Food (Policy) For Thought

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

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Photo Story: The Chocolate Tale

Hi hi! So sorry to be out of commission for so long! It’s been a busy couple of weeks with applications and paper edits and work, but I’m back and all backed up with stories to write about! Here is one that needs little words and just a lot of imagination, since I will take you on a trip… to a cocoa forest!

It all starts in Cocles, a little beach village on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica…


with charming views and more charming beach visitors.


But I wasn’t here for the beach, I was here for the chocolate – specifically, the cocoa forest tour of Caribeans.


Our group of 10 met at the chocolate ‘tasting lounge’ and marched into the jungle – which the owner and our guide, Paul Johnson, explained had been a cocoa farm that had long been abandoned and recently bought by a friend of his.


We saw some incredible wildlife, including Golden Thread spiders, howler monkeys and even two toucans just on the way up the hill.

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The canopy was lush and full, but Paul explained that for the cocoa trees, we had to cast our eyes a bit further down – they stay at much more modest heights and therefore spend their lives in the shade of the bigger trees. While some shade is good for coffee, Paul said that their cocoa is technically overshaded and they lose potential yield from not cutting down some of the larger trees. But they couldn’t do it without eliminating the monkeys’ and birds’ living spaces. So they decided not to.


The cocoa tree is the one to the right with the dark branches.

In the forest, the trees are cared for by members of the indigenous tribes here, which use traditional methods taught to them from generation to generation. They have produced cocoa for personal consumption in a drink similar to the xocolatl of the Aztecs since long before the Spanish came. Paul mentioned that he paid their labor as well as their consulting services, resulting in a wage several times higher than the one they asked for originally.


See the two cocoa pods at the very bottom of the stem?

Once the pods are ripe, they are harvested using this instrument…

IMG_7426and brought to a (very rudimentary) processing unit. Everything begins with opening the pod and extracting the beans…


The crates are used for the fermentation process and for introducing air – all beans are put in the first crate, then the side wall is removed and they tumble into the second, etc.

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… which are dark purple and intensely bitter, but surrounded by some sweet fruit flesh that makes the cocoa also a valuable fruit for several animals. Paul said that because of their integrated approach, every year they use a significant proportion of their harvest to the animals. On the other hand, the animals also do the job the plant originally produced seeds for, and distribute seeds for new cocoa trees throughout the forest.


The fermented seeds are set out to dry in a tent that has a greenhouse-like effect. At this point, there is no more need to fear animals – they are not interested in the bean. Too bad for them!

IMG_7427 IMG_7431 IMG_7432At this point in the tour, we took a break with a view to sample some of Caribeans’ chocolates. It was amazing how despite the same composition (72% dark chocolate, only made up of cocoa beans and sugar) each had a unique flavor profile ranging from nutty to fruity to smokey.

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We also tried some of that chocolate drink that was more spicy than sweet and quite an acquired taste for some. I loved it though!

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As a last part, we were invited to pair the dark chocolate with some other flavors to create our perfect chocolate: the options ranged from mint or basil to coffee, cinnamon, sea salt all the way to turmeric, chili, garlic and dark pepper. Soon everybody had found their personal favorite. Mine was more on the traditional side with coffee and cinnamon, but there was a brave kid that did garlic everything. Kudos!IMG_7449 IMG_7450

We continued the tour to the chocolate factory itself and on the way casually stumbled upon more wildlife.


There, Paul explained the process: roasting the dried beans, grinding them, removing the shell, and then grinding the pieces up even smaller until you get chocolate liqueur, the pure liquid chocolate. Then you add your desired amount of sugar and put it to set, all the while tempering it to get the best possible texture and ‘snap’.

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All in all, it was such a great experience and really insightful to see the challenges and tradeoffs that come with sustainable farming in this context. Paul explained several times that the choices he made had real impacts on his bottom line, and that without the income from the tours and the coffee shop side business it wouldn’t be financially viable. Still, seeing his “farm” set in this lush and vibrant forest made me wish more would be like that. As always, it depends on how much the consumer is willing to pay at the other end.


And with that and a Costa Rican sunset, I close my chocolate tale.


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Digging Deeper into the Pineapple Paradox

And the plot thickens…


Image by ECohen, via Flickr CC.

When I published my story on the flies and the pineapples the other week, I got a couple of fascinating follow-ups from people that know way more about the industry than me. In addition, I’ve been working more on the topic as well, adding to my knowledge of the production methods and problems attached to them (which, I frankly admit, was hitherto rather underdeveloped, despite the fact that pineapples are my favorite fruit). So, in no particular order, here are some additional factoids about pineapple production:

  • When you think about it, pineapples are the ultimate luxury fruit. Reading through a pineapple growing guide for producers in Guyana (it’s absolutely fascinating to approach it from the farmer’s angle), what stood out to me is how difficult it is to grow them. They require high levels of fertilizer, they grow at a snail’s pace, which means that in the beginning weeds are a huge problem. Consequently, the guide recommends a number of solutions – of course, all chemical herbicides (prominently figured: glyphosate and 2-4D amine). The ideal plot for planting pineapples is completely cleared of any other growth – meaning that you have to kill all other vegetation off first. They thus recommend to use herbicides before planting, after planting, when the pineapple plants are 3 – 5 months old… it seems an awful of spraying. Then, there are a number of insects that all threaten the plant’s survival (and you need insecticides, of course). Plus, you only get one fruit per plant every year or so, and have to replant every two years. What an effort!
  • Another interesting aspect – the guide (and several others I found) doesn’t even consider what to do with the residues left on the field. Literally, it ends with bringing the pineapple to market – with a “you made it!” attitude – and leaves the producer to wander his fields, scratching his head on what to do with the rests on it. Not cool.
  • One commenter mentioned an interesting possibility: fight flies with flies! In particular, black soldier fly larvae have been used as livestock feed and composting helpers with really good results in the US, and apparently love organic waste such as pineapple leafs. Plus, in their adult stage they don’t have mouths, don’t bite and aren’t disease vectors, unlike the problematic bloodsucking flies people are dealing with here. The commenter also mentioned the possibility of having freeranging chickens between harvest and replanting time. I love these ideas in theory, though I have a hard time wrapping my head around their applicability in an industrial ag setting – that would require a hella lotta chickens, wouldn’t it? Still, at least there are some first research efforts ongoing on the use of black soldier fly larvae in Costa Rica; one PhD student even wrote his entire thesis on it! It’s still to be seen how to scale up these approaches, but it’s promising that different ways forward are possible.
  • From one organic symbiosis to another organic dissonance: a friend told me that the flies could also be attracted by the spreading of dried cow blood from Costa Rican butchers on the fields as a natural fertilizer (as the main source of nitrogen), at least in organic pineapple production. Yuck!
  • Finally, the environmental impacts have high social costs: just last month, there was a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of rural communities claiming their right to clean water, since they have had to truck in drinking water ever since pineapple plantations surrounding their properties started using carcinogenic agrochemicals which ended up in the local groundwater supply. This is a really good and in-depth article on the issue (if you read Spanish).


A Pineapple, A Cow and Thousands of Flies Meet in Costa Rica…

... how would you finish that joke? Unfortunately, for Costa Rican farmers, this issue is no laughing matter. Rather, it’s a conflict that pitches two of the largest agricultural communities of the country against each other in a perpetual feud. It’s the yeoman-versus-rancher battle you’ve never heard of. But new technologies might offer a solution that also contributes to Costa Rica’s climate change strategy.

In fact, this is how I first became aware of the story: I was co-organizing a workshop on the use of organic agricultural residues in energy production. Reps from all kinds of industries – pineapple, sugarcane, coffee, livestock, forestry – came together and talked about possibilities and hurdles to actually use the energy potential of these waste products. One of their activities was to brainstorm co-benefits of changing waste disposal practices. I was tasked with documenting the workshop and so spent my time weaving in and out the intensive discussions. Between snapping photos, I snatched up snippets of conversation. “Oh, and getting rid of the pineapple stems also reduces the flies!,” I heard. Makes sense, I thought to myself, fruit flies are icky. Little did I know that the issue was much more dire than just fruit flies.


“Mosca” signifies “fly”. I still didn’t get it.

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Organic Coffee in Costa Rica: A Battle of David vs. Goliath?

“To be honest, organic coffee is a dying breed in Costa Rica.” Leland Westie and I stare at each other, neither of us quite sure how to continue the conversation. Westie seems startled by his own frankness. After a long pause, he qualifies his statement with an apologetic smile: “I mean, I hope it will survive. I am an optimist. But we need all the help we can get.”


Westie would know – together with his wife and a group of engaged citizens, he co-founded and co-organizes the Feria Verde de Aranjuez, the largest organic farmers’ market in San Jose. In the beginning, the market seemed to lack a gathering spot for shoppers to connect. This is why he founded Taza Amarilla, a local organic coffee roaster and coffee shop that has become emblematic for the market. When one ambles about the stalls, it is striking that almost every second hand is holding a trademark yellow mug. Every Saturday, the micro-enterprise sells around 500 cups of coffee and another 85 bags of their beans. At least on this local level, demand for organic coffee seems to hold up; however, the commitment to organic greatly limits Westie’s sourcing options. “There are two, maybe three organic producers that seem financially sound and of sufficient enough size to survive in the long term,” he explains. Two or three in an entire country of high-end coffee producers. How did it come this far?

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Updates from Coffee Country

Hey little blog, I missed you! I swear I’ve been writing, too, just for different purposes, and then there was the weekend at the beach and the arts festival… Regularly scheduled content should be back soon. Plus, I’m taking “Writing for the Web” and “Community Journalism” MOOCs at the moment, which should help make future posts even clearer and more fun to read. Yay for continued learning!


And learning I have been a lot lately – especially all about coffee! Want to explore some of the most interesting facts with me?

  • Specialty coffee is the new kid around the block. In 2014, it has for the first time ever taken over non-specialty coffee in the US with a market share of 51%. This is great news, particularly for producers in Central America, because this high-quality coffee can be sold for higher prices than the world market average.
  • However, sustainable coffee is still struggling. The idea spread like wildfire among producers – of course, who doesn’t want premium prices? Yet, this has led to oversupply in many certification schemes. According to estimates, only 30 – 50% of the certified harvest is actually also sold under the labels. Because there is not enough demand for certified products, the rest flows into the conventional market, at farmers’ losses (who had to undergo certification efforts and costs anyhow).
  • The trouble with a global commodity market is also that you get one price, no matter what your production costs are. When South East Asian countries like Vietnam entered the scene, Central American countries – with much higher input costs – started to struggle. And the problem is perpetuated even in the Fair Trade system, where the price guarantee is the same worldwide, which is still at an unsustainably low level for producers here.
  • The solution for many farmers in Costa Rica and elsewhere is to focus on quality instead. However, once you arrive in the segment where coffee tastings define your income, environmental sustainability is secondary – and alternative production systems might even be counterproductive because they may affect the taste, and taste is what counts.
  • Yet, coffee production is inherently resource-intensive. Look at these Ethiopian farmers harvest the red coffee cherries – the only valuable part is the bean. First, you need to get rid of the pulp, the mucilage and the parchment (which are all layers surrounding the bean) – more than 50% of what you grow is essentially waste! There have been attempts to put the pulp to use in animal feed, but if you give livestock too much they get hyped up on the caffeine and will be sick. Furthermore, the wet milling process uses a large amount of water. It is the most commonly used processing method in Central America, despite the fact that some regions are called the “dry corridor” because of frequent droughts.

So my main takeaway so far? We are paying way too little for what we consume. Listening closely, you realize that the only reason the exodus from coffee production in Costa Rica is not mirrored in other countries is that there are alternatives here – and, as one of my interview partners said, “in Honduras you just continue to farm because the alternative is to starve.”

Check back soon for more coffee stories!


To Watch: TEDxManhattan 2015

Hey everybody! Happy almost-weekend! Do you have any plans yet on Saturday? If not, why not join up with foodies in your area for a TEDx Viewing Party? Or – alternatively – go to their website and watch the livestream!

Why, you ask? Well, it’s a whole day of the most inspiring speakers in the sustainable food and ag movement, sharing thoughts on how to change the way we eat (which is the theme of the yearly conference). It’s a day-long event with 17 talks overall, but I took the liberty to highlight the five speakers I am most interested in:


FoodCorps isn’t created just to exist. We’ve been created to accept the challenge. And as we grow, we’re growing leaders and hoping that they’ll build within their community so that we can move on to where we’re needed next.

Debra Eschmeyer is an unusual mixture of on-the-ground farmer (she owns a fruit and vegetable farm) and policy whiz: in January, she was selected as the “de facto food policy czar”, as Politico says, becoming the executive director of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign and senior policy advisor on nutrition policy of the White House. She also co-founded the Food Corps, which brings AmeriCorps service members into schools to “promote healthier eating through school gardens, cooking classes and revamped school lunch menus”. I am interested to see the stamina and drive needed to be a “doer” trying to fight through red tape, bureaucracy, and policy problems.


We realized that colleges and universities in this country spend over $5 billion each year to feed their students.  What if we could shift how that money was being spent? Instead of lining the pockets of the biggest and worst food companies, why not support smaller farms and socially responsible business? Why not invest in a real food economy?

Anim Steel I just want to see because his bio picture is dreamy. Ok, I kid, he is also the Executive Director of the Real Food Challenge, which wants to bring high schools and universities to purchase local, fair, and sustainable foods. This is important for two reasons – one, institutional tenders can create massive market shifts due to their collective purchasing power, and secondly, it’s a youth-led movement aiming to reclaim where their educational investment is being spent. It’s cool to see such engagement at a relatively young age, and I think Anim will be one of the younger presenters. Woot next generation!


Our food and agriculture system is particularly broken, but we can’t simply wait for the government to fix it. As with clean energy, there are many opportunities for private enterprise to stimulate progress while making a profit. Some of the short-term opportunities in food might be to leverage consumer awareness and build a brand that stands for environmental consciousness, while aligning for longer-term regulatory changes to level the playing field.

Ali Partovi is one of Silicon Valley’s best known angel investors with a keen eye for up-and-coming business models. He will speak about why organic food is more expensive and, I suspect, his business venture Farmland LP. This fund buys up US farmland and converts it into organic land through crop rotations, increasing its profitability on the way. I can already see myself having quite a number of “but”s; however, it is hugely interesting to me to see the investor/techie approach to changing the food system. Plus, finally somebody talks about economics and sustainability in a way MBAs and more profit-driven decision makers can actually understand.


We work with communities block by block, person by person. On any given day in the five boroughs, residents now have access to more than 50 Greenmarkets where they can purchase fresh, healthy, local produce and more from small farmers who keep 35,000 acres in production.

Marcel Van Ooyen seems to be an environmental Renaissance man: he’s done eco-assessments of power plants, written environmental legislation for the City Council of New York City, and is now pivotal in pulling together and expanding sustainable ag initiatives in NYC through GrowNYC. Their projects span from farmers’ market support to education and school garden programs – quite the portfolio! He will talk about scaling up local food distribution systems in cities: a timely topic, as we see more and more interest for local food that is often met in a piecemeal fashion.


I visited roughly 35 countries in Subsaharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America and talked to hundreds of farmers, farmers groups, researchers, policy makers, women, and youth groups, and really got a sense of what I called to myself a global listening tour. […] Many of the organizations I visited don’t have fancy websites, they don’t have charismatic leaders, so no one knows about them and no one knows about the potential that’s there so I really tried to shine a spotlight on some of these projects.

Danielle Nierenberg has basically stomped Food Tank out of the ground, making the website to one of the resources that are watching food policy and news stories around the world. Her career mirrors my ideal-case scenario: MSc in Agriculture, Food and Environment from Tufts, researcher positions at Science and Environmental Health network and the Worldwatch Institute – on whose behalf she travelled around the world, looking for sustainable agriculture solutions -, and finally co-founder of a huge knowledge and advocacy network. She’s a great writer and a huge role model for me, and I’m looking forward to hearing her voice on stage as well as in my newsletters.

Who are you looking forward to? Don’t forget that all talks will be recorded and online in true TEDx fashion, so don’t fret if you cannot commit all of Saturday! I for one will most probably be exploring a Costa Rican national park.. ;)

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On Sweden’s Diet Debates and Governmental Food Recommendations

by Helena Robling

As we speak, the Swedish national food agency is in the process of developing a set of environmentally sustainable dietary guidelines. The purpose is to give the population information on what to eat and maybe more importantly, what not to eat, to keep healthy and at the same time minimize the individual impact on the environment through food.

According to their web page (sadly only available in Swedish but quite comprehensive in google translate), a diet change of the population could cut Sweden’s greenhouse gas emissions by half.

Given the opportunity to consider the initial draft of the guidelines, comments from interest groups such as the Board of Agriculture and consumer associations have not been overwhelmingly positive. For example, the guidelines’ pronounced support for what is described as locally grown food is criticized for being vaguely defined and lacking a scientific base. The Board of Agriculture argue that “there is no general proof that plants grown in Sweden have less impact on the environment than plants grown in for example Spain” (free translation).

At least during the (short) summer months, Sweden already has a strong tradition of local purchasing, such as for example this Stockholm farmers' market. But should the government get involved? Image by Yukino Miyazawa via Flickr CC.

At least during the (short) summer months, Sweden already has a strong tradition of local purchasing, such as for example this Stockholm farmers’ market. But should the government get involved? Image by Yukino Miyazawa via Flickr CC.

In this case it is important to keep in mind that the most skeptical comments come from the institution in charge of the implementation of the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU in Sweden. Hence, the critique must be seen in the light of the general fear that the guidelines, if too firmly promoting locally grown foods, will be considered trade distorting. This was the reason why the last attempt of releasing the guidelines in 2011 was stopped by the government after complaints from other EU members.

It is a complex question to try to get a clear recommendation on what to eat to have the least impact on the environment, any recommendations that could be made are obviously place, time and context bound and universal applicability of such guidelines are never feasible. There is also always a risk that terms such as “locally produced” can be very misleading if they lack clear definitions.

Vague or not, the guidelines are supposed to be a tool for consumers to make informed decisions regarding the environmental impact of the food they purchase. They can, and should, inform the consumer about the factors that influence the environmental impact of food without deciding exactly what brand, nationality or type of food to buy at all times. But, to make “environmentally friendly” food recommendations without mentioning aspects such as transportation, season and pesticide use will in the end create a rather useless set of guidelines. And I’m afraid that the same would hold if they were perfectly non-trade distortable. It seems like environment and trade once again are having problems getting along..

The debate can also be seen as a question of political philosophy regarding the role of government in promoting certain behavior. Is it even up to the government to have a say in what we eat at all or is such interference always a limitation of the individual’s freedom of choice? Recommendations and guidelines are commonly seen as a middle road of compromise between individual freedom and governmental force.

In this particular case, the framework for individual action is created by the state through the guidelines. Then, what exactly is considered locally grown or regionally produced can instead be up to the individual consumer to decide for herself. But to even consider buying locally grown food, there is a need for an initial interest and intentional motivation from the consumer’s side to limit the environmental impact of the food she buys. This motivation can partly be induced by the guidelines and that is exactly what should be their purpose.

Maybe you would prefer more decadent dietary guidelines? A quite un-orthodox contribution to the diet debate comes from one of the world’s wealthiest people and most famous investors. At age 84, business magnate Warren Buffet claims to keep a diet of a 6-year old, very high on salts and sugar, but mostly on Coca-Cola.

So that’s also a diet choice…


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