Food (Policy) For Thought

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


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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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Review: 9.70 #alimenterre14

Is it already Monday? Time seems to be flying away, as I haven’t even been able to recap what I did the weekend before last – namely, all the great movies I saw at Festival Alimenterre! Hosted by SOS Faim, this film festival tries to highlight the pressing food system issues of our day – so this was a perfect opportunity for me to learn, learn, learn. Let’s start toward the end with one of the last movies I watched, namely 9.70. You can watch the entire film on Youtube here. But is it worthwhile?

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9.70 is the number of a new resolution that Colombia passed after signing their free trade agreement with the United States. According to the documentary, this law prohibits farmers from saving seeds – an ancestral practice they have done since starting agriculture. Now, seeds have to be “certified” in order to be sold in the marketplace (for phytosanitary reasons) and then the “certified” seeds are under copyright so saving them and growing more food from the previous harvest would amount to stealing intellectual property. Well, that’s an argument we’ve heard before.

The movie tries to show this entire trade deal from the eyes of a Colombian village – where, out of the blue and without forewarning, government troops came to confiscate and destroy the best rice of the community that they had stored for the next sowing. They didn’t know about the law, couldn’t understand the reasons for the new rules, and stood there with huge economic losses while their bags of rice were being destroyed on landfills.

The film follows all the rules of polemic investigative journalism – it’s shocking, emotional, and tells a great story about the good guys and the bad. It’s caused a huge discussion in Colombia itself, with the Colombian Institute for Agriculture, one of the main ‘bad boys’ according to the movie, calling the information ‘inexact, false and erroneous’ (three words for the same thing?) in a 16-page-long commentary.

To be honest, after reading the commentary, I do see the movie with a bit more perspective. Some of the arguments it brings up:

  • The resolution 9.70 was only an update on previous phytosanitary resolutions that have existed since the 1970s and has nothing to do with the signing of the free trade treaty;
  • The fact that the rice in the documentary was destroyed is strongly linked to the fact that it had been stored in fertilizer- and pesticide-packaging and was therefore not seen fit for human consumption;
  • There are exceptions for seed-saving for farmers that have plots smaller than 5 hectares, who can announce their intention to ICA;
  • ICA has no possibility to judicially prosecute anybody since they are only a sanitary body; therefore, the fear of being prosecuted for ‘piracy’ seems overblown;
  • It’s also false information that the majority of certified seeds sold in Colombia come from multinational organizations – according to ICA’s numbers, 85% are being produced by 37 national companies;
  • And basically, ICA argues that its investigations are just part of doing its job in preventing large-scale disease outbreaks from tainted, illegal seeds.

Hmmm… maybe things are not always black and white?

The movie is pretty interesting nevertheless, since what is definitely apparent is the absolute disconnect between the institution and the people. Even giving ICA the benefit of the doubt, and assuming the movie overemphasizes certain elements for cinematic effect, it is clear that the reasoning of the rules and their implementation has been extremely poorly communicated. Plus, it gives a great insight on the state of agriculture in Colombia. Just take it with a grain of salt, ya?


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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.”

Continue reading


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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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