Food (Policy) For Thought

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


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Have A Break – Have A … Fruit?!

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When you are out and about and in need for a snack, vending machines are often the most convenient option. Once you get there, though, all intentions about eating healthy go flying out of the window when faced with the choice between chocolate bars, chips and possibly peanut butter pretzels. This zero-sum game between hunger and indulgence has stopped in Queensland, Australia, though – because they invented the FruitBar.

This is an invention deemed impossible by many: a vending machine offering a variety of fresh fruit. You can choose between a single piece of fruit, a mixed pack, and snack packs with nuts and biscuits.

Located in train stations, schools, hospitals and the like, the response has been overwhelmingly positive. At the Royal Brisbane Hospital, the machines have to be refilled several times a day. Growers join in on the excitement:

“It’s so innovative, it’s not very often the produce industry does something that’s so exciting,” Ms Scurr said.

“If you just look at the amount of say Coke or Mars Bar vending machines around Australia, if there was as many produce vending machines, the opportunity is huge.”

The FruitBar in action - via ABC news.

The FruitBar in action – via ABC news.

I was particularly impressed by the level of entrepreneurship the Mackay family showed. Many people in horticulture had talked about the idea of a fruit vending machine, but considering the logistical challenges – sourcing perfectly ripe fruit, packaging them, and refilling the machines on a daily basis – abandoned the project. Not the Mackays – after introducing first a BananaBar (they are a family of banana growers), they ventured out to more ambitious products. Now, you can buy apples and pears, and stone fruit are planned for the summer. This makes hospital administrators such as Russel Shepherd excited:

“Perhaps for too long we’ve served the traditional types of food we thought customers wanted, now we know customers would like to have other needs fulfilled and it shows there’s a demand for this fresh kind of food,” he said.

“The FruitBar has been a phenomenal success.”

Although I am on the fence on the fact that these fruits seem excessively packaged and are probably sold at a significant price premium, on the other hand they replace unhealthy options that are equally packaged and overpriced, right? And at least people get a healthier option? I wonder what they do with the produce that they cannot sell at its ripest point… Many more questions.

But in general, I think this is mainly an excellent example that sometimes, all you need is a good idea – and the guts to follow through on it.

Cada vez que tengo hambre en la calle, y veo una máquina expendedora, no puedo resistir. Aunque sé que los opciones serán a lo mejor poco saludable y al peor carísimos y de mal sabor, me acerco – y termino por sucumbir a los pasteles o las tabletas de chocolate. No obstante, una nueva invención proveniente de Australia podría mejorar mi situación desesperada de tener que elegir entre el hambre y la tentación – ¡la FruitBar! Es una máquina expendedora de dónde se puede adquirir frutas solas o paquetes de diferentes frutas, pasteles y nueces. La inventó una familia australiana de Queensland que produce plátanos, y al principio solamente ofrecieron plátanos en paquetes de uno a cinco. Poco a poco, sus clientes pidieron que otras frutas fueran incluidas, y la idea de una FruitBar nació de verdad. Ahora se pueden comprar manzanas y peras, y en el verano se planifica añadir frutas de hueso.

Una de los paquetes de frutas que se puede comprar en la FruitBar. Via ABC.

Una de los paquetes de frutas que se puede comprar en la FruitBar. Via ABC.

Lo que me impresionó es que no fueron los primeros con esta idea – una máquina expendedora de frutas es una oportunidad muy atractiva para los vendedores de frutas -, pero los primeros que no dejaron la idea frente a retos importantes logísticos y económicos: ¿cómo abastecer frutas perfectamente maduras, empaquetarlas bastante rápidamente y distribuirlas a todas las máquinas en la ciudad? Parece que los Mackay han superado éste problema, dado que sus máquinas han tenido un éxito increíble. En hospitales, escuelas, y estaciones de tren la gente disfruta de la oportunidad de comprar una merienda sana y refrescante y a veces tienen que rellenar las máquinas varias veces al día. Un administrador de hospitales lo explica de ésta manera:

“Quizás hace demasiado tiempo que hemos ofrecido los tipos de comida tradicionales de los que pensábamos que la gente los quería, pero ahora sabemos que la gente tiene otros necesidades que quiere satisfacer y esto muestra que hay una demanda para ésta comida fresca. La FruitBar ha sido un éxito fenomenal.”

Aunque me pregunto porqué es necesario empaquetarlas tanto, y tengo la impresión que son vendido a un precio bastante alto, al menos remplacen comida no saludable que también es empaquetada y costosa, ¿verdad? Sería también interesante saber qué hacen con las frutas que no se podían vender antes de que se estropearan…

Pero de todas maneras, ¡Qué bien de tener una idea y también las agallas de realizarla!


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Russia’s New Food Diplomacy

I wrote my bachelor’s thesis about Russia’s obsession with attaining food independence; i.e. that Russian demand should be able to be satisfied by Russian food production, and the non-rationality of such a policy goal in a world food market characterized by specialization and globalization. Turns out, Russia has good reason to pursue this goal after all, since it is mercilessly following a new strategy of food diplomacy recently.

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Dairy products are only one category that Russia won’t import anymore from countries that have imposed sanctions on it.

Truth, using food import bans as a bargaining tool in interstate disputes is not particularly new, and it is a rather amusing exercise to trace the application of phyto-sanitary objections to certain food imports (e.g. American chicken, Georgian wine or Ukrainian chocolate) to the political crisis of the day.

However, the country has stepped up its game after announcing on Thursday a one year ban on all food imports from countries that are boycotting Russia due to the Ukrainian crisis. The ban ranges from meat, including all forms of beef and pork, poultry and its subproducts, to smoked foods, sausages, fish, vegetables, roots, fruits and nuts, as well as milk and all dairy products, including cheese. The broadness and briskness of the policy measure leaves producers with contracts on the cusp of being fulfilled and ripe produce that now needs to be rerouted frantically.

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Funny Follow-Up to our McDonald’s Post…

(this one)…

Apparently McDonald’s is looking into more non-meat alternatives with Tofu McNuggets debuting in Japan this week! Not quite lab-grown meat, but a step into the right direction for sure. Sadly they do contain fish though, so not a truly veggie option, alas.

(Photo: Courtesy McDonald's Japan)

(Photo: Courtesy McDonald’s Japan)

According to Take Part,

Tofu Shinjo Nuggets strongly resemble the bits of breaded chicken the chain is both famous and infamous for—but they’re composed of tofu, onion, carrots, and minced fish. The name “Shinjo” refers to a type of Japanese fried fish cake. The dish contains fewer calories than traditional Chicken McNuggets and is served with a ginger dipping sauce—forget the barbecue or ketchup.

They will enter stores as of this Wednesday.

Huh! Who would’ve thought. Anybody in Japan who will try one for me?


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Ewwwww Lake Erie – Toledo Drinking Water Ban

First of all, news! I really want to brush up my Spanish and in particular my vocabulary related to food policy issues, so in the future I will try to include little summaries of the issue at hand in Spanish at the bottom of the post. You’ll be able to access them through a link on top of the page like this one:

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It would be awesome if you told your (Hispanic) friends about  it who are interested in these issues but would prefer to read about them in Spanish! And let me know if you find any mistakes :D

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Did you hear? In Toledo, Ohio, over the weekend the population was warned not to drink the water from their taps. The reason? The algae bloom in western Lake Erie is so strong this year that it overwhelmed the city’s water-intake system. After a record bloom in 2011, which seriously affected much of the region’s economy related to water sports and fishing activities, there have been flare-ups summer after summer. This year’s bloom is not too bad in terms of scope, but the most intensive concentration of the algae is found exactly in the bay that Toledo derives its tap water from. This is problematic since the algae give off a toxin called microcystin, and tests of the water show that the concentration now is higher than the level permitted by the World Health Organization. It can cause nerve and liver damage both in people and animals. Thus, the city’s authorities over the weekend issued a warning statement affecting over half a million people to not drink the tap water, and not even to cook with it (since boiling the water only concentrates the toxin). It’s the second time that algae bloom has affected drinking water supply in the region after a period in September of last year.

The algae bloom is even visible from space.

The algae bloom is even visible from space.

A number of studies see a direct link between the farming practices in the surrounding areas – in particular, the high rate of fertilizer application in non-till fields that leave much of the nitrogen- and phosphorus-based fertilizer sit on the surface and run-off easily – and the levels of algae bloom in the recent past. Laura Johnson, a scientist at the National Centre for Water Quality Research, says:

“We know it’s coming from agricultural runoff. But in reality, when we think about why these farms are leaking phosphorus, that part of the story is far from clear and far from simple.”

There are currently no laws or regulations in place in Ohio that would govern the maximum level of fertilizer use or that address agricultural runoffs. As a first step, though, in spring farmers were offered voluntary training on fertilizer use before they applied it.

Researchers also say that climate change may be fueling the stronger algae blooms of recent years. This through increases in rainfall intensity, which can affect nutrient runoffs on the field, and warmer water temperatures, which give more favorable conditions for the algae to grow. Already, there is concern that the bloom will spread because September and October see even warmer water temperatures than now.

This issue is interesting because it exemplifies in monetary terms what we term “environmental externalities”, as the additional costs farming practices give society to bear. According to this article, “the city of Columbus spent nearly $800,000 getting rid of the rotten taste and smell in drinking water caused by nontoxic algae in Hoover Reservoir last winter. Toledo spent $3 million last summer keeping toxic algae out of the drinking-water supply there.” And Columbus is planning a $70 million treatment system to be finished in 2016 that will also deal with this contamination problem. These costs could be avoided if fertilizer levels were better controlled. Should there be greater levels of legal regulation? Jeff Reutter, an expert on toxic bloom, says:

“As much as anything, that is a question for society and for politicians. The question really becomes, ‘How long should we wait for voluntary practices to work?’ ”

This comic strip gives a great introduction to the issue of algae bloom in the Great Lakes and the way it’s affected their economy.

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¿Sabéis? En Toledo, Ohio, el fin de semana pasado avisaron a la población que no bebieran el agua del grifo a causa de niveles aumentados de una toxina llamada microcystin. En niveles concentrados, la toxina puede causar problemas de hígado y nervios para humanos y animales, y los autoridades encontraron niveles encima del nivel acceptable según la Organización Mundial de la Salud (OMS). ¿La causa de la polución? Una incidencia de floración de algas precisamente en la bahía dónde la ciudad derive su agua potable. El lago Erie ha visto problemas repetidos con floraciones de algas en los años pasados, sobre todo en el año 2011, cuando la extensión y duración de las algas afectó duramente la economía local ligada al turismo y la pesca. Aquí encontráis un webcomic en inglés que explica muy bien el problema de la floración de algas en el lago Erie. Como veis en la foto arriba, la contaminación se puede ver incluso desde el espacio. Investigadores ecológicos dicen que muy probablemente el crecimiento de los floraciones de algas es causada por las prácticas agrícolas en la región, sobre todo el uso de fertilizantes a base de fósforo que llegan al lago a través de escorrentía superficial. La agricultura sin labranza aumenta el porcentaje del abono que permanece a la superficie, y el cambio climático – que intensifica los precipitaciones y aumenta la temperatura de agua del lago, lo que da condiciones favorables a las algas – también desempeña un papel importante en el proceso. Según expertos, el gobierno debería controlar el uso de fertilizantes de una manera más intensivo, especialmente porque contaminaciones como ésta causan gastos reales a los ciudades, que tienen que pagar millones de dólares para purificar su agua potable.


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Watch: Cocoa Farmers Taste Chocolate For The First Time

Short but sweet today, in more than one meaning of the word: Look at this awesome video of cocoa farmers tasting the final product of their beans for the first time. Many of them had no clue what the beans they make their living with are actually used for.

Optional: Let’s take a second to acknowledge our good fortunes in the world to have been born into (relative) privilege when we next bite into our (fair trade) chocolate, and think of the hard work that went into it, ok?

Have a great Wednesday!


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McDonald’s News – One True, One False.

Relying on the internet as your main source of information is great for the wealth of knowledge at your fingertips, but can in some cases lead you astray. Let’s play a game, right? I will present two news items related to fast food giant McDonald’s, both with quotes and links, that came to my attention in the last weeks. However, only one seems to be true once you trace the articles back to the original source. Let’s see whether you can figure it out!

1) McDonald’s goes (temporarily) burgerless in wake of expired meat scandal

In China, McDonald’s afficionados are having a hard time: last week, “video footage of a U.S.-owned meat processing plant in Shanghai showed workers reprocessing expired beef and chicken, picking meat up off the floor, and throwing it right back on the line.” In the wake of the scandal, a massive recall of the meat provided by the processing plant (that also supplied KFC and Pizza Hut in the country), many McDonald’s in the country, including in Beijing and Shanghai, cannot offer any products that include beef or chicken. I guess now they are realizing they have a pretty pithy vegetarian selection, since, as this picture below (that was tweeted on July 25) shows, the only thing they are currently able to supply in their menus are fries and drinks. Though the Wall Street Journal reports (hilariously) that they seem to be aggressively pushing fish burgers, the only protein they have on offer. According to a spokesperson, a full menu “is not expected in restaurants until early August, while some outlets may need more time.”

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2) McDonald’s to add lab-grown ‘chicken’ McNuggets to its menu

However, this precariousness could soon be a thing of the past, as McDonald’s has recently committed to researching and developing lab-grown meats to its menu in the form of ‘chicken’ McNuggets. In May, it announced that they will ‘grow’ their own chicken McNuggets in special laboratories across New Jersey. This step forward is expected to significantly reduce its need for real chickens across its 35,000 outlets worldwide, and is seen by environmentalists as an impressive innovation in terms of its corporate responsibility toward the climate and animal welfare. The company’s CEO Don Thompson is quoted as saying that “with climate change raging out of control, we decided that it doesn’t make sense to use water and feed to keep real chickens alive anymore. Plus, animal rights activists have been on our case for a long time about how chickens are treated. This should put their concerns to rest.” However, PETA, though welcoming this first step, feel that more could be done, as explained by its president Ingrid Newkirk: “Although we think it’s bizarre that future McNuggets will be grown in a lab, we’re relieved to know that chickens no longer have to be sacrificed to feed McDonald’s customers,” Newkirk said. “But we won’t truly be happy until the company stops selling real beef burgers too, since cows suffer in disgusting feedlots across the United States.” Well, one step at a time, right?

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So, what do you think? Which one is true, which one is fake? Is it obvious or not? The revelation is after the jump!

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An Eye-Opener on Waste and an Ear-Opener on Marketing Strategies

Do you know how much waste you produce? Would you want to know? Artist Gregg Segal’s impressive project ‘Seven Days of Waste’ impressively hold a mirror to our consumerist society and make you reflect. Truth be told, I try to minimize my waste and was fortunate in Sweden with an comprehensive recycling system in front of my door, but especially if you move around a lot it’s hard to figure out the specifics in every city and region. Still, I think we take waste on too light a shoulder, and Segal’s project shows just how little we care.  Click through for more impressive pictures!

"Dana." By Gregg Segal.

“Dana.” By Gregg Segal.

Producing less waste however is also to a great part dependent on the infrastructure that surrounds us which makes this easier or harder. I would, for instance, love for more infrastructure like this German supermarket to pop up everywhere: Original Unverpackt will open to the public in August and be the first supermarket that will work without any disposable packaging materials. Instead, all products – fruit, vegetables, pasta, etc. – are stored in bulk bins, and the consumer can come and shop for as much of each product as he or she needs. Truly a revolution!

Finally, I just listened to a great podcast on why the milk is always in the back of the supermarket – is it to manipulate the customer to navigate all the aisles, or are there more benign reasons for this arrangement? Leave it to Planet Money to find out, and two renowned journalists/economists – Michael Pollan and Russ Roberts – to have a fascinating debate.

And with that, happy weekend!

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