The Pre-Columbian Amazon – A Pristine Rainforest Or Intensive Settlement?

For our last agricultural history lecture, we were fortunate to receive a guest speaker from the department who is involved in a mammoth project of mapping the world’s food systems across time. What an interesting pastime, but what a challenge! This is what I referred to in my last post – one of the off-hand … Continue reading The Pre-Columbian Amazon – A Pristine Rainforest Or Intensive Settlement?

Review: Kate Raworth’s ‘Doughnut Economics’

Man, sometimes you just have to catch yourself in moments of pure luck. Like today, after a morning spent in glorious summer weather hammering out the last formatting issues of my thesis, when I was able to attend a lunch seminar (who said there was no free lunch in economics?) with the inspiring Kate Raworth and have a 2-hour chat afterward with her as well as some senior researchers in ecology, animal genetics, food systems and the like from SLU. What did we talk about? Basically, how to change the world. And economics education. But most of all, Raworth’s suggestion for a new framing of the global challenges and goals as we move from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals as of next year: the so-called “doughnut” of the safe and just operating space for humanity.



As Raworth explained, she was inspired by and built on the concept of Planetary Boundaries developed by Rockström et al., which we already talked about in a previous blogpost (more than a year ago! How time flies!). Basically, this is a theory by earth scientists on how human action affects different realms of our ecosystem – the outer 9 wedges of the circle – which all have ‘tipping points’ over which we should not venture because they could lead to unforeseeable damage to our entire habitable planet.

Well, great, Raworth thought – but clearly we can’t live in the very inside of the circle either where we don’t have any human impact on the planet? Because that would mean deprivation, human suffering, and a clear disregard for human rights – and from an anthropocentric perspective, we are trying to keep within the boundaries to enable human life to continue in a way worth living for generations to come. So what we need to aim for is to live within the band – or, if you will, the doughnut – that enables us to fulfill the needs of all without overloading the planet with impacts it cannot absorb.

But enough with fluffy concepts – we need to operationalize them too. We already know how the outer limits were defined – by Rockström and his team of scientists -, but how did Raworth come up with the inner minimum standards? She read through all government submissions for the Rio+20 conference on their development foci in the coming decades and found a common denominator in those categories that at least 50% of all governments mentioned. They are the wedges on the inside of the circle – health, resilience, and food for instance.

life-ring-graph-3-backgrd_0When, in turn, you try to quantify these goals – using indicators assembled by the UN, such as the amount of food insecure households for the food category or the wage gap for gender equality – you realize that on a global scale, we are still falling short on all these goals. On the other hand, if you consider that we would only need 3% of the current agricultural production would be needed to end global hunger (around 1/10 of the estimated food wasted between farm and fork!), that only 1% of current greenhouse gas emissions would be spent to achieve global electrification, and that 50% of the world’s carbon emissions are produced by the 11% richest people – then you understand that the two goals of sustainability and development are not necessarily mutually exclusive (which is the purported reason why the climate negotiations keep stalling).

Rather, what is needed according to Raworth is for the least developed countries to keep developing, but to avoid resource lock-ins; for the emerging countries, to pursue the relative de-coupling of GDP growth and resource throughput; and for the richest countries to pursue absolute de-coupling – to reduce our per-capita footprint on an absolute scale.

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The #Bettertarian Campaign – Awareness Raising or Marketing Plot?



I love having friends from around the world – it’s the best way to broaden your horizons about what is happening in different countries! My friend Brooke (hi!) pointed me towards the Bettertarian campaign that was recently launched by Meat and Livestock Australia. It’s a pretty comprehensive website that argues for abolishing inflexible diet labels (such as vegetarian, fruitarian, paleo, etc.) and rather make ‘better’ choices by researching and understanding your meat.


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New Evidence on Erosion of Crop Variety in Food Supply – What Consequences?

A new study conducted by the CGIAR in collaboration with a whole number of universities (its title is “Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security” and was published in the PNAS journal) sheds some light on the realities of whether our diets are converging as much as we think they do. Spoiler alert – they do.

Through looking at FAO data on food supply over the last 50-ish years (1961 until 2009), and comparing the supply numbers of different countries, they find that a) national per capita food supplies increased both in the amount of calories, protein, fat and weight provided and the share of calories coming from energy-dense foods; and that b) “the number of measured crop commodities contributing to national food supplies increased, the relative contribution of these commodities within these supplies became more even, and the dominance of the most significant commodities decreased“.

Funnily enough, while these two facts should read as good news – people getting more food and a greater variety of it -, on a global perspective it means that our diets are becoming more and more homogenized. Think about it – if there are more and more products entering most national diets, and evening out over time to equal shares, the previously ubiquitous product (which was radically different between different diets) is being abandoned for Western staple goods. I know, it takes a while to wrap your head around, but here is some more data:

Wheat, rice, maize, and other ubiquitous crop commodities were among those with the greatest gains in both relative and absolute abundance in national per capita food supplies over the past 50 y. In addition, the degree of increase in spread was generally a good predictor of change in the abundance of the crop commodities in food supplies. For example, oil commodities such as soybean, sunflower, palm oil, and rape and mustard were among the crops showing the greatest average increase in relative abundance in national food supplies, whereas millets, rye, sorghum, yams, cassava, and sweet potatoes showed the largest declines. (p. 2)

So while everybody is enjoying the influx of Western-style processed and high-caloric food – based on wheat, corn, and oil – other previous staple crops such as yams and millets are being left behind. This can be explained to a certain extent by the increase in average income in many countries during this time; in addition, the article points towards globalization, urbanization, trade liberalization and the development of extensive commodity transport systems, multinational food industries, food quality and safety standardization, mass media, labor changes, smaller family sizes, supermarkets, fast food, processed foods, and human migration as causes for the homogenization of what we eat. Just think of the ubiquity of McDonald’s and other fast food chains around the world.

Map originally by Business Insider EU, found on

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EU Parliament Rejects Draft Seed Regulation

Writing this blog is a great way to experience the truism that policy-making is a marathon, not a sprint. Or, as we say in German, you have to be ready to drill holes into thick slates of wood (weird expression much?) What I want to say is – the next episode of the story of the new EU seed regulation (which we talked about here and here) just occurred, and it shows the power of public opinion as much as the need for adequate communication and stakeholder involvement. But let me back up for a second.

How much freedom for our seeds and bulbs?
How much freedom for our seeds and bulbs?

Remember the issue? The new EU seed regulation was set to unify the current 12 different directives that concern intellectual property rights on ‘plant reproductive material’ into one, but was thought to give undue power to larger seed corporations by requiring costly and inconvenient registration processes and prohibiting the sale or exchange of non-registered seeds. This gave rise to massive public protests to preserve heirloom seeds and biodiversity. Campaigns such as Free Seeds interpreted the regulations the following way: “Older and rarer varieties will soon be declared illegal. Brightly speckled tomatoes, purple potatoes, the tasty apples we ate as children: these could soon vanish from our plates and gardens. While consumers, horticulturists and farmers are increasingly restricted by diminishing biodiversity, the agricultural industries can finally breathe a sigh of relief: with biodiversity wiped out, all that remains is regulated monoculture, which they can serve up to the people. The EU seed regulations allow for the concentration of seed production in the hands of even fewer multinationals. This would put an end to many indigenous varieties of vegetables, fruit and grains.

As I wrote then, the revisions of the draft proposal actually addressed some of the concerns, creating exceptions for niche species, but questions about the concrete application of the law still remained, and apparently were not sufficiently discussed within EU decision-making bodies, while NGO lobbying efforts stayed strong.  In the end, the Parliament voted to kill the regulation by 650 votes to 15 after the Commission refused to take it back and rewrite the text.

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“Land That Is In Human Use Requires Human Care” – An Interview with Wendell Berry

It’s no secret that Wendell Berry is another one of my inspirations when thinking about sustainable food systems – my post about his work “The Pleasures of Eating” has been one of the most-viewed posts on this blog, and his name repeatedly comes up in things I read and am influenced by. A friend of mine found this recent interview with him online and shared it with me, and I would like to continue the chain and share it with you – it’s another great example of his poignant style of thinking and speaking, his multifaceted engagement and his ability to succinctly get to the heart of the matter while still expressing it poetically.

A couple of my favorite quotes drawn from the interview:

On sustainability in America:

Well, we are a young country. […] And what we have done there in that time has not been sustainable. In fact, it has been the opposite. There’s less now of everything in the way of natural gifts, less of everything than what was there when we came. Sometimes we have radically reduced the original gift. And so for Americans to talk about sustainability is a bit of a joke, because we haven’t sustained anything very long — and a lot of things we haven’t sustained at all.

The quote “land that is in human use requires human care” reminded me of this house I found on a recent walk that seemed to exist in harmony with the surrounding forest and meadow.

On the importance of local connections and the preservation of local memories:

[The importance of connections to the land] starts with the obvious perception that land that is in human use requires human care. And this calls for keeping in mind the history of such land, of what has worked well on it and the mistakes that have been made on it. To lose this living memory of what has happened to the place is really to lose an economic asset.

I’m more and more concerned with the economic values of such intangibles as affection, knowledge, and memory. A deep familiarity between a local community and the local landscape is a dear thing, just in human terms. It’s also, down the line, money in the bank because it helps you to preserve the working capital of the place.

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The USA Have A Farm Bill! Halle … Well … Yeah.

The USDA will begin to implement the Bill soon, provided it passes the Senate floor.

On Wednesday, as anticipated, the House of Representatives passed the Farm Bill after a 2 year impasse with 251 to 166 votes. The Democratic leadership of the Senate has already endorsed it, making it likely that it will pass the Senate floor as well in the coming week and be on President Obama’s desk soon. Media and lobby group reactions, as well as politicians’ own levels of satisfaction, were an extremely mixed bag. One frequently cited commentary came from Rep. Tim Walz (a Democrat from Minnesota):

“Of course it’s not perfect. If you want perfect, you’ll get that in heaven. This place is closer to hell, so this is a pretty good compromise that we have come up with.”

Let’s go through the main features, shall we?

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Wait, What’s the Deal with Wetlands?

Ah! I just found this new lecture series and suddenly new and exciting information is all around me! (Those of you in Uppsala, check out CEMUS and the Centre for Sustainable Development in general, there are great events happening all the time!)

Remember when we talked about phosphorus and nitrogen? One of the things that struck me most is the whole “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” idea. The fact that excess nutrients in waste water are seen as pollutants, whereas they are specifically mined and sold as agricultural inputs, is beyond me. Today, however, I learnt another part of the puzzle – there are initiatives taking advantage of that fact and using ecological methods to treat wastewater. I introduce you to – constructed wetlands!

An idea that originated in the 1970s in Germany, it’s built on a couple of main assumptions:

1. Our wastewater (coming from households, farming, or even from industry) is full of components that would be harmful if released into the general water stream, including but not limited to organic matter, pathogens, heavy metals, excess nutrients (such as nitrogen and phosphorus) etc.

2. We know that plants can absorb many of these compounds (particularly  the nutrients, but also metals and to a certain extent the other pathogens).

3. And we know of plants that actually grow floating in or standing in water!

4. Why not use the plants as natural filters to clean the water while they grow and produce cellulose and even (occasionally) fruit?

There are different types of constructed wetlands, such as vertical or horizontally flowing systems, those running at the surface or subsurface where the water is just saturating the soils, those with floating plants versus those that have roots, and even those that evaporate all the water and store the nutrients such that the wastewater pretty much disappears. This is especially convenient for single house systems where households thus take care of their own wastewater, and particularly popular in Denmark where you are taxed on the amount of household waste water you contribute to the local treatment system.


Our lecturer was from Denmark and gave many examples of Danish and Northern European systems, but I was most impressed by the variety of contexts this system can be employed in – notably, after the 2004 tsunami, Danish organisations helped establish constructed wetlands at the Thai coast as a cheap and efficient wastewater management system. It has been employed in coastal villages in Fiji, and is often used to help deal with the de-icing agent glycol at airports.

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