. Especially if they want to be influencing EU politicians and policy-makers, understanding how to portray your movement as friendly, cooperative and non-threatening, rather than an exclusive bunch of rainboot-wearing do-gooders mingling amongst themselves (which, to clarify, is not necessarily what I think, but how they could be perceived based on this one experience), should be key.

Have you ever felt out of place at an outreach event? How do you react to that?

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Ask An Ag Economist: What Exactly Is Food Sovereignty?

I’ve always wanted this blog to be a sort of translation tool, explaining scientific or technical terminology and ideas to show that food policy, and agricultural economics for that matter, isn’t something “smart people should deal with”. Rather, everybody can (and should, in my opinion!) get involved. There is nothing that drives me more mad than professions that try to create barriers to understand what they do in order to protect their profession. Think of lawyers, speaking legalese. Or economists, doing fancy calculations. Sociologists that frown at you if you don’t know the latest theoretical concept. Ugh, right?

So I’d love to introduce a new feature called “Ask An Ag Economist” where I answer questions – ideally the ones that you submit! – on anything regarding economics, politics, nutrition or food security concepts or vocab. Don’t understand an argument? Want to know how this study was carried out exactly? Ask me! And if no questions are submitted, I’ll just choose some topics of my own – writer’s prerogative!

First up on the agenda: What exactly is food sovereignty?


The background: at a lunch seminar, the head of unit of the unit “Rural Development, Food and Nutrition Security” was asked about supporting food sovereignty in addition to food security. In response, he talked at length about the fact that countries supporting that idea often just produce heaps of some staple crops and close their borders to imports, which doesn’t necessarily improve food security of the poorest. Looking around me, I saw a collective sad head shake shared between the NGO representatives. Apparently, the concept hasn’t yet reached the mainstream, so what better topic to start on these series? So, for that guy as well as everybody else:

Food sovereignty is not the same as food independence. I actually wrote my bachelor’s thesis on terminological confusion like this –  in particular, the fact that the Russian government likes to confuse food security and food independence. So let’s differentiate clean and easy:

Food independence or self-sufficiency is the fact that a country can feed its population with food produced within its borders. That was the strategy of the European Union in the very beginning of the common agricultural policy – producing butter mountains and milk lakes eventually – and the strategy of Russia currently, seeing as they feel threatened by any kind of dependence on other countries, and be it through their pear consumption.

Food security, as defined on the World Food Summit in 1996, is “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life”. The WHO adds that “commonly, the concept of food security is defined as including both physical and economic access to food that meets people’s dietary needs as well as their food preferences.” While we look at three axes – food availability, food access, and food use – (as we talked about looking at the state of food insecurity), we don’t necessarily pay attention to the food system providing this nutritious food.

Now, finally, food sovereignty adds another layer: that of democratic food systems and the empowerment of those who should be granted food security. The most commonly used definition is the one suggested by La Via Campesina:

Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.

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