Nutrition and Food Systems: Comments to the HLPE for their forthcoming report

Cross-posted from IATP’s Think Forward blog:

Posted April 21, 2016 by Dr. M. Jahi Chappell

The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) is the foremost international and intergovernmental platform trying to address global food security and nutrition challenges. The current version of the CFS emerged following the food crises of 2008 as a result of a reform process that sought to increase stakeholder participation, especially participation by those engaged in small scale food production systems. Its High-Level Panel of Experts on Food Security and Nutrition (HLPE) mechanism was created in 2010 as part of the reform to be “the science-policy interface of the UN Committee on World Food Security (CFS),” and “aims to improve the robustness of policy making by providing independent, evidence-based analysis and advice at the request of CFS.”

Since its establishment, the HLPE has taken on issues related to food security and nutrition, including last year’s report “Water for food security and nutrition,” which was co-authored by IATP senior policy analyst Shiney Varghese.

At its recent October 2015 session, the CFS decided that the HLPE will prepare a report on Nutrition and Food Systems, which is expected to be presented at CFS 44 in October 2017. As an initial step in this process, there was an “e-consultation” to seek feedbacks, views and comments on the relevant issues. Comments contributed by IATP’s Senior Staff Scientist, Jahi Chappell, were posted to their e-consultation website, and are reprinted below:

  1. The large and very influential role of corporate concentration, commercial marketing and processed food development must be analyzed head on. There may in fact be unavoidable trade-offs between current systems and profits and improved nutrition (see note on Smith et al. 2013). The literature on these issues is extensive. See Hendrickson (2015); Howard (2016); Lang et al. (2009); Moss (2013); Nestle (2013); and Smith et al. (2013). The power of commercials and corporate influence (for instance, on what is served in schools) are obviously important influences on how diets change, yet is rarely addressed directly in many analyses and scenario projections.
    • Smith et al.’s conclusions are of especial note, particularly with regards to profit and regulatory capture (albeit in a US context): “[…]We ask whether the current state of affairs represents a market failure, and—if so—what might be done about it. We argue that while today’s industrial food system has its advantages, the asymmetric information problems inherent to this system have resulted in a ‘lemons-style’ breakdown in the market for processed foods. The appropriate policy response to such situations (namely, verifiable quality standards) is well known, but such policies are likely (in the short run) to reduce profits for existing large industrial producers of food. In light of the food industry’s long history of success at regulatory capture, we propose the formation of a new independent food standards agency devoted to protecting the interests of the American consumer.”
  2. The fact of persistent and large negative externalities—particularly health externalities, both direct and indirect—must be taken into account when evaluating current and alternative food systems. It makes no sense, for example, to refer to current systems as “efficient” in the presence of large externalities that have not been internalized. (FAO 2015; Pretty et al. 2001). Further, the possibility of raising food prices to send appropriate signals about the costs of different foods and production systems, while politically unpopular, should be considered. It is, in fact, one way that “diets change,” and the many projections of future demand, for example, for meat from ruminants appears to me to be economically and ecologically incoherent and untenable without envisioning the internalization of known costs and risks into prices. See also point 8 on possible effects of (higher) food prices.
  3. The fact that, with few exceptions, plant breeding has not focused on nutrition, and there is some evidence of nutritional losses in cultivars over time, should be addressed. (e.g. Davis 2009)
  4. As acknowledged in multiple sources, gender equality and women’s rights should be a central feature of the analysis on nutrition, e.g. Agarwal (2015); Bezner Kerr et al. (2007); Bezner Kerr et al. (2011); Bezner Kerr et al. (2013); Jones et al. (2014); Smith et al. (2003); and Smith and Haddad (2015); see also the FAO Key recommendations for improving nutrition through agriculture and food systems, which includes the point for programs and investments to “Empower women” and the point for policies to “Include measures that protect and empower the poor and women.”
  5. The constraints placed on many countries with regards to providing food and nutrition security for their own populations must be addressed and, in fact, prioritized above simple economic returns and trade considerations for corporations—which was not done during the formation of the FAO, as McKeon (2014) elaborates. See also Weis (2007) for a discussion of the impacts of the Agreement on Agriculture.
  6. The growing literature on connections between crop diversity and dietary diversity should be amply explored; e.g. Burlingame and Dernini (2012); with the contexts of food sovereignty and autonomy considered alongside.
  7. The growing realization of the importance of dietary diversity per se should be addressed, e.g. Smith and Haddad 2015; Heady and Ecker (2013).
  8. A sophisticated analysis of nutrition, production, productivity, and prices must be undertaken. While there has long been an assumption that increasing productivity for farmers will increase their well-being, nutrition and income, the possibility that higher prices is equally or more important or effective is seldom seriously addressed. But contemporary analyses and re-analyses of earlier data have solidly (though arguably not yet conclusively) shown that higher food prices may in fact be better for farmers, and indeed, may drive up urban and rural wages (and therefore improve the possibilities for food and nutrition security); Headey (2014); Ivanic and Will (2014). Therefore, the typical assumption of productivity à increased farmer income à lower food prices à improved nutrition outcomes should be interrogated, questioned and likely revised in the face of current evidence.
  9. The significant contribution to dietary diversity and food security from urban agriculture should be acknowledged and carefully examined; Thebo et al. 2014; Zezza and Tasciotti 2014.
  10. Cultural and ethical values, and their interaction with nutrition, food sovereignty and autonomy (not autarky) should also be explicitly considered and their significance allowed due weight. This includes, but is not limited to, the importance of participation and empowerment, as recognized in the Key recommendations for improving nutrition through agriculture and food systems, which is based on a consensus process among nutritionists and related experts.

References Cited

Agarwal, B. (2015). Food Security, Productivity, and Gender Inequality. In R. J. Herring (Ed.),The Oxford Handbook of Food, Politics, and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bezner Kerr, R., Berti, P. R., & Shumba, L. (2011). Effects of a participatory agriculture and nutrition education project on child growth in northern Malawi. Public Health Nutrition, 14(08), 1466-1472.

Bezner Kerr, R., Snapp, S., Chirwa, M., Shumba, L., & Msachi, R. (2007). Participatory research on legume diversification with Malawian smallholder farmers for improved human nutrition and soil fertility. Experimental Agriculture, 43(04), 437-453.

Bezner-Kerr, R., Lupafya, E., & Shumba, L. (2013). Food Sovereignty, Gender and Nutrition: Perspectives from Malawi: Conference Paper #68. Paper presented at the Food Sovereignty: A Critical Dialogue, Yale University, New Haven, CT.

Burlingame, B., & Dernini, S. (Eds.). (2012). Sustainable Diets and Biodiversity: Directions and solutions for policy, research and action. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Davis, D. R. (2009). Declining Fruit and Vegetable Nutrient Composition: What Is the Evidence? HortScience, 44(1), 15-19.

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). (2013). Key recommendations for improving nutrition through agriculture and food systems. Retrieved from Rome:

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). (2015). Natural Capital Impacts in Agriculture: Supporting Better Business Decision-Making. Retrieved from Rome:

Headey, D. (2014). Food prices and poverty reduction in the long run (1331). Retrieved from Washington, D.C.:

Headey, D., & Ecker, O. (2013). Rethinking the measurement of food security: from first principles to best practice. Food Security, 5(3), 327-343. doi:10.1007/s12571-013-0253-0

Hendrickson, M. K. (2015). Resilience in a concentrated and consolidated food system. Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, 5(3), 418-431. doi:10.1007/s13412-015-0292-2

Howard, P. H. (2016). Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls What We Eat? London: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing.

Ivanic, M., & Martin, W. (2014). Short-and long-run impacts of food price changes on poverty.World Bank Policy Research Working Paper(7011).

Jones, A. D., Shrinivas, A., & Bezner-Kerr, R. (2014). Farm production diversity is associated with greater household dietary diversity in Malawi: Findings from nationally representative data. Food Policy, 46(0), 1-12. doi:

Lang, T., Barling, D., & Caraher, M. (2009). Food policy: Integrating health, environment & society. Oxford, UK; New York, USA: Oxford University Press.

McKeon, N. (2014). Food Security Governance: Empowering Communities, Regulating Corporations: Routledge.

Moss, M. (2013). Salt, sugar, fat: how the food giants hooked us: Random House.

Nestle, M. (2013). Food politics: How the food industry influences nutrition and health: University of California Press.

Pretty, J., Brett, C., Gee, D., Hine, R., Mason, C., Morison, J., . . . Dobbs, T. (2001). Policy Challenges and Priorities for Internalizing the Externalities of Modern Agriculture. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 44(2), 263-283. doi:10.1080/09640560123782

Smith, L. C., & Haddad, L. (2015). Reducing Child Undernutrition: Past Drivers and Priorities for the Post-MDG Era. World Development, 68(0), 180-204. doi:

Smith, L. C., Ramakrishnan, U., Ndiaye, A., Haddad, L., & Martorell, R. (2003). The importance of women’s status for child nutrition in developing countries (131). Retrieved from Washington, D.C.:

Smith, T. G., Chouinard, H. H., & Wandschneider, P. R. (2011). Waiting for the invisible hand: Novel products and the role of information in the modern market for food. Food Policy, 36(2), 239-249.

Thebo, A. L., Drechsel, P., & Lambin, E. F. (2014). Global assessment of urban and peri-urban agriculture: irrigated and rainfed croplands. Environmental Research Letters, 9(11), 114002.

Weis, T. (2007). The Global Food Economy: The Battle for the Future of Farming. Blackpoint, NS. Canada: Fernwood Publishing.

Zezza, A., & Tasciotti, L. (2010). Urban agriculture, poverty, and food security: Empirical evidence from a sample of developing countries. Food Policy, 35(4), 265-273.

– Original post:

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

A synthesis for everyone: 5 years of work in Romania

Wow! Synthesis of 5 years of work by my colleagues at Leuphana University, based on some fantastic socioecological work in Southern Romania. Check it out!

Ideas for Sustainability

By Joern Fischer

After five years of work in Southern Transylvania, our first main project there has now officially finished. Our project website provides an overview of all of our research outputs as well as outreach materials. In an effort to provide an accessible overview of the various things we did, we have just completed a small book that tries to bring everything together. This book could be useful for NGOs in Romania, for engaged citizens and community leaders; but it might also be useful for researchers working on similar issues elsewhere to get a sense for how others go about this kind of work.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 13.14.41

Like our booklet on scenario planning, this new book is published by Pensoft, and is open access. This means you are free to download it and share it with whoever you think may be interested in it.

With this project coming to an end (there are still three or so papers…

View original post 49 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Disaggregated contributions of ecosystem services to human well-being: a case study from Eastern Europe

Ideas for Sustainability

By Andra Horcea-Milcu

This new paper is part of recent efforts (e.g. Spangenberg et al. 2014) to widen the ecosystem service metaphor in order to encompass the multiple ways in which nature supports human well-being. As I tried to illustrate in more detail here, the evolution of the ecosystem service discourse has roughly followed down the Haines-Young and Potschin ‘cascade’ towards the beneficiaries’ end: their capabilities, agency, interest, power, preferences, inner values, and the totality of social processes influencing the cascade (e.g. the management of the ecosystem services flow). The question of how is human well-being connected to ecosystem services gave rise to new research agendas including issues of co-production by social-ecological systems, equity (e.g. Pascual et al. 2014), benefit distribution and disaggregation of beneficiaries based on various criteria such as gender or location (e.g. Daw 2011). Disaggregation enables studying in more depth patterns of ecosystem services flows, similarly…

View original post 1,197 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Drinking water and Democracy: Tale of Two Cities (cross-post from IATP)

An excellent piece by my IATP colleague, Shiney Varghese, cross-posted from IATP’s blog


Originally posted February 25, 2016, on IATP’s Think Forward

by Shiney Varghese

Image used under creative commons license from YouTube user TruthSecAnons:

The tragic situation in Flint is in many ways a cautionary tale of democracy subverted, one that ties directly to the United States’ refusal to recognize basic human rights such as the right to water. These rights are enshrined in international law, including in the 2010 United Nations General Assembly declaration that all nations have a duty to ensure safe drinking water and sanitation.

The U.S. contributed to laying the groundwork for recognition of this right when it passed the Safe Water Drinking Act in 1974, which put in motion a new national program to ensure the purity of the drinking water supply in the United States. That law was enacted after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) warned that “the old assumptions about the quality of drinking water were no longer valid,” and also in response to reports from around the country about water contamination in local water supply systems, including lead being found in the drinking water supply in Boston. The Act places the primary responsibility for enforcement and supervision of public drinking water supply systems and sources of drinking water clearly upon the state as a safeguard. It also requires that states to demonstrate their ability to enforce standards at least as stringent as the National Primary Drinking Water Regulations, including procedures for monitoring and inspection and that they adopt plans for the provision of safe drinking water should an emergency arise. Moreover, with the Public Notification Rule (PN), “the consumer becomes an enforcer and can exert pressure on the utility, the local government, and the State, demanding water that complies with the Federal and State regulations. The Safe Drinking Water Act has real ‘teeth’ from the Federal level down to each of us as consumers,” wrote James L. Agee, EPA Assistant Administrator for Water and Hazardous Materials, in 1975.

In essence, the Safe Drinking Water Act assumes a vibrant democracy, with public officials and local authorities being accountable. This assumption seems to have failed in Flint’s case. In fact, the State of Michigan failed not only in fulfilling its primary responsibility but even the test of safeguards. For a number of reasons, Flint residents were unable to enforce or make use of the provisions under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The story really begins in the summer of 2014, if not before, long before Flint residents began trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to draw attention to their problems. Flint is the fourth largest metropolitan area in Michigan. For most of 20th century its economy was closely tied to General Motors and jobs in the auto industry. A number of factors, including trade agreements that resulted in the export of manufacturing jobs and closing of factories, saw the city becoming one of the poorest in the country in the first decade of 21st century, as captured in this somber photo-essay. A similar fate awaited Detroit as well. The flight of manufacturing, combined with corrupt leadership, saw Detroit filing for a historic $18 billion bankruptcy in mid-2013.

Michigan’s Governor, Rick Snyder, who assumed office on January 1, 2011, signed Public Act 4 into law less than three months later, giving him the authority to intervene early on in local affairs by appointing emergency managers with powers to break or modify agreements with workers. When, in a state-wide referendum in 2012, Michigan voters rejected this law, Gov. Snyder and other lawmakers responded by enacting Public Act 436; the new law was very similar but included a provision ensuring that it could not be repealed through a referendum! These laws have their basis in a law known as Local Government Responsibility Act, 1990, or Public Act 72, which allowed the appointment of Emergency Financial Managers (EFM) to help local government manage their finances.[i] The law had rarely been used in the ensuing two decades, according to experts at the Michigan State University,but was amended several times.

Under this law, all existing Emergency Financial Managers were to transition to Emergency Managers (EM), with additional powers. Governor Snyder used the provisions of these laws to appoint emergency managers to take financial control of struggling cities such as Flint (effective as of December 1, 2011, under PA 4) and Detroit (effective as of March 25, 2013, under PA 436)[ii]

Clearly these laws, as they stand today, subvert democracy: they strip local elected officials of power. Appointed by the governor, emergency managers are not answerable to citizens; yet, these emergency managers are granted immense power to rewrite city’s contracts and to liquidate city assets to help pay off debts, regardless of how residents feel about these actions. In fact, residents have limited or no power to question the law itself.

Detroit made international headlines when the water utility cut off drinking water and sanitation services to thousands of Detroit residents—crews were shutting off about 3,000 delinquent accounts per week at one point in the summer of 2014. (The initial cutoff was in March 2014.) According to reports, while residents who were said to be indebted to the water utility had their service cut off, large scale water consumers who owed millions of dollars in arrears were not cut off. In October 2014, the UN human rights experts who visited Detroit in response to civil society requests said: “Disconnection of water services because of failure to pay due to lack of means constitutes a violation of the human right to water and other international human rights.”

One of the early proposals from Detroit Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr was to create a regional water authority, the Metropolitan Area Water and Sewer Authority (MAWSA). This was perceived by water activists as opening a “clear path for privatization,”as the city was to permit MAWSA to operate the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD)through a concession agreement or via a lease of water department assets.” The counties that were to join MAWSA balked at the hefty price they were to be charged, and some of them decided to develop their own regional water authority. Flint, which was under another Emergency Manager reporting to Snyder, was one of them. As the two cities, Detroit and Flint, could not find a mutually satisfactory solution, in April 2013 Flint joined the Karegnondi Water Authority, which would source its water from Lake Huron (and expects to be operational at the earliest by the summer of 2016), at the advice of the state. Flint’s final year-to-year contract with Detroit expired in April 2014. To cut costs, Flint’s officials turned to the Flint River as a temporary source of water until the new pipeline was complete. On April 25, 2014, Flint shut off the water intake from Detroit, and connecting instead to the Flint River, despite years of missed warnings about the dangers of doing so.

Over the ensuing 18 months, the residents of Flint were consuming lead-contaminated water (a result also from yet another cost-cutting measure, that of avoiding corrosion control treatments despite Flint’s aged water infrastructure), and the rest of the story is well known.

As the calamity in Flint was unfolding in early 2016, I came across an announcement from the Chief Minister of Delhi, Mr. Arvind Kejriwal, that the Delhi Water Board (DJB) earned the equivalent of $25 million more in the last financial year than the year before, despite providing 20,000 litres of water without charge to Delhi households every month. DJB is the public agency responsible for supply of potable water to the National Capital Territory region of Delhi. For a city of Delhi’s size (Delhi is one of the most populated cities in the world, with more than 16.68 million people in 2011), in a developing country, this is no mean feat.

Arvind Kejriwal’s Party, the Aam Admi Party (AAP), came to power exactly a year ago, promising better services for Delhiites, especially for its poor. A career public official, Arvind left civil service to fight corruption in public services, and when Delhi, with the support of the World Bank, sought to privatize its water services (2001-2005), his organization was key to defeating those efforts. This required holding the then chief minister of Delhi accountable and exposing the unnecessary loans that India took that increased its debt to the World Bank, as well as showing World Bank’s own role in pushing for privatization. AAP emerged from the embers of the anti-corruption movement that swept through India in early 2011, around the same time as Governor Snyder’s Public Act was becoming effective in Michigan. For AAP and its supporters, “a system of governance that gives power to officials without providing transparency in their public dealings and societal supervision of their actions breed corruption.”

AAP responded to political corruption, and the dysfunctional public delivery system, by building democracy from the ground up. A newcomer to politics, it debuted in the 2013 state elections and won 27 out of 70 seats. It formed a minority government, which survived only briefly before being brought down by the two other opposition parties. But when AAP went back to the hustings in the next election in early 2015, it won an unprecedented 67 out of 70 seats in the Delhi Assembly.  Within weeks of assuming power, AAP sought to fulfill its promise of the right to water—20,000 liters of free water, and a steep progressive pricing if consumption goes above 20,000—for every family. A year later, Delhiites are happier with their water services. They do not have to pay for water, and they can get water even if they are not connected to a piped water supply yet. Ordinary families also tend to conserve water to keep their total monthly use below 20,000 liters, since they know that the price rises steeply if the consumption goes above 20,000 liters.

A similar idea had been floated in Detroit. “Make those with higher incomes pay more for their water,” said Gloria House of the Detroit People’s Water Board, an activist group that essentially wants those who owe for their water to get it for free, “[t]he only humane course of action in a city with the highest poverty rate in the nation is to have people pay for water based on income.” Unfortunately, her argument fell on deaf ears in Detroit. Not only that, many businesses in fact did not have their water shut off, despite being in arrears.

Of course, despite the efficiency improvements, conservation measures and effective provision of free basic water services by DJB, by no means is the situation rosy. An important challenge for Delhi is ensuring the reliability and sustainability of its water sources, as has been pointed out during water crises in previous years. As the crisis over last weekend, February 20-21 shows, Delhi’s access to water is precarious, even if it was resolved quickly this time. In addition, the AAP faces many challenges as it addresses historic liabilities of various kinds— economic, social and cultural. The majority of its sanitation workers belong to the Balmiki community, the lowest of the low castes, working in inhumane conditions. One of AAP’s promises was to regularize these sanitation workers who tend to be contractual workers with very low pay and  a large number of dependents. AAP has yet to make good on that promise. Most of Delhi’s water delivery and sanitation infrastructure is in dire need of repairs. Moreover, many settlements have so far been considered illegal, and are not yet connected to water services. Delhi, too, will need infrastructure assistance, both to make it safer for sanitation workers and to extend pipelines to unconnected areas that are currently served through water tankers.

It is heartening to see that the U.S. House of Representatives has passed its first piece of legislation to require the EPA to alert residents of high lead levels in circumstances where state officials or a local utility does not, clearly a positive fall-out of the Flint water crisis. No matter what happens in the Senate, it sends a strong political signal to EPA.

However, I cannot stop comparing Michigan, a state in the oldest democracy, and Delhi,   capital of the largest democracy. In Michigan, under Snyder’s leadership, we see how democracy was subverted, mostly to the detriment of disadvantaged sections of society. In Delhi, under Kejriwals’ leadership, we see baby steps being taken to build accountability to people, benefiting the middle class and the poorer sections of the society. Most importantly, even as the right to safe water in adequate quantity is being violated in Michigan’s cities, in Delhi, AAP is able to not only recognize citizens’ right to free water, but also fulfill that obligation in a cost effective manner.

[i] Public Act No. 101 of 1988 for the first time allowed direct state intervention in the affairs of local units of government other than school districts. Public Act 72 of 1990 replaced Act 101 and extended its provisions to school districts.

[ii] Flint was under an EFM from 2004-2006, when they had limited powers

– See more at:

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Natural Capital Day

a new nature blog

IMG_0421 can natural capitalism help reduce flooding? (c) Miles King

Monday was Natural Capital day at the Green Alliance. They produced a report called Natural Partners, in which they sought to explain that Natural Capitalists and Nature Conservationists could get along fine, instead of bickering. On the same day, they held a Natural Capital debate in London, which I went along to. There was a very good turnout.

I read the report on the train to London. At first I was not sure about it; was it entirely sensible to frame the debate as either traditional nature conservation, or natural capital? Other options are available – for example a broader environmental stance, or indeed the new kid on the block – rewilding.

A deeper problem for me was that the report failed to mention the vital importance of education and raising awareness. Education and raising awareness drives societal change at…

View original post 1,316 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

From counting carbon to commodifying nature: the per-analytical ties that bind

Ideas for Sustainability

Recently I read an article in the Guardian with the headline “The solution for the melting polar ice caps may be hiding in the rainforest”. It was written by Dr Paul Salaman, the CEO of Rainforest Trust. The article was, at least tangentially, about a recent paper by Houghton et al. in Nature Climate Change about the carbon stored in the tropical forests (which can be found here). The Houghton et al. paper is purely a biophysical assessment of net primary productivity in rainforests. Dr Salaman used that scientific paper as a starting point to argue:

“Rainforest conservation is also incredibly economical. One acre of Amazon rainforest in Peru, which stores up to 180 metric tonnes of CO2, can be protected for just a few dollars; the same is true elsewhere in Latin America and Africa. The implications here are astounding and should give us pause: for…

View original post 1,020 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Looking back from Paris to Senegal: What the FAO Regional Agroecology Meeting had to say on Climate-Smart Agriculture

Used under creative commons license from wdm:


Cross-posted from IATP, December 22, 2015

With the recent conclusion of climate talks in Paris (see Ben Lilliston’s coverage here, here, here, and here), which included strong pushes for “Climate-Smart Agriculture” (CSA) by a variety of government, NGO and corporate actors, it’s worth returning to the recent conversations about agriculture at the FAO’s second Regional Agroecology Meeting. This meeting, which I attended in Dakar, Senegal from November 4-6 of this year, once again united scientists, civil society and members of government to discuss agroecology and its potential to improve small-scale food producers’ lives, support their extensive existing knowledge and improve environmental impacts from the agrifood system, from climate change to biodiversity.

One clear message voiced by civil society (which included groups representing pastoralists, fisherfolk and smallholder farmers from throughout the continent of Africa) was a desire to keep climate-smart agriculture distinct from agroecology. There has been interest from various actors in comparing or even combining agroecology—proposing to take “the best of both.” As we have written at IATP, we are skeptical of such an approach, not least because its “clever ambiguity” opens the door for practically anything to be called climate-smart. During conversations and consultation in Dakar, it seemed clear that, by and large, the civil society participants did not see what value “climate-smart” was bringing to the conversation or their efforts. They saw it as unambiguously different than what many of them were practicing in terms of agroecology, a term that spoke to many of their groups and their traditions. The concepts of agroecology also align with the efforts of Africa-wide organizations such as the Alliance for Food Security in Africa, which launched a series of agroecology case studies at the meeting, and intercontinental organizations such as La Vía Campesina, the smallholder family farmers’ movement which is currently headquartered in Zimbabwe and led by General Coordinator Elizabeth Mpofu. It was interesting seeing so many stakeholders expressing the fact that agroecology, along with food sovereignty, had already been identified as the path they see to a better, more sustainable future for both food producers and the climate. The message was clear that, whatever others’ interest was in climate-smart agriculture, what most of the farmers, pastoralists and fisherfolk (and no small amount of the scientists and government representatives) there wanted to focus on was support for agroecology. In fact, several participants pointed out an international convening in Nyéléni, Mali earlier this year had already brought together “small-scale food producers and consumers, including peasants, indigenous peoples, communities, hunters and gatherers, family farmers, rural workers, herders and pastoralists, fisherfolk and urban people” to affirm the importance and centrality of agroecology.

The fact that these voices from small-scale food producers in Africa already reflect the positions of many of IATP’s allies on climate-smart as a “false solution” seems all the more reason to believe that we are on the right track with our critiques of climate-smart agriculture. Indeed, one participant (and proponent of CSA) at the FAO Regional Meeting did say, “Well, perhaps climate-smart agriculture is more of a slogan, but you know, slogans are important to politicians.” I think this may in fact be the case, and the root of the discomfort many of us feel about climate-smart agriculture. Frankly, I feel this old saw encapsulates CSA pretty spot-on: “What’s good is not new, and what is new is not good.” CSA does not, that I can see, add anything of substance to the science, practices and movement of agroecology. What it does add appears to be buy-in from some governments, NGOs and corporations. But what is this supposed “buy-in” worth when there are no firm commitments to what counts as CSA and what doesn’t, and no firm commitments to provide new funds to support good, participatory research and implementation? And even if there were such funds, what reason is there that they should be classified for “climate-smart” rather than for agroecology? One of those two terms has been around for 85 years and is based on a combination of modern science and thousands of years of farmer knowledge (hint: it’s agroecology). The other is based on a catchy phrase that entered the international lexicon five years ago or so, based on political jockeying. Now, I understand as well as the next guy that compromise is a necessary part of every effort, but the politics of this situation seem to simply be that some powerful players like the term CSA, but don’t know what it means, exactly; don’t know what new ideas it brings; don’t necessarily have new funding committed for it; and don’t have a distinct reason for using it instead of agroecology (except maybe it doesn’t ‘scare’ some people like agroecology does.) This may be the stubborn scientist in me coming out, but accepting a new term that involves so many “I don’t knows,” no additional resources and makes some powerful people less nervous does not seem a reasonable way to go.

An (unfunny) thing happened on the way from the FAO Agroecology Forum

It is worth noting a couple of other significant points from the meeting in Dakar. One is the interest by many groups in the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI). OSSI (which IATP has helped develop) seeks to keep the world’s heritage embodied in seeds and other germplasm[i] open for all to use, in perpetuity, rather than keeping it locked up behind intrusive and exploitative intellectual property regimes.[ii] Many African farmers fear, with good reason, that their traditional and indigenous seeds and varieties might be used to develop patented or otherwise restricted varieties by companies like Monsanto; or, that such traditions and heritage might otherwise be lost. This would be a grave shame as not only is the world’s plant and animal genetic diversity important for its own sake, our present and our future, but also because many traditional varieties have much to offer us[iii]

A case in point comes from the representatives of the Malawian Farmer-to-Farmer Project ( Nutritionist Dr. Mangani Chilala Katundu, along with farmers Anita Chtiaya, Alice Gubudu and Edwin Nyati Kasamba, attended the meeting in Dakar (representing this incredible project) told me that they were worried that international corporations or government pressure might lead the loss or co-optation of a local landrace of orange maize. This landrace, they told me, actually provided as much or more Vitamin A as attempts at “biofortified” varieties. It turns out, in fact, that this was recently confirmed in a study (co-authored by Dr. Katundu) published in the peer-reviewed journal Food Chemistry. I told them about OSSI, which ended up interesting a variety of farmers in Dakar; although, so far, OSSI does not have a branch or chapter in Africa. Additionally, the main power OSSI has brought so far is the ability to name and shame any companies or people who might try to take advantage of OSSI-pledged materials by locking them away behind patents. Nevertheless, despite the fact that OSSI does not create a legal barrier to taking traditional varieties out of the realm of the common good, Monsanto scientists have already made the Orwellian argument that keeping plant materials in the realm of the public domain may be “one of the most restrictive forms of access” of all.[iv] Because as a result, no company or individual could then demand everyone who ever uses a seed to pay them—the fact that seed sharing and diversification have happened for thousands of years before patenting apparently does not count.

To many of the farmer groups who attended the Dakar meeting with me, this idea—that protecting open accessibility of their common heritage to all is in fact more restrictive than a regime where farmers have to pay for their seeds each year, even if their ancestors helped breed those seeds—would have been funny, were the perverse corporate logic not so tragic.

[i] Germplasm is “the living genetic resources such as seeds or tissue that is maintained for the purpose of animal and plant breeding, preservation, and other research uses.”

[ii] “Today, only a handful of companies account for most of the world’s commercial breeding and seed sales. Increasingly, patenting is used to enhance the power and control of these companies over the seeds and the farmers that feed the world. Patented seeds cannot be saved, replanted or shared by farmers and gardeners. And because there is no research exemption for patented material, plant breeders at universities and small seed companies cannot use patented seed to create the new crop varieties that should be the foundation of a just and sustainable agriculture. Inspired by the free and open source software movement that has provided alternatives to proprietary software, OSSI was created to free the seed—to make sure that the genes in at least some seed can never be locked away from use by intellectual property rights. Through our Pledge, OSSI asks breeders and stewards of crop varieties to pledge to make their seeds available without restrictions on use, and to ask recipients of those seeds to make the same commitment. OSSI is working to create a pool of open source varieties, to connect farmers and gardeners to suppliers of open source seed, and to inform and educate citizens about seed issues.” (From

[iii] Altieri, Miguel Angel, Laura C. Merrick, and M. K. Anderson. “Peasant Agriculture and the Conservation of Crop and Wild Plant Resources.” Conservation Biology1 (1987): 49-58; Chappell, Michael Jahi, Hannah K. Wittman, Christopher M. Bacon et al. “Food Sovereignty for Poverty Reduction and Biodiversity Conservation in Latin America [V1; Ref Status: Indexed, http://F1000r.Es/23s].” F1000Research 2, no. 235 (2013); Pautasso, Marco, Guntra Aistara, Adeline Barnaud et al. “Seed Exchange Networks for Agrobiodiversity Conservation. A Review.” Agronomy for Sustainable Development (2012): 1-25.

[iv] See The (access-restricted) article referred to is Butruille, David V., Fufa H. Birru, Marv L. Boerboom et al. “Maize Breeding in the United States: Views from within Monsanto.” In Plant Breeding Reviews: Volume 39, edited by Jules Janick, 199-282: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2015.

Posted in Agriculture, Agroecology/Organic agriculture, food justice, Food Movement(s), food sovereignty, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

NEW PAPER: Participatory scenario planning in place-based social-ecological research: insights and experiences from 23 case studies

Ideas for Sustainability


It is more than a year ago that we had announced the publication of the results of our scenario planning in Southern Transylvania on this blog. By the time, it was the first article that went online for a special issue featuring the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS) in the journal Ecology and Society. Last week and still in the very same special issue, another paper went online to which we have contributed with our work in Transylvania. This new paper was led by Elisa Oteros-Rozas  and summarizes the methods and experiences from 23 different participatory scenario planning exercises from different parts of the world (see map).

Map of the location of the 23 scenario planning case studies. Underlying are the world's biomes after Olson et al. (2001, Bioscience 51: 933-938) Map of the location of the 23 scenario planning case studies. Underlying are the world’s biomes after Olson et al. (2001, Bioscience 51: 933-938)

In short, the paper gives an overview of how diverse participatory scenario planning…

View original post 111 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Economists don’t understand the financial system

More old but good stuff


Cross posted from Naked Capitalism.

A bit more than a week ago I went to a panel discussion at the Met about the global financial crisis. The panel consisted of Paul Krugman, Edmund Phelps, Jeffrey Sachs, and George Soros. They were each given 15 minutes to talk about what they thought about the Eurocrisis, especially Greece, the U.S., and whatever else they felt like.

It was well worth the $25 admission fee, but maybe not for the reason I would have thought when I went. I ended up deciding something I’ve suspected before. Namely, economists don’t understand the financial system, and moreover they don’t get that they don’t get it. Let me explain my reasoning.

The panelists all are pretty left-leaning guys, and each of them basically talked about how the U.S. government should stimulate the economy in one way or another. Krugman kept saying that hey, this isn’t too…

View original post 967 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Guest Post SuperReview Part III of VI: The Occupy Handbook Part I and a little Part II: Where We Are Now

Oldie/ goodie



Moving on from Lewis’ cute Bloomberg column reprint, we come to the next essay in the series:

The Widening Gyre: Inequality, Polarization, and the Crisis by Paul Krugman and Robin Wells

Indefatigable pair Paul Krugman and Robin Wells (KW hereafter) contribute one of the several original essays in the book, but the content ought to be familiar if you read the New York Times, know something about economics or practice finance. Paul Krugman is prolific, and it isn’t hard to be prolific when you have to rewrite essentially the same column every week; question, are there other columnists who have been so consistently right yet have failed to propose anything that the polity would adopt? Political failure notwithstanding, Krugman leaves gems in every paragraph for the reader new to all this. The title “The Widening Gyre” comes from an apocalyptic William Yeats Butler poem. In this case…

View original post 3,124 more words

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment