Food (Policy) For Thought

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


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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When Food Guidelines Become Political Battlegrounds

It’s a paradox: most American citizens have no idea that the US administration is revising its dietary guidelines. In fact, they might not even be familiar with the current recommendations – and even if they are, they’d be hard-pressed to change their eating habits due to these publications.

The visualization of the current (2010) dietary guidelines - which I actually didn't find all that bad!

The visualization of the current (2010) dietary guidelines – which I actually didn’t find all that bad!

This reality however does not prevent industry organizations and lobbying groups from keeping an eagle eye on the current revision process, and being up in arms about the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee that was recently published.

The 571-page tome‘s major message:

The dietary patterns of the American public are suboptimal and are causally related to poor individual and population health and higher chronic disease rate. Unfortunately, few improvements in consumers’ food choices have occurred in recent decades. On average, the U.S. diet is low in vegetables, fruit, and whole grains and too high in calories, saturated fat, sodium, refined grains, and added sugars.

In this vein, it mirrors almost every nutritionist or public health expert that has recently spoken on the issue. However, it is highly unusual for a government committee to be so explicit and outspoken about the issue. Further on in the executive summary, it uses even stronger wording:

For conclusions with moderate to strong evidence, higher intake of red and processed meats was identified as detrimental compared to low intake. Higher consumption of sugar-sweetened foods and beverages as well as refined grains was identified as detrimental in almost all conclusion statements with moderate to strong evidence. […] Thus, the U.S. population should be encouraged and guided to consume dietary patterns that are rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, seafood, legumes, and nuts; moderate in low- and non-fat dairy products and alcohol (among adults); lower in red and processed meat; and low in sugar-sweetened foods and beverages and refined grains [emphasis added].

This conclusion as read by industry experts translates to a strong governmental support of some sectors – the produce and fish producers, let’s say – and a distancing from others, such as the meat and sugar industry. And such a stance, in the words of the American Beverage Association’s spokesperson, goes “far beyond [the committee’s] charge and authority,advancing a predetermined agenda rather than one based on the preponderance of scientific evidence“.

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Does it matter if we say food loss or food waste?

So… I have a really exciting announcement for you – Food (Policy) For Thought is growing! We [now I can say “we”! Woot!] have a new guest contributor, Helena! I’ll let her introduce herself in person, so without further ado – welcome on board, Helena! 

Hey everyone. I’m Helena from Stockholm and I will from now on be contributing on occasion to Janina’s fantastic blog. As a student of agriculture food and environmental policy analysis (AFEPA) myself, currently domesticated in the small but eventful city of Bonn in Germany, I share a passion for sustainable food systems with Janina. I’m especially geeky when it comes to policy, international solidarity and environmental sustainability so you will see much of those topics coming from me and I hope you will find some of it interesting. Please feel free to comment on any topic, as most of the content will be my own thoughts and opinions.

So, since I have your attention…

I just crossed an article from the FAO regional office for Europe and Central Asia on the differences between food loss and food waste and the importance this distinction have to create sustainable food chains. I you don’t not already know (otherwise you may skip to the next paragraph :) ) I will take the opportunity to briefly explain it here.

Whether food that cannot be used is considered a loss or a waste depends on where in the food chain it gets spoiled. Food losses typically takes place post-harvest and in the processing stages of food. The food waste occurs on retailer and household level when supermarkets take in excess supply, restaurants create leftovers and consumers buy “Maxi packs”, just to mention some of the sources.


Turns out that this distinction of terms that may seem trivial gives us a quite clear picture of what types of problem the current food system has and where they have to be addressed. In developing countries, the losses can occur due to lack of adequate storage or inefficiencies in the processing stages, where 40 % of the food is lost.

On the other hand, Europe and other high income countries, the waste is created when human behavior and profit maximizing retailers doesn’t have an incentive to preserve the food.

During my years of studying politics and food I have come to understand that so much meaning lays in the terminology we use and that we sometimes are unaware of. The particular words used to describe phenomena in society does make a difference since they are loaded with implicit understanding and bring about different patterns of association in our minds. Especially when talking about political matters the discourse created around a particular problem, including the words used, is key to the whole process of problem shaping. This will in the end have consequences to the importance we pay to the issue and the measures that we take to solve them.

In this particular case, the distinction between food waste and food loss is crucial not only because it broadens the understanding of the complex issue of food waste but because it tells policy makers how and where to target efforts, if their aim is reducing food losses and waste. The distinction also gives us a moral hint that waste is unnecessary while losses in production sometimes cannot be avoided.

Oh, and you know that approximately 1/3 of all food that is produced is lost or wasted, right? Well, there’s even more: every year, the world uses as much water as the annual flow of Russia’s Volga river – and adds 3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases to the planet’s atmosphere – just to produce the food that we never eat. That’s what you can call an inefficient system…

For more on food losses and waste, check out FAOs SAVE FOOD initiative or read this short and comprehensive study. [Janina’s addition: also, don’t forget our food waste mini series that I published more than 2 years ago as some of my first posts – oh, how time flies!]

Still frustrated and want to do more? Sign the Joint Food Wastage Declaration!

Have you actively watched wording like the food loss vs. food waste issue? Do you have other examples of cases where our word choice can actively impact our attitude to a problem and its possible solutions? 

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Can You Afford To Eat?

What a ridiculous question. Of course you can. In fact, many of you might be snacking in front of your computer even as you are reading this. But as I stood in the local supermarket, scanning the prices and frantically converting them to my own currency, I have to admit that this question crossed my mind for a second.

Costa Rica is known to have a higher price level than its neighboring countries in Central America, but I was shocked – and I’m told it’s a common occurrence for visitors from Europe – at the prices of groceries, which are noticeably higher than in Germany or the United States. Combine that with a lower average income, and you arrive at the fact that the average Costa Rican spends around 25%-30% of her income on food (22% on food and beverages and 9% on food consumed outside the home). Compare this with other countries in the chart below (or get a better look at the original), and you will note that in cross-cultural comparison, it’s around middle-field. Note how you can barely see the US and Canada on this map.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 8.09.21 PM

I guess what astonishes me is that Costa Rica is an emerging country with a strong middle class and a comparatively high standard of living – the medium income is U.S. $8,860 -, and yet its proportional food expenditure rivals countries with a much lower income level. This means that the prices correspond to an unusually steep food expenditure for a European stipend, as well. Of course, some items are more expensive than others (I longingly gazed at a jar of peanut butter for $7 the other day), and imported goods targeting American expats are an obvious rip-off that one doesn’t even have to consider. In fact, this article points to the high proportion of imports (and the underlying fuel costs) as well as to the colon’s steady appreciation and subsequent price inflation as reasons for the high price tags.


However, in grocery stores I have noticed that fruit and vegetables especially come at a much higher price point than I am used to, and I have noticed that I intuitively have changed my diet to fill up on more rice and beans as compared to salads. Farmers’ markets are a good alternative, though I’ve only so far been to the organic one where prices are comparable (though the quality is obviously much better). However, you need to be on your A-planning game, and get your veg for the entire week then, or accept the supermarket prices. Comparatively, the fast food joints that you notice on every street corner offer enticing deals that promise to fill you up as well. Around 36% of all agri-food imports are used by the fast food industry alone. This creates the typical food desert situation, which has propelled Costa Rica into the countries more concerned with non-communicable diseases that are related to obesity and/or diabetes. According to estimations, 60% of Costa Rican women are overweight. And as my co-workers told me today, the national health care system, though leading in the region, is poorly equipped to deal with the onslaught of dietary-related illnesses looming in its future.

Yet, it is interesting to witness a country at the cusp of entering OECD membership where the average distribution of spending is still extraordinarily different from my European standard. On this path, interesting considerations enter the equation – for instance, Costa Rica is the only country in the region where prepared foods comprise a significant proportion of household food budgets; according to one interpretation, it’s because middle-class citizens, most of which work in San Jose, spend so much time in traffic that they don’t have time to cook anymore. After my recent experiences in commuting, I don’t doubt that claim – welcome to the drawbacks of development and urbanization, I guess!

Where have you traveled to or lived in where the cost of eating surprised you?

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What I Am Reading… Pura Vida Edition!

¡Pura Vida! is a really common greeting or comment here in Costa Rica. It literally means “pure life” and stands for the relaxed approach Ticos take to their day-to-day. And today, with temperatures in the high twenties and sunshine all day, it was easy to see why! Alas, I had to work, but still, I think the beach is calling me this weekend… :) Anyhow, let’s see what was on my radar these past couple of days, shall we?


Fruit by Nike, a piece by designer Peddy Mergui.

– If Apple Made iMilk And Nike Sold Fruit: Designer Groceries As Art: cool exploration of what food packaging could look like if it were trendy and high fashion. I remember a high-end yoghurt line in Switzerland that had silver, very stylized packaging that always made me feel especially luxurious when eating it… Marketing works, guys!

- Much less entertaining, but all the more chilling – U.S. Research Lab Lets Livestock Suffer in Quest for Profit. The US Meat Animal Research Center has been operating for decades with very little supervision, being exempted from the Animal Welfare Act, and continued experiments that lead to unfathomable levels of animal deaths and suffering.

Certainly, the production of meat is a rough enterprise. Yet even against that reality — raising animals to be killed, for profit — the center stands out. Some of its trials have continued long after meat producers balked at the harm they caused animals.

Makes you realize that not only GMO research should be privy to careful public supervision to safeguard our ethical standards – and that the quest for cheap and plentiful meat is on its best way to get more and more ruthless, as the following quote shows:

“We’re just as concerned about the humane treatment of animals as anyone else,” said Sherrill E. Echternkamp, a scientist who retired from the center in 2013. Still, he added: “It’s not a perfect world. We are trying to feed a population that is expanding very rapidly, to nine billion by 2050, and if we are going to feed that population, there are some trade-offs.”

- On Grist, Nathanael Johnson penned a great series about the challenge to feed the world under the name of “Hungry, hungry humans“. He takes on the debate of expanding our food supply vs. distributing it equally with his usual zeal and objectivity, interviewing many interesting people along the way. Definitely worth the read.

- And, to end on an uplifting note, breakfast has become quite the foodie topic. First, and widely published, breakfasts from around the world were shown in this photo story, then Gastropod turned their attention to the topic in a recent podcast, and finally, the tables were turned and American children were presented with the breakfast their counterparts eat around the globe. Their reactions? Priceless. Watch:

[best line: “What’s Finland?” – “A country in Europe.” – “Oh.”]


An Edible Education – Class Is In Session!

Imagine what I ran into today in a Costa Rican cafeteria…

IMG_6652… taking the coconut water craze to the next level!

Speaking of the foodieism that is oh-so-perfectly reflected in real-coconut-coconut-water – have you ever wanted to see virtually all big food and ag writers of the USA speak about their passion? Give you reading recommendations? And attempt to teach you something? If the answer to the above is yes (and how could it not?), you are in luck – because UC Berkeley’s “Edible Education 101″ just got started for the 2015 semester!

The course runs from now (well, two weeks ago… you can basically catch up in one night ;) until the end of April and will reunite names such as Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Raj Patel, Alice Waters, Marion Nestle… the list just never ends. This is the schedule:

PART I – “The Trouble with the Food System”
  • January 26th: “A Brief History of the Modern Food System” by Michael Pollan
  • February 2nd: “The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Agriculture” AND “Linking Farm Policy to Health Policy in the Global Economy” Garrison Sposito and Marion Nestle
  • February 9th: “The Hands That Feed You” by Eric Schlosser
  • March 2nd: “The Long Green Revolution” by Raj Patel with Mark Bittman
PART II – “Getting Back to the Right Food System” 
  • March 9th: “Mimicking Nature: Woodleaf Farm’s Ecological Design” by Carl Rosato and Helen Atthowe
  • March 16th: “Of Peaches and Power: Myths, Legends, and the Mundane of Family Farming” by Mas Masumoto and Nikiko Masumoto with Robert Hass
  • March 30th: “Sustainable Farming through Agroecology” by Stephen Gliessman with Mark Bittman
PART III – “Building the Food Movement”
  • April 6th: “Fixing a Broken Food System: Some Ideas” by Claire Kremen
  • April 13th: “Teaching Slow Food Values in a Fast Food World: Who Will Grow Tomorrow’s Food and Who Will Be Eating It?” by Alice Waters and Craig McNamara with Robert Hass
  • April 20th: “With Liberty, Justice, and Sovereignty for All” by Anim Steel and Sara Mersha with Mark Bittman
  • April 27th: “What’s Next for the Food Movement?” by Michael Pollan with Mark Bittman

Sounds good, right? And the best is that you don’t have to be a UC Berkeley student to participate! All lectures are available on their Youtube Channel, and on the Edible Education 101 website, along with a reading list and an archive of three semesters’ worth of videos. Seems worthwhile to check out, even if you (as me now… waah) are not a student anymore! Watch it over dinner, read it on the bus, listen to it while falling asleep (or maybe before you fall asleep :) – and let me know what you think!


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