Food (Policy) For Thought

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


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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.

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“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.”

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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!

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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!


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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:


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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.


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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!


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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.


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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.


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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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Is Costa Rica Breaking Out Of The Certification Box?

“You know the greatest paradox? All the certification organizations have offices in Costa Rica – and yet, the country has the smallest share of certified coffee in Central America.”

I stare, taken aback by the passion of the speaker. I am in a conference room with the specialists in Costa Rican coffee production, about to discuss our new project proposal, but we still have a couple of minutes before the meeting starts. I’d wanted to use the time to quiz some of the marketing people on their view of certification schemes – but I hadn’t expected such a surprising response.

Instead of the ubiquitous "farmer hands hold coffee cherries" shot, here something different - coffee roasted and refined in Costa Rica from my favorite market. Hmmm....

Instead of the ubiquitous “farmer hands hold coffee cherries” shot, here something different – coffee roasted and refined in Costa Rica from my favorite market. Hmmm….

He goes on to explain that the Costa Rican coffee sector is different from many other countries’, such that certification schemes are virtually unnecessary. Wages are much higher than in neighboring regions. The government has passed laws that make sure that most profits go back to producers. Plus, in keeping with the green image of the country, there are environmental regulations in place that prevent the most harmful wrongdoings.

In addition, he explains that the Costa Ricans have built a reputation of being reliable business partners. They even keep forward contracts when they could get a better price on the spot market – apparently, this is so unusual that it warrants a special nod.

Thus, going through time-intensive and expensive certification is often not worth it for Costa Rican producers. They already get prices significantly higher than the world market averages due to their focus on higher quality. The Arabica bean that is grown here can be refined more and is the one used in speciality coffees, enabling producers to focus on quality that has its worth.

Once all of this is said, my spirits falter. Part of my work here is to investigate what the current landscape of sustainability labels looks like, including which ones are venturing out into the world of low-carbon products. In my mind, there are a lot of synergies that can be harnessed between our nation-wide project and the specific ones that private labels or even brands are pursuing. Yet, possibly I am on the wrong track focusing on certifications so much?

Part of what I want to explore is the alternatives: marketing over the national coffee association, direct sales to small and big roasters, Starbucks chiefly among them, and roasting it in-country, which harnesses the greatest added-value. Still, I wonder whether certifications are really obsolete. I ask what is on my mind as a European coffee guzzler (hail Sweden) – “but do you think the end consumer will know that Costa Rican labor and environmental standards are up to par, even without a label?

The two marketers look at each other. They frown. “Well, the end consumer might not, but the roasters definitely do.” But this doesn’t answer the swarm of questions in my mind – with slogans such as “follow the frog” and “buy fair – be fair”, consumers are increasingly attuned to issues of social justice in the supply chain. Never mind labeling fatigue, most consumers now know that products with a label guarantee certain standards, while products without labels don’t. Under public pressure, big traders have committed to sourcing responsibly: which often translates to sourcing products with one – or any – label attached to it.

While direct or quality-based trade definitely has its place, the story is longer and more complex. Labels exist in order to short-circuit our decision-making process. By leaving third-party certifiers in the dust, is Costa Rica going the path of the future or locking itself out of growing markets?

A large part of my stay here will be dedicated to exactly these questions. Let’s explore this issue together!


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5 Ted-Ed Videos You Should Watch

Hey hey! Have you heard of TED-Ed? It’s when people take a 5 minute snippet of a TED-Talk and animate it… so cool!! I went on a hunt for videos that have a food/ag theme and this is what I came up with – for when you just have a couple of minutes of free time. Enjoy!

1. Should we eat bugs? - what a good question!

2. How sugar affects your brain – suuuuper interesting and sort of scary.

3. The science of spiciness – I never thought about why your mouth feels like fire when you eat spicy food… This video explains it nevertheless!

4. The chemistry of cookies – I wish we had done that in school!

5. How bees help plants have sex – last but not least, super cute video about lonely single plants being given matchmakers :)

Happy viewing!

What was your favorite learning experience?

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