Food (Policy) For Thought

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


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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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The @WorldResources Institute On How To “Create A Sustainable Food Future”

It happens that once you specialize in a topic, you get a little jaded about ‘broad overview’ talks. Whenever I go to one of those now, I notice myself mentally playing the ‘food security bingo’ game – what doesn’t the presenter mention? What is emphasized? The point scale in my head looks somewhat like this:

  • Mentions food waste as a problem: + 3
  • Speaks about diet choice: + 3
  • Mentions food sovereignty: + 2
  • Has a differentiated opinion about GMOs: + 1
  • Opens with “how in the world will we feed 10 billion people?”: – 1
  • Speaks about the green revolution as something to emulate: – 1
  • Doesn’t question the current feed vs. food vs. fuel distribution: – 2
  • Speaks about “incredible unused land resources in Africa and Latin America” (which are mainly pastoral or rainforest land): – 3
  • Speaks about multinationals as saviors or alternatively as THE ENEMY: – 3

Like a blackjack player that is counting cards, I try to keep track of whether the tally in my head is positive or negative, and more often than not it finishes around 0 – which is always a slight disappointment. Not so with the World Resources Institute: they thoroughly impressed me with the broadness of their approach, the balanced variety of solutions – focusing on both demand- and supply-side issues – and the honesty with which they presented their research.

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The talk that was presented at DG AGRI was based on the WRI’s upcoming World Resources Report which they dedicate to the challenge of “feeding more than 9 billion people by 2050″ and “filling the food gap” (- 1). The speaker thus opened the talk by presenting the fact that we need to produce 70% more food by 2050 – making my eyebrows rise in anticipation of yet another talk focusing on production, production, and yield increases. But I was positively surprised: look at the list of recommendations they give, and look at the top of the list (list as presented in their press release):

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Fun Links Friday IV

Is it already the end of the week? Where does the time go? How was your week? And what happened in the world regarding food policy? Let’s see:

Tom Philpott highlights in this article that Mid-West farms are getting ready to lose a ton of money because the three main crops (soybeans, corn and wheat) all stand at very low prices because of good harvests all around. And he makes the best of arguments: “why not take some of the Midwest’s vast stock of farmland—say, 10 percent?—and devote it to vegetable and fruit production? And take another slice of it and bring it back to perennial grass for pasture-based beef and pork production? Both vegetables and pastured meat deliver much more income pre acre than commodity corn and soybeans, once the systems are up and running and the infrastructure in place. And considering how much of our produce comes from drought-stricken California, that would likely be a wise move from a food security standpoint.” Yes yes yes, finally somebody says that. But from what I heard yesterday (more on that later), this message still hasn’t reached food policy makers in the US.

Could this Ethiopian grain be the new quinoa? Teff, with low water needs, great yields and high protein contents, is being trialed in the US as a feed and food crop. Plus, since it would be produced locally in the US, you would avoid the possible negative side-effects of rising quinoa demand.

James Kennedy, a chemistry teacher from Australia, makes the coolest infographics about wild vs. domesticated varieties of fruit and vegetables. Check out the peach one, for example! He’s also made more for watermelon, corn, and other fruits. Check out his blog for more!

This experiment wants to ‘prove that foodies are full of garbage’. It’s two guys buying McDonald’s food, cutting it up in small pieces and serving it at a high-end food expo. The comments they get are priceless, especially when they ask people to compare the taste to McDonald’s food. True, it might just be politeness – but funny nevertheless.

And finally – the Huffington post provides us with this big salad infographic, for when you have no idea what to make for dinner:

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How Does Nutrition Fit Into Food Policy? @Glo_PAN

We often hear about the fact that ‘just producing food is not enough’ if we want to confront the problems of global malnutrition – it also depends on what kind of food we grow and eat. That is the mission of the Global Panel on Agriculture and Food Systems for Nutrition. They’re a panel of experts – ranging from the directors of the FAO and UNICEF to high-level politicians and business leaders, e.g. the President of the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – who just met for the second time in Brussels to decide how best to fit nutrition goals into the global food security dialogue.

Their mission statement? “We want to ensure that people have access to nutritious foods at every stage of life, and we believe that agriculture and food systems should contribute to make this happen.

What I found interesting on their website and which didn’t come to play as much in the talk they gave is this quote by Co-Chair John Kufuor, former President of Ghana:

“Nutrition is not just a problem for the poor, it is a global problem. It affects everyone, in the form of undernutrition or obesity.”

Yet, the discussion mainly centered around nutrition goals for the developing world – preventing malnutrition, micronutrient deficiencies and stunting. These are some of the inputs given (some quite surprising ones!) by the panellists present (Emmy Simmons, Jane Karuku and Jeff Waage from the Secretariat):

  • Biofortification could be seen as one important way forward. According to the WHO, biofortification is “the process by which the nutritional quality of food crops is improved through conventional plant breeding and/or use of biotechnology. Biofortification differs from conventional fortification in that biofortification aims to increase nutrient levels in crops during plant growth rather than through manual means during processing of the crops. Biofortification may therefore present a way to reach populations where supplementation and conventional fortification activities may be difficult to implement and/or limited. Examples of biofortification projects include iron-biofortification of rice, beans, sweet potato, cassava and legumes; zinc-biofortification of wheat, rice, beans, sweet potato and maize; provitamin A carotenoid-biofortification of sweet potato, maize and cassava; and amino acid and protein-biofortification of sourghum and cassava.” Think Golden Rice for example – you breed (or genetically modify) the plant to be more ‘nutrient-dense’ when grown, thus requiring no further processing. Technically a smart idea! The experts also highlighted the importance of agricultural research centers to carry out these tasks, since often this is not really an activity that would yield enough profits for private industry to be interested in; especially if you do not patent the end products (which, I would argue, is a no-no when your target is low-income subsistence farmers).
  • The group argued that it was time to re-think the negative image we have of middlemen (think of the phrase ‘cut out the middleman) because they can play important roles in storing, processing, and retailing food. Private-sector players can respond to urbanization and the emerging economies’ demands for high-value goods, are able to manage supply in ways that reduce loss, and make distribution more efficient through wholesale marketing. In a lot of parts of the world, much food still gets lost on the way to market because the distribution infrastructure is still too poor – so why not engage the help of middlemen in doing so, at least if it is done in a transparent and fair fashion?
    That, however, is the devil in the detail – a lot of times, farmers are confronted with monopsonies (single-actor buyers) that abuse their powers to push down prices or to dictate the quality or types of products that are being produced. I also didn’t quite understand the strong link between nutrition and the middleman argument, except if you consider the nutritional value of crops drop because they get stored improperly or that urban populations don’t get access to diverse products except through the help of middlemen.
  • One further argument was that these companies may produce novelty products that appeal to urbanizing consumers, and that the processing industry for example also creates jobs. In another connection, I’d heard much about big multinationals looking at emerging markets as a great business opportunity, especially concerning ‘functional foods’ – think snack foods fortified with proteins or other nutrients that are sold cheaply and distributed widely. This HBR article talks about an example (and why it didn’t work economically). I am skeptical though – considering that we are talking both about undernutrition and obesity, I wonder whether widely distributing snack foods and novelty foods (which is often fast food) is the answer.
  • However, the Panel also talked about a range of other items, including the challenge of the public sector to both incentivize and regulate the private sector; the importance of public education, especially regarding consumer awareness and education about nutrition; and the need to ensure enough competition for fair pricing, price information, and better negotiation opportunities for farmers entering the market.

Overall, it seems a challenging tasks to think about global food systems of the future, with nutrition in mind, and weighing the interests and concerns of both the business community and the public sector, but I like that they took on the challenge. The Panel is supposed to exist until the Brazil Olympics of 2016 – let’s see what they come up with until then!


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Happy US Food Day (Week) from the Land of Chocolate and Fries!

… as you may have guessed if you clicked through here, I´m celebrating Food Day on Friday, Oct 24, with you despite sitting in Brussels at the moment. Why? Well, first of all, because I love any reason to celebrate with Belgian chocolate (check out this post to learn more about how it’s made and the difficulties of sourcing fair trade cocoa!) …

IMG_5143… but more importantly, because fair access to healthy and sustainable produced food on the one hand, and fair working conditions for the people growing that food on the other hand, are two priorities that we all share. Thus, I was delighted to participate in Food Day’s blogging event, which asked bloggers from around the world to write about Food Day on Tuesday so that everybody would be up and ready to get involved this coming Friday! Yay blogger love!

The focus of this year’s Food Day is particularly well-chosen in my opinion because food justice is still so seldom raised among the issues of concern in the food policy world. What we hear about is efficiency; the need to feed the world, whichever way possible; and from time to time lip service is paid to the fact that clean water and healthy soils are the basis of all our agricultural exploits, so maybe we should introduce some environmental protection as well. It is true, in Europe – maybe even more strongly than in the United States – we have had a history of supporting our farmers through income support and price guarantees, but even this ‘fairness’ between the city and the countryside came on the back of unjust exportation subsidies and dumping on the world market which contributed to the destruction of local markets elsewhere.

The mere word ‘justice’, however, eliminates the consideration of such one-sided steps. This is why it is such a powerful concept – and one that has been missing from the rhetoric on the international stage for all too long, as George Perkovich has so eloquently expressed in his opinion piece ‘Giving Justice Its Due‘. He focuses on security concerns, but explores quite rightly the serious consequences of ignoring distributional justice for too long:

The perceived unfairness of international economic rules today roils almost every society, adding fuel to the fire of other grievances. The challenge, therefore, is to portray globalization — and the Western economic liberalism that spawned it — in a different light or to correct its injustices. After all, as a Dubai business magnate once said, “it doesn’t matter what you call it, democracy or anything else. What people want above all else is economic development, a way to make a living, transparency and justice. If this is achieved, they don’t care what you call the system.”

In our globalized food system, this is a particular struggle. I have written about the orange cartel, which keeps prices artificially low; cocoa farmers who experience the taste of chocolate for the first time in their life; the fight for fair tomato prices in Florida; and other issues related to food justice. This infographic, provided by Food Day, sums up the issues in the USA quite nicely:

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What to do to advance food justice in policies? First and foremost, in my opinion agricultural and food policy is still too often regarded as a niche issue – to be debated between farmers’ representatives and the big lobbying interests – and too seldom made into a democratic grassroots agenda that parties could mobilize around. Yet, how our food is being grown, and will be grown in the future, is an issue that affects each and every one of us in the most direct of ways – it might decide over hunger or satiety, sickness or health, and the integrity of the environment surrounding us.

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In addition, I think it’s important to resensitize ourselves to the true cost of food, and the fact that cheaper goods often externalize (environmental, social or health) costs that will have to be borne by society in the long run. I am happy to get a bag of organic veggies from a CSA, a fair trade bar of chocolate or a bakery bread that is a bit more expensive if in return I am sure to get good-quality goods that were produced under conditions respecting both the workers and the environment. Yes, the labeling of certain production standards has its challenges, but I still think we as consumers cannot ignore our responsibility in supporting an alternative production system. The first law of economics is still the law of demand and supply – and more demand for fair goods will hopefully create a signal in the market place that this type of system, a just system for all contributors to the food chain, is the one we want.

Happy Food Day! And check out the Food Day homepage for a lot more information, including these awesome resources, and a look at the other blogs written by the cool and super talented authors participating in Food Day’s Coordinated Blogging Event:

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