Food (Policy) For Thought

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


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NatGeo: Instagram Food Stories

As I was scrolling through my Instagram feed, I found posts upon posts featuring great food production pics and commentaries by National Geographic on and after World Food Day – such cool pics that I need to share! Here they are, in no particular order:

Steve Winter: “I photographed these Buddhist monks sharing a meal while working on a @NatGeostory on the Irrawaddy river. I call this image Monk Mandala. Monks rely on the generosity of others to provide them with their daily meals as they aren’t allowed to cook for themselves or store food overnight. Much like how monks rely on their community for this basic necessity, we as a global community need to figure out how to provide this basic need to those living in hunger, especially in light of our rapidly growing population.

Jim Richardson: “Last year at this time I was traveling the world meeting and photographing farmers for our National Geographic series on feeding the planet in 2050 when will have 9 billion people. Yesterday’s World Food Day was a reminder to me of what a great experience that was. So to all those farmers, like Shewakena Wube who was winnowing wheat in Ethiopia when I visited him, I say thanks and I wish you well with the next harvest.

Robert Clark: “On the shores of Lake Titicaca, two Cholita women winnow grains in the dry air of the Andean altiplano. Lake Titicaca is the highest navigable body of water in the world, at 12,507ft (3812m). People of the Andean Altiplano consume a disproportionate amount of grain and hardy produce relative to the rest of the world. Because of the arid conditions of their ecology, their diets are composed sparse, easy to preserve foods. These cultures survive in the face of food scarcity, and quinoa, a staple portion of the Andean diet, was discovered to be a #superfood and has gained popularity in Europe and North America as such.”

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Fun Links Friday III

The internet keeps bringing up awesome things! Here is this week’s roundup:

First, a simple but pertinent message regarding the fight against food insecurity in the world.

Second, World Food Day was also celebrated extensively by National Geographic: Food. Check out what they have to offer, it’s great as always!

Super fun to look at and cool message behind it (your tastes are mainly a product of how you were raised): Children’s Breakfasts Across the World!

Gastropod is a new podcast geared toward “the hidden history and surprising science behind a different food and/or farming-related topic, from aquaculture to ancient feasts, from cutlery to chile peppers, and from microbes to Malbec.” Their second installment so far features Dan Barber, whose book The Third Plate I reviewed here.

Farm to Table to Sky - there are new initiatives to bring local dishes into (first class, of course) plane food. Not sure how I feel about that – seems to defeat the (sustainable) purpose, but if they have to eat something, it might as well be local food, right?

And finally, the Guardian is looking at how Spain is reinventing itself from a jamon-loving nation to one that embraces at least v-curiosity. Soundbite?

Lonely Planet’s World Food Guide to Spain, published in 2000, advised vegetarian visitors to the country to pack “a small stash of vitamins and a big sense of humour”, and said that many Spaniards “consider a dead pig to be a vegetable”. Things, however, are changing.

Happy weekend! Any ‘v-curious’ (or other) plans?


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Campesiños in the City

Yesterday, as I stepped out of the DG AGRI building, head full of terminology and legislation non-sense, this bag caught my eye… what would that be about?

IMG_5295In fact, a little stand had set up shop in the park adjacent to the European Commission’s main agriculture and rural development building and challenged all the bureaucrats walking home (me included to stop, smell the roses (or the cookies??) and engage in local shopping.

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Campesiños founders are young, excited, and full of energy. They drive around personally every second Thursday morning to producers in the region and gather a bit of this and a bit of that, just to fill the pick-up orders one can fill out online and in order to sell some in this stand. When I asked whether the producers were easily convinced to cooperate, they ho-hummed a bit before this guy’s friend pointed towards him and said “it was all him! He just went up to each one personally and convinced them to participate!” Who could say no to this smile?!IMG_5299 IMG_5300

Beyond the direct marketing, the guys have big plans for the park. “We want it to be full of different offers – farmers’ stands, but also food trucks, we want to grow things here… this park should be revived!” So, so true – nothing better than a bit of action in the heart of the European quarter. Maybe the next mingling event will happen between organic beer and local carrots? IMG_5301 IMG_5303 IMG_5304

Yet, as I was walking home, I thought about the fact that though such small initiatives are awesome and often seem more worthwhile than spending your day in front of a computer, one of the first questions I asked was “so is the produce organic?” to which they assured me that, yes, of course it was. Just a couple of words are needed for this mutual assurance of trust, but behind that stands legislation, implementation, a complex control system and pages upon pages of rules and regulations. Could it be easier done? Maybe. But as long as we still have a certain distance between producers and consumers – even if it’s just one link in the chain like here – a label gives certainty and makes this exchange possible. Everybody needs everybody else – the bureaucrats need the innovative entrepreneurs just as much as vice versa. And that is something everybody can dedicate their effort to.IMG_5305


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World Food Day: The Numbers #WFD2014

The cool thing about being in Brussels? Showing up at a lunch meeting across the street from your office and have the chief statistician of the FAO and the director of the WFP Brussels office explain how they arrived at estimating the state of food insecurity in the world. I will talk more about the statistics stuff below, but first off some numbers and facts for the non-econometrics inclined!

  • According to the FAO, 805 million people (around one in nine) are chronically undernourished today – down from 1015 million in 1990.
  • This means that we are close to meeting the Millennium Development Goal on hunger (halving the percentage of food insecure in the world as compared to 1990; we went from 23.4% to 13.5% in developing countries), though far from meeting the World Food Summit goal (halving the absolute number of hungry – this would require 300 million more people to be properly fed). 63 countries have met the MDG goals and 25 countries the WFS targets.
  • Latin America and the Caribbean have made the most significant overall progress, whereas Subsaharan Africa, Western and Southern Asia have been lagging behind.
  • As a general rule, strong and sustained political commitment was a prerequisite to increasing food security. Much of the progress seen was in countries with well developed (and properly funded) food security policies. Economic growth impacted food security positively, but only where adequate social safety nets were present.

But back to the question – how do you even get to these conclusions?

It was an intriguing question that I hadn’t really considered before – how do you measure food insecurity, seeing as everybody has different nutritional and caloric needs, different incomes and different circumstances? In fact [attention - nerdiness about to happen], instead of using a headcount estimate, they use a probabilistic model – they create a “random” average consumer and try to estimate how likely this consumer is to be food insecure. This estimate is based on indicators of food security in four different dimensions:

1. Food availability, capturing not only quantity, but also quality and diversity of food (indicators: average dietary energy supply adequacy, average value of food production, share of dietary energy supply derived from cereals, roots and tubers, average protein supply, average supply of protein from animal sources)

2. Food access, both physically and economically (indicators: railway and road density, domestic food price index, GDP per capita, prevalence of undernourishment, share of food expenditure of the poor, depth of the food deficit, and prevalence of food inadequacy)

3. Stability of food supply, measuring exposure to food security risks and shocks (indicators: cereal import dependency ratio, percent of arable land equipped for irrigation, value of food imports over total merchandise exports, political stability and absence of violence/terrorism, domestic food price volatility, per capita food production variability, and per capita food supply variability)

and

4. Food utilization, determining the ability to utilize food adequately (indicators: access to improved water sources, access to improved sanitation facilities, percentage of children under 5 years of age affected by wasting, percentage of children under 5 years of age who are stunted, percentage of children under 5 years of age who are underweight, percentage of adults who are underweight, prevalence of anaemia among pregnant women, prevalence of anaemia among children under 5 years of age, prevalence of vitamin A deficiency in the population, prevalence of iodine deficiency).

Once they had all these different indicators, they created the most likely scenario for a typical inhabitant of the country in question (by calculating the cumulative probability that your habitual dietary energy consumption lies below the minimum dietary energy requirement) and then extrapolated this to the number of people in the country. So, say your probability of being food insecure in Riceland is 0.1, and Riceland has 1000 inhabitants, they would be estimated to have 100 hungry people, or to have 10% of their population chronically undernourished. Which, obviously, is the same as the probability estimate, but we think of the two things slightly differently.

What the chief statistician failed to discuss in more detail (probably because of a lack of interest in the audience in statistical finesse), and what is missing on the slides (above) openly available through their website, is the difficulties with some of these indicators.

But, thankfully, they sent out the full slides after the presentation!

So here are some of the concerns:

  • There is a lack of a global standard: over 200 indicators are proposed; how do you choose between them?
  • There exists a trade-off between the “best” operational definition of food insecurity and feasibility of the data collection, especially as you need to combine global and national monitoring
  • Some indicators are based on old data, their rankings are unstable, or they don’t cover all countries
  • As came up in the discussion, there is very little gender-disaggregated data, making it difficult to estimate the impact on women vs. on men (which is likely to be extremely different)
  • Also, these indicators, despite their relative broadness, don’t take into account food sovereignty, 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. Shocking – the EU Rep didn’t know the definition of food sovereignty and kept talking about food independence. Um…

What do you think about the numbers? Impressive progress or not enough?


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Happy World Food Day 2014! #WFD2014

Today is World Food Day! Originally created to celebrate the founding of the FAO, every year it gives a great opportunity to highlight some of the issues on the international food policy agenda. This year, the importance of family farming is in the spotlight.

FAO-Infographic-IYFF14-enI’ll be back tonight with a more in-depth discussion, but until then, why don’t you check out this wealth of resources:

Info on Family farming (FAO)

The Food System and its Impact on Family Farmers (Oxfam)

World Food Day USA

How will you celebrate World Food Day today?


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What’s Your Story? #TEDxWWF at @WWFEU in Brussels!

Yesterday night was a magical night in the Representation of the Free State of Bavaria (can we just pause a minute and reflect on the fact that this exists? They even served beer and brezels. Represent indeed.)

The WWF European Policy Office was celebrating its 25th anniversary and decided to do that in the spirit of TED, by sharing ideas that matter. The theme was ‘One Planet Living’ and the speakers as diverse as the approaches one could take to that topic.

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I remember two speakers that stood out for me – and not because the others were less powerful, less inspirational, or less impressive in their quest to change the world. But these two messages hit home in a special way.

Tony Juniper – campaigner and sustainability adviser in a number of firms – opened his speech by talking about the real monetary value of nature, and the fact that 100% of business is based on a functioning ecosystem. He then advocated for the concept of a bioeconomy – sounding rather close to ecological economics – and for rediscovering the multitude of ways in which the destruction of certain ecological systems – bees, species of predators, mangroves and peatlands – can have extremely costly economic consequences. So far, so good; I agree that this needs to be said, but it wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before. But then, the spark.

“Thus, we should implement that shift in perception through the way we measure progress. National accounts should be changed. We should have new accounting rules for corporations. And costs should be consistently internalized.”

For some reason, I’d never made that final thought experiment. Yes, we know that alternative measures of welfare exist – the Gross National Happiness Index is the best example -, but to consistently implement them as a global accounting exercise? And to go even further and ask corporations for a whole new way of accounting? Imagine if the stock index were based on companies’ contribution to global happiness rather than on mere profit. Imagine if the economic “growth” of an economy would be measured in the growth of biodiversity. Tony Juniper rightly reminded us that the ‘economy’ is just a construct of the human mind. And we could create as many others as we’d like.

A musical intermezzo cemented that thought:

So many things we want to buy,

but all the things you’re offering 

never even seem to last a while…

 The other talk I found really inspiring was George Marshall’s insights on why we do what we do while we know what we know. I started reflecting on that in depth during my Iceland trip this summer – how climate change activists, sustainable living scientists and development advocates jet around the globe, wine and dine in fancy hotels in order to mingle for the good cause and never seem to stop – pause – and reflect on the hypocrisy. George Marshall finally brought this issue onto the agenda – not an easy thing to do in a room full of people who jet between capitals on a daily basis. He explored this issue in more depth for the last two years, though, and gathered his findings in a book called “Don’t Even Think About It – Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change“.

I will borrow his main hypothesis from his Guardian column because he has a way with words one can only admire.

Why do most people understand that climate change is a major threat yet, when asked to name the greatest dangers to civilisation, still seem unable to bring it to mind?

The primary reason is that our innate sense of social competition has made us acutely alert to any threat posed by external enemies. In experiments, children as young as three can tell the difference between an accident and a deliberate attack. Climate change confounds this core moral formula: it is a perfect and undetectable crime everyone contributes to but for which no one has a motive.

There is no outsider to blame. We are just living our lives: driving the kids to school, heating our homes, putting food on the table. Only once we accept the threat of climate change do these neutral acts become poisoned with intention – so we readily reject that knowledge, or react to it with anger and resentment.

He thus asked us to question our stories – what do you tell yourself to bridge the gap between what you know is right and the daily choices you make? What stories back up that disconnect? And he invited us to

Spread your conviction and share how you got there, share inconsistencies as well because they make us all human.

So much truth in that.

What is your story and do you think you should change it?


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How Fair Is Your OJ? Fair Trade Brunch by Oxfam!

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What’s better on a Sunday morning than brunch? A Fair Trade brunch! Oxfam Belgium is celebrating its 50 year anniversary (Happy birthday!) and invited the public to celebrate with organic and fair trade breakfast treats. An invitation my friend and I just couldn’t say no to!

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The event was organized in a huge market hall, there was live music and speeches, and the buffet was plentiful – organic bread and rolls, diverse jams and spreads, cereal and yoghurt, frittatas and soups, cheese, fruit … The list goes on! Of course, all in fair trade quality. It was actually amazing to see the variety of items available now – there is nothing you cannot get with that label on it.

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And of course, the fruit juices were the star of the show.  IMG_5244

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