Food (Policy) For Thought

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


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Drought in Central America – Sequía en Centroamérica

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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.

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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):

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


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Fractional Reserve Banking – The Problems [ISEE recap 2]

all you have to know.

all you have to know.

When Dan O’Neill came to the required reforms of the banking system in his ISEE key note (which I resumed here), and used this image on his slide, I had never heard of the term ‘fractional reserve banking’. But if there is a cat meme on the topic, it is clearly a topic worth looking into, right?

Cue me going down the rabbit hole of trying to understand the way our current money system works, with the very valuable help of the guys at Positive Money. One caveat right away – the peeps explaining the system have focused on the UK, so there might be minor differences when looking at the EU or the USA, though Wikipedia tells me that fractional reserve banking is the current form of banking practiced in all countries worldwide.

If you have 2 hours at your hands, I would really recommend watching the video tutorial that Positive Money has made, it explains the whole issue much better than I will be able to picture here. But if you want a sneak peek in the problem and some of the solutions talked about at the conference… Read on!

Basically, think about how you imagine banks work. What happens when you walk up to a bank and deposit $100 of your hard-earned money?

a) They keep it in a big vault and wait for you to come and reclaim it.

This is actually how I used to imagine what happens behind closed bank doors. Image via Helmut Hirner, all rights reserved.

This is actually how I used to imagine what happens behind closed bank doors. Image via Helmut Hirner, all rights reserved.

b) They keep a certain percentage of it safe and lend the rest out to somebody who wants to loan money against an interest rate.

c) They take it, use it according to their best idea of what to do with it, and treat your deposit basically as an IOU (a requirement to repay you at some point) that they don’t necessarily have to be able to honor right now.

Decided? Read about the right answer after the jump!

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Extreme Baby Carrots – Will It Work?

Ok. Before you do anything else or read on – watch this video:

How does it make you feel? Like baby carrots are the next cool thing to eat? Like an intense snack that will make you just as hip as the people in the commercial?

I was reading an NPR article on grocery stores like Giant Eagle and Walmart testing a concept that markets snack-sized fruit and vegetables like junk food in order to get more kids (and, I guess, adults) to eat it.

Besides the extreeeeme video, the campaign also features new products: pureed fruit tubes that kids can suck on, all-fruit smoothies, and ‘shake downs’ which are bags of baby carrots (you know it) with cheeto-style seasoning powders that will stick to your hands just like that other orange dust will.

Shake down flavors include salsa, chili-and-lime and ranch.

Shake down flavors include salsa, chili-and-lime and ranch.

Along the vein of the broccoli marketing campaign we talked about earlier, this is an attempt to bring traditional marketing methods over to the produce aisle – except this time, it’s for real!

But will it work? How easy is it to change the image of a product?

Personally, the ad video left me a little underwhelmed – it’s so over the top it seems to be a parody of ‘let’s try to make a vegetable look hip’. But then again, I just read another article that was talking about advertizing to children and teenagers and how it seems painfully obvious and over the top for adults, but that you have to let go of subtlety to reach your audience in that case. And it’s not as if the ads for games or other junk food are different – I guess the disguise is nearly too good because it fits in so well with the ads I despise.

I’m more convinced of the new formulations – the carrots with the flavorings and the slurpee-style smoothies. Those, I think, are super clever ways to reinvent what snack food looks and tastes like. (Not to poo-poo the party, but I’d like to see the ingredient list of those powders though and see what percentage of daily sodium content they would make up).

This video below gives some more context and ties in well with the last post on fruit vending machines, since the baby carrots also pop up in vending machines around schools.

One last question on my mind though – is the media hype because of this campaign’s success with customers or because of the sheer novelty and (potentially) hilarity factor of the approach? But then again, does it matter as long as ‘extreme baby carrot’ gets nation-wide coverage and is in everybody’s ear?

Would you buy more baby carrots after seeing the commercial? Or only those with ranch flavoring? ;)


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Enough Is Enough [ISEE recap 1]

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Ohhhhh ecological economics, where to start… At the conference there were more than 100 different sessions with 3 – 5 presentations each, so it was actually pretty overwhelming to figure out where to go and who to listen to. Plus, one of the great attractions, but also of the main complications is the interdisciplinarity of the field – there was work on social psychology and group organization (holla! that was us!), ideas on a completely new monetary system that blew my mind, very in-depth presentations on planetary boundary quantifications, for example in land use, and so much more!

What really blew me away though were the keynote speakers. They were all very well-chosen, combining great insights with impressive public speaking skills to make for very enjoyable first sessions of the day.

On the first day, Johan Rockström gave an update on his Planetary Boundaries framework (which I explained in one of my first-ever posts… how the time flies!) and was followed by Dan O’Neill who gave a presentation of concepts in his book called ‘Enough Is Enough. Building A Sustainable Economy In A World Of Finite Resources’. I’ll go into his talk into more detail because his book, and ideas, were pretty new to me, and very inspiring. [On a side note, he is the nicest guy to talk to, I randomly befriended him and his team from Leeds University when talking about Iceland travel plans, and we ended up spending our last night in town all together.]

Back to serious business though… ‘Enough Is Enough’ introduces and advocates for steady state economics. That is, instead of having economic growth as a main policy goal and a measure of economic success, we should move toward a balanced state of yearly throughput that is in line with the Earth’s resource balance. As an example of how we are failing at this, Earth Overshoot Day tracks at what day in the year we have ‘used up’ all renewable resources that the planet can provide during a one-year period. It’s getting earlier and earlier, and has moved from early October in 2000 to August 19th this year.

How to remedy that? This was the burning question on everybody’s tongue in ISEE – the conference theme was ‘Wellbeing and Equity Within Planetary Boundaries’ – and Dan O’Neill (and co-author, Rob Dietz) present a couple of very tangible steps toward an economy of enough.

Steady-state economics was originally introduced as a concept by Herman Daly and comprises 4 features of the economy:

- A sustainable scale of steady stocks and flows in the economy

- Fair distribution of the global wealth

- An efficient allocation of resources (using markets only when appropriate)

- And a high quality of life that is at least to an extent decoupled from GDP.

Now, this all sounds nice, but the real struggle is – how do we get from this economy to that other one? Their book provides policy proposals in 7 different areas. Dan wasn’t able to go into all of them in detail, and I haven’t read the book (yet) so this just gives you a general idea.

Here is their game plan:

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On Footprints, Guilt, and Iceland

Soooo I’m back! Sorry for disappearing like that, thesis defense + paper presentation at an international conference + some travels will do that for you, I guess. This trip has been… interesting, to say the least. Definitely a growing experience, though in which direction I am still not entirely sure. 

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See – I am just on my way back (provided there is no volcano eruption, which might very well be the case) from Iceland, where I was able to present a paper at the International Society of Ecological Economics’ biannual conference. Which was a great great great experience – to learn about ecological economics, to meet interesting people, to practice presentation and self-representation skills (and how to not mention you just finished your Master’s without outright lying in order to keep people’s interest ;) and also of course to get to know Iceland and its people more in depth. However, flying here – again, after my tourism trip over Easter, which I had planned long before the conference came up – came attached with some rather hefty feelings of guilt.

First of all, can we just mention the hypocrisy – that we all chose to ignore – of talking about increasing human footprints and the necessity to downscale our environmental impacts after having all flown to the possibly most remote location of Europe for a three day event. Not to mention that the conference wasn’t particularly environmentally friendly in its organization – paper cups and exotic fruit abounded -, but just the intense hedonic aspect of meeting somewhere nice where nobody has ever been before so people can do more travels there (which is why Reykjavik might be the conference capital of the world) gave me some bellyaches when what we talked about was the need to dematerialize our throughput and find alternative sources of happiness. 

Then, I guess, came the fact that I was still not quite sure I belonged there. Sure, I had been pretty involved in the background work and the writing of our paper, and the fact that I got the opportunity to present it as well (which my team leader had originally been allotted but assigned me) was a bit more of a justification, but I felt that the Society could have well survived without my presence, and I could have probably learned just as much sitting at home reading through the abstracts. Would it have been the same thing? Absolutely not! But would it have been sufficient? I daresay yes. And this is complicated, because if everybody thinks this way, conferences wouldn’t happen anymore. And if just the ‘important’ people show up, how are up-and-coming young professionals supposed to make their way and network? Plus, I didn’t feel like I didn’t have interesting points to make or thoughts to contribute, on the contrary. But in my status as a young researcher, it still felt superfluous. Or just extremely selfish – a plane ride just to be able to put ‘presenter at ISEE conference’ on my resume? Is that forward-looking or just vain? 

I guess what it comes down to is the fancy psychological term of cognitive dissonance – I wasn’t acting in a way that was true to my ideals, or true to the way I would like to perceive myself – as environmentally responsible, sensible, and somebody who can weigh pros and cons and make selfless choices. In the very moment when I was presenting a paper on the motivational factors for engagement in sustainable consumption, I was doing the very opposite of sustainably consuming. 

Struggling with that guilt, and the attached guilt of taking another week of not-totally-necessary vacation in Iceland in which I did have extremely gratifying and pleasant experiences, sort of overshadowed my trip in general, if I am quite honest. Which is a shame, because it was a great opportunity to take advantage of, and take advantage I did – just with that voice in your head that asks ‘did you really deserve this? and did you really need it to be happy?’ 

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Let me ask this… sheepishly.

I don’t know what the answer to that question is. And as I will do more travels and have more experiences in the coming year than (probably) ever before, I think I need to come to terms with this voice in order to get the most out of the experiences while still remaining humble and minimalist in my ways. As I said, a growing experience for sure. 

However, one way I justified my conference participation to myself is that I will blog about the topics I found enlightening, thought-provoking or plain interesting to put in the general arena, even if they are not closely linked to food policy per se. So keep your eyes peeled – the next posts will be coming soon! 

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