More on the importance of empathy & reciprocity for scientists who want to have real impact

A momentary break from all things #BTEHbook (Buy My Book!) to quote this excerpt from Rantala et al., “How to Earn the Status of Honest Broker? Scientists’ Roles Facilitating the Political Water Supply Decision-Making Process” (2017):

We found trust building as a key to achieve the credible position in the eyes of the stakeholders, but achieving the trust was not self-evident and in the beginning our credibility was constantly contested. One of the key observations was that achieving trust partly resulted from careful listening, empathy, and reciprocal relationships. For example, by letting the involved actors speak freely without interruption, showing understanding for their concerns and values, and creating an atmosphere with a low threshold to communication, we contributed to people’s need to be heard and to interpersonal trust by deeply understanding their views. “First time someone is actually listening to us,” said one politician living close to one aquifer. Yet most of the interviewed politicians found it easier to describe when they did not experience trust, for example, when someone was too self-opinionated or not listening—including situations with us. Reciprocity resulted from planning before meetings on how to motivate politicians to participate and share information, and what we could offer to them in return, for example, “tailored” information or showing appreciation for their knowledge and experience.

Another lesson learned was that the trust-based relationships were keys to expand two-way knowledge flows. Thus, when politicians and stakeholders felt more comfortable to contact us—and not just “bothering” us, as one politician said—they were asking a wide range of questions about water supply planning, instead of relying only on information provided by city authorities or other politicians. Conversely, contacting key actors regularly via e-mails or phone calls was a useful way of keeping the interaction channels open and hearing the latest political discussions. Furthermore, we were even invited to participate in city board and city council meetings to answer questions.

You may or may not be reminded of my 2016 blog post, “Deep Thought (on the moral/utilitarian relevance of strong reciprocity)“. But basically, this. Further, what Rantala et al. experienced (of course) need not be limited to interactions with politicians. I’d rather wager it applies a bit more broadly, as well.

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Is the movie Food Evolution propaganda? Yes. But wait, there’s more.


Used under Creative Commons License from Michelle Foocault (

Last month, I was one of the signers of an open letter about the movie Food Evolution, and how it was not an adequate representation of the debates around GM (Genetically-Modified) crops. And boy has that letter provoked a reaction! A number of the signers have received emails and been the objects of critique on social media and blogs, among other things, challenging our use of the word “propaganda” to describe the film. UC Berkeley economist David Zilberman’s take was representative of the responses:

I looked up the definition [of propaganda] in the Oxford dictionary, and it is “[i]nformation, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view.”

Based on my knowledge, the movie doesn’t present false or biased information.

I don’t want to get into a battle of pedantry, too late though it may be, but “bias” is defined as “Unfairly prejudiced for or against someone or something.” Another way of considering bias is whether or not selective use of evidence is made–that is, whether the strongest counter-arguments of alternative viewpoints are addressed, and whether appropriate context is given for evidence and quotations. Yet, as our letter stated,

Some folks, like Wise [an economist] and Naylor [an Iowa farmer and former president of the National Family Farm Coalition] — known for incisive critiques of GM crops, price-fixing, and corporate consolidation of agriculture — were not included in the film after they learned that the filmmaker had misrepresented its editorial focus and funding, and Wise withdrew his consent to be in the film.

Marion Nestle, noted NYU professor of nutrition, author, and blogger, had this to say of her interview for the film:

I have asked repeatedly to have my short interview clip removed from this film.  The director refuses.  He believes his film is fair and balanced.  I do not.

I am often interviewed (see Media) and hardly ever quoted incorrectly or out of context.  This film is one of those rare exceptions. [emphasis added–Agroecoprof]

In my 10-second clip, I say that I am unaware of convincing evidence that eating GM foods is unsafe—this is what I said, but it is hugely out of context.

Safety is the industry’s talking point.  In the view of the GMO industry and this film, if GMOs are safe, they ought to be fully acceptable and nothing else is relevant.

I disagree.  I think there are plenty of issues about GMOs in addition to safety that deserve thoughtful consideration:  monoculture; the effects of industrial agriculture on the environment and climate change; the possible carcinogenicity of glyphosate (Roundup); this herbicide’s well documented induction of weed resistance; and the how aggressively this industry protects its self-interest and attacks critics, as this film demonstrates.

Food Evolution focuses exclusively on the safety of GMOs; it dismisses environmental issues out of hand.

No documentary is perfect, and all are selective. Interviews with GMO boosters were certainly edited as well (you can’t include everything you tape), and some were also left wholly on the editing-room floor. But it is notable that, as far as I can tell, only those critical of GMOs who were interviewed had their quotes taken out of context, or felt that their actual views were not appropriately represented.

To some extent, bias and propaganda are inevitably in the eye of the beholder. But insofar as the movie purports to be a scientifically accurate look at the questions at hand, it is problematic that noted and reputable commentators such as Nestle, Wise, and Naylor (as well as Michael Pollan) felt that the movie was not an adequate representation of their views. And the signers of the letter have appropriate backgrounds to comment, from Nestle herself (who has degrees in bacteriology, molecular biology, and public health nutrition), to farmer George Naylor and agricultural economist Tim Wise, to a number of ecologists and agroecologists, and other researchers with backgrounds in molecular biology, plant pathology, agronomy, and biological control (including World Food Prize Winner Hans Herren).

Critiques of the letter have unfairly singled out my friend and colleague, UC Berkeley PhD candidate Maywa Montenegro, who herself has degrees in molecular biology and science writing from Williams College and MIT. Her nuanced views on biotechnology are readily available across several publications, and hardly come down to blanket opposition, but rather, concerned critique and a scientifically-grounded skepticism (which I share) about the need for and contributions of GMOs.

But as anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone has noted, it is overwhelmingly difficult to occupy a space of nuance in the conversations around GMOs. Stone is no blanket opponent for GMOs, either, with critiques of both GM promoters and opponents, and he believes that there are potentially beneficial uses for the relevant technologies. Yet in a recently published piece, his general argument aligns with the critique of Food Evolution as propagandistic boosterism of GMOs; unbalanced pro-GMO rhetoric from scientists in this area is not at all uncommon, he points out:

The GMO controversy is quite different from—indeed, in many ways the opposite of—the climate debate, and the nature of scientists’ Mertonian transgressions is distinctive. Far from lacking media savvy, several of the basic scientists most active as GMO interlocutors regularly huddle with Monsanto executives and public relations operatives to craft messages, formulate strategy, and receive funding for “outreach” (Lipton 2015). And where climate scientists were guilty of inattentive self-policing, interlocuting GMO scientists engage in selective hyperpolicing: they not only avoid criticism of pro-GMO findings, but reflexively attack unfavorable published findings, often through vicious extracurricular charges of misconduct and incompetence (Waltz 2009). Merton’s “organized skepticism” is not simply transgressed, but caricatured: the “organized” part is elevated to a frenetic din of blogs, retweets, editorials, and petitions, while the “skepticism” part is replaced by brazen boosterism and motivated thinking (Stone 2013).

We need basic bioscientists as honest brokers, but we have lost them.

A number of us are working on a paper putting forth a positive vision of how crop breeding (including biotechnology) might be evaluated and developed in ways that align with our values of inclusivity, biocultural diversity, free, prior, and informed consent, sustainability, food sovereignty, and agroecology.

In the meantime, I also refer you to Alastair Iles’s excellent recent blog post on Food Evolution, available at the UC Berkeley blog, and Alex Swerdloff’s Vice article, some of the most conscientious media coverage thus far, where he interviews some of my co-authors of the critical 45 letter as well as the director of Food Evolution. Swerdloff’s attempt to really hear all sides is a move of honest broker-ship in the direction that Stone advocates, and is the kind of approach that might truly allow us to move the conversation forward beyond simplistic arguments “pro” or “con.”

And above all, we should remember that not all approaches to a problem are equally valuable; that science, and technology, are not just “biotechnology”–agroecology, for example, is a growing and modern scientific field, body of practices, and movement; and that ending hunger will require much more from us than producing more or boosterism for specific technologies.

Posted in Agriculture, Bias, Biotechnolog/GM agriculture, Media Criticism, Open Letters

Red Earth, brought to you by #BTEHbook Friday

Busy times here at #BTEHbook central, mostly catching up from my first vacation in a quite a while, which consisted of an enjoyable time hosting my parents around my new(ish) digs in Britain.

So this week I bring you a re-post of an excellent bit of writing from political phylogeographer Rob Wallace, from his blog Farming Pathogens. Rob’s incisive critical and literary sensibilities, and friendship, were of immense help while I wrote Beginning to End Hunger. Check out his post below on the problem of capitalism, industrial food, and the environment.

Similarly, as you will see in BTEH, there is no ending hunger without fundamentally challenging, resisting, and changing the capitalist institutions dominating so much of our lives. But I also propose that, as we can see from the many examples like Belo Horizonte, there’s every reason to think we can move further down this emancipatory road. But it will require, as Frances Moore Lappé points out in the preface to my book, “a willingness to try on new glasses and to embrace the joy of gaining clarity on one’s next step, letting go of any certainties beyond.”

So I hope you enjoy today’s uncertain but insightful peak farther down the path, care of a brief perch on Rob’s Brobdingnagian shoulders.

Farming Pathogens

Red Earth 4They lived like monkeys still, while their new god powers lay around them in the weeds. ― Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars

For a column to be published on Earth Day, the day of the March for Science, a reporter asked me three questions: Why are capitalism and environmentalism inherently incompatible? Why is industrial farming harmful to the environment? And why are corporate sustainability and carbon footprint reduction programs so often a farce?

Drawing from previous essays, the newly emergent ecological Marx, both sides of the John Bellamy Foster and Jason Moore debate, and the clash over environmental destruction under pre-capitalist formations, I answered all three together in what follows, parts of which the columnist may excerpt.

Capitalism is fundamentally different from any other social organization in human history. There is the matter of scale, of course. The environmental destruction arising from the system’s mode of production is now global…

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Land reform FTW: #BTEHbook Friday, more good sh#t from the cutting room floor


(c) Jonathan McIntosh (2004)

Because I care, here is a Friday #BTEHbook update on my forthcoming book, Beginning to End Hunger, despite the fact that I’m technically still on holiday this week! (For new readers, #BTEHbook presents the story of Belo Horizonte, home to 2.5 million people and one of the world’s most successful city food security programs.)

Today’s topic is land reform and inverse productivity. It may sound dry, but stick with me–I’ve talked about the “Inverse Productivity Relationship between Farm Size and Productivity” here before, but it’s worth coming back to for multiple reasons. For one thing, the robust finding that small farms are on average more productive than larger ones bears repeating quite a bit, because while it is always easy to draw conclusions too hastily, the evidence for this relationship would seem to be at least as strong as the evidence for other interventions in agriculture. (In fact, the weakness of the overall body of evidence for the effects of technology on agricultural productivity is shocking, though Glover et al. have helpful suggestions for future research.) Also, the vastly uneven distribution of land throughout the world, particularly in countries like Brazil, where a couple percent of the total population owns around fifty percent of the land, calls out for attention and redress.

While a more even distribution of land has a solid basis in human rights and correcting legacies of horrific dispossession, it also has a very basic logic, and the benefit of being likely to contribute to poverty reduction and (if one is focused on this type of thing) agricultural productivity. The clip below is from a Box that did not make the final cut of Beginning to End Hunger, but is an important issue nonetheless that deserves far more attention and action than it gets.

Box: Land reform and the inverse productivity relationship

Most research investigating what has been called the “the inverse relationship between productivity and farm size,” (IR) has found evidence supporting the phenomenon, with one study by prominent economists noting that the observation of higher productivity on larger farms is “the exception rather than the norm,” (Barrett et al. 2010, p. 95). This provides further grist for the quip by ecologists Tom Dietsch and John Vandermeer, who wrote in 2003 that “if increasing production is your goal, breaking up large farms and giving the land to small producers,” that is, land reform, “would be the best short term solution.”

On the other hand, Barrett et al. also note their belief that it is naïve to take the overwhelming and consistent evidence for the higher productivity of smaller farms to be reason for supporting land reform policies. But even if we (inappropriately) dismiss Dietsch and Vandermeer’s opinion on the issue as one such naïve conclusion, we might be more loathe to do so about the opinion of the prominent development economist Michael Lipton, who includes IR as a potential rationale for land reform. Lipton in fact concludes, based on his decades of study, that land reform has significant potential for poverty reduction and agricultural output (Lipton 2009, p. 5-6, inter alia). Writing in 1998, Lipton and colleagues declared land reform to be “classical but recently undervalued,” by “otherwise well-informed people… There is almost no area of anti-poverty policy where popular, even professional opinion is so far removed from expert analysis and guidance on land reform,” (Lipton et al. 1998, p. 112, emphasis added).

It is worth noting that Lipton and colleagues’ conclusions elsewhere in their piece broadly align with those of agrarian studies researcher Saturnino “Jun” Borras, whose 2007 book Pro-poor land reform: a critique found that only land reform that effectively redistributed sociopolitical power, land, and resources for support achieved results that bettered the lives of the farmers concerned.


Barrett, C. B., Bellemare, M. F., & Hou, J. Y. (2010). Reconsidering Conventional Explanations of the Inverse Productivity–Size Relationship. World Development, 38(1), 88-97.

Borras, S. M. (2007). Pro-poor land reform: a critique. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

Lipton, M. (2009). Land Reform in Developing Countries: Property Rights and Property Wrongs. London and New York: Routledge

Lipton, M., Yaqub, S., & Darbellay, E. (1998). Successes in Anti-poverty. Geneva: International Labor Organization.

Vandermeer, J. H., & Dietsch, T. (2003). The fateful dialectic: agriculture and conservation. Endangered Species Update, 20(4-5), 199-207.


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#BTEHbook Friday: Frances Moore Lappé’s piece on Belo Horizonte: “The city that ended hunger”

Belo Horizonte at Night

BH at night. Image courtesy of the Earth Science and Remote Sensing Unit, NASA Johnson Space Center.

It’s been a busy week for me here at Coventry University’s Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience and so this week’s #BTEHbook tie-in (for the forthcoming Beginning to End Hunger) is a reprinting of Frances Moore Lappé’s 2009 piece, The city that ended hunger, posted Feb 13, 2009 on Yes! Magazine. Lappé’s piece is an accessible, moving recounting of her observations, conversations, and analysis around Belo Horizonte’s pioneering food security programs. (Lappé did consult with me, among others, for the Yes! piece; and wrote the Foreward for Beginning to End Hunger.) And if you missed last week’s post, the movies on BH are also linked below for your viewing pleasure.

Next week I’m on holiday, so see you back here in two weeks! ~Agroecodoc/Jahi

The City that Ended Hunger

A city in Brazil recruited local farmers to help do something U.S. cities have yet to do: end hunger.
posted Feb 13, 2009

“To search for solutions to hunger means to act within the principle that the status of a citizen surpasses that of a mere consumer.”

In writing Diet for a Small Planet, I learned one simple truth: Hunger is not caused by a scarcity of food but a scarcity of democracy. But that realization was only the beginning, for then I had to ask: What does a democracy look like that enables citizens to have a real voice in securing life’s essentials? Does it exist anywhere? Is it possible or a pipe dream? With hunger on the rise here in the United States—one in 10 of us is now turning to food stamps—these questions take on new urgency.

To begin to conceive of the possibility of a culture of empowered citizens making democracy work for them, real-life stories help—not models to adopt wholesale, but examples that capture key lessons. For me, the story of Brazil’s fourth largest city, Belo Horizonte, is a rich trove of such lessons. Belo, a city of 2.5 million people, once had 11 percent of its population living in absolute poverty, and almost 20 percent of its children going hungry. Then in 1993, a newly elected administration declared food a right of citizenship. The officials said, in effect: If you are too poor to buy food in the market—you are no less a citizen. I am still accountable to you.

The new mayor, Patrus Ananias—now leader of the federal anti-hunger effort—began by creating a city agency, which included assembling a 20-member council of citizen, labor, business, and church representatives to advise in the design and implementation of a new food system. The city already involved regular citizens directly in allocating municipal resources—the “participatory budgeting” that started in the 1970s and has since spread across Brazil. During the first six years of Belo’s food-as-a-right policy, perhaps in response to the new emphasis on food security, the number of citizens engaging in the city’s participatory budgeting process doubled to more than 31,000.

The city agency developed dozens of innovations to assure everyone the right to food, especially by weaving together the interests of farmers and consumers. It offered local family farmers dozens of choice spots of public space on which to sell to urban consumers, essentially redistributing retailer mark-ups on produce—which often reached 100 percent—to consumers and the farmers. Farmers’ profits grew, since there was no wholesaler taking a cut. And poor people got access to fresh, healthy food.

When my daughter Anna and I visited Belo Horizonte to write Hope’s Edge we approached one of these stands. A farmer in a cheerful green smock, emblazoned with “Direct from the Countryside,” grinned as she told us, “I am able to support three children from my five acres now. Since I got this contract with the city, I’ve even been able to buy a truck.”

The improved prospects of these Belo farmers were remarkable considering that, as these programs were getting underway, farmers in the country as a whole saw their incomes drop by almost half.

In addition to the farmer-run stands, the city makes good food available by offering entrepreneurs the opportunity to bid on the right to use well-trafficked plots of city land for “ABC” markets, from the Portuguese acronym for “food at low prices.” Today there are 34 such markets where the city determines a set price—about two-thirds of the market price—of about twenty healthy items, mostly from in-state farmers and chosen by store-owners. Everything else they can sell at the market price.

“For ABC sellers with the best spots, there’s another obligation attached to being able to use the city land,” a former manager within this city agency, Adriana Aranha, explained. “Every weekend they have to drive produce-laden trucks to the poor neighborhoods outside of the city center, so everyone can get good produce.”

Another product of food-as-a-right thinking is three large, airy “People’s Restaurants” (Restaurante Popular), plus a few smaller venues, that daily serve 12,000 or more people using mostly locally grown food for the equivalent of less than 50 cents a meal. When Anna and I ate in one, we saw hundreds of diners—grandparents and newborns, young couples, clusters of men, mothers with toddlers. Some were in well-worn street clothes, others in uniform, still others in business suits.

“I’ve been coming here every day for five years and have gained six kilos,” beamed one elderly, energetic man in faded khakis.

“It’s silly to pay more somewhere else for lower quality food,” an athletic-looking young man in a military police uniform told us. “I’ve been eating here every day for two years. It’s a good way to save money to buy a house so I can get married,” he said with a smile.

No one has to prove they’re poor to eat in a People’s Restaurant, although about 85 percent of the diners are. The mixed clientele erases stigma and allows “food with dignity,” say those involved.

Belo’s food security initiatives also include extensive community and school gardens as well as nutrition classes. Plus, money the federal government contributes toward school lunches, once spent on processed, corporate food, now buys whole food mostly from local growers.

“We’re fighting the concept that the state is a terrible, incompetent administrator,” Adriana explained. “We’re showing that the state doesn’t have to provide everything, it can facilitate. It can create channels for people to find solutions themselves.”

For instance, the city, in partnership with a local university, is working to “keep the market honest in part simply by providing information,” Adriana told us. They survey the price of 45 basic foods and household items at dozens of supermarkets, then post the results at bus stops, online, on television and radio, and in newspapers so people know where the cheapest prices are.

The shift in frame to food as a right also led the Belo hunger-fighters to look for novel solutions. In one successful experiment, egg shells, manioc leaves, and other material normally thrown away were ground and mixed into flour for school kids’ daily bread. This enriched food also goes to nursery school children, who receive three meals a day courtesy of the city.

“I knew we had so much hunger in the world. But what is so upsetting, what I didn’t know when I started this, is it’s so easy. It’s so easy to end it.”

The result of these and other related innovations?

In just a decade Belo Horizonte cut its infant death rate—widely used as evidence of hunger—by more than half, and today these initiatives benefit almost 40 percent of the city’s 2.5 million population. One six-month period in 1999 saw infant malnutrition in a sample group reduced by 50 percent. And between 1993 and 2002 Belo Horizonte was the only locality in which consumption of fruits and vegetables went up.

The cost of these efforts?

Around $10 million annually, or less than 2 percent of the city budget. That’s about a penny a day per Belo resident.

Behind this dramatic, life-saving change is what Adriana calls a “new social mentality”—the realization that “everyone in our city benefits if all of us have access to good food, so—like health care or education—quality food for all is a public good.”

The Belo experience shows that a right to food does not necessarily mean more public handouts (although in emergencies, of course, it does.) It can mean redefining the “free” in “free market” as the freedom of all to participate. It can mean, as in Belo, building citizen-government partnerships driven by values of inclusion and mutual respect.

And when imagining food as a right of citizenship, please note: No change in human nature is required! Through most of human evolution—except for the last few thousand of roughly 200,000 years—Homo sapiens lived in societies where pervasive sharing of food was the norm. As food sharers, “especially among unrelated individuals,” humans are unique, writes Michael Gurven, an authority on hunter-gatherer food transfers. Except in times of extreme privation, when some eat, all eat.

Before leaving Belo, Anna and I had time to reflect a bit with Adriana. We wondered whether she realized that her city may be one of the few in the world taking this approach—food as a right of membership in the human family. So I asked, “When you began, did you realize how important what you are doing was? How much difference it might make? How rare it is in the entire world?”

Listening to her long response in Portuguese without understanding, I tried to be patient. But when her eyes moistened, I nudged our interpreter. I wanted to know what had touched her emotions.

“I knew we had so much hunger in the world,” Adriana said. “But what is so upsetting, what I didn’t know when I started this, is it’s so easy. It’s so easy to end it.”

Adriana’s words have stayed with me. They will forever. They hold perhaps Belo’s greatest lesson: that it is easy to end hunger if we are willing to break free of limiting frames and to see with new eyes—if we trust our hard-wired fellow feeling and act, no longer as mere voters or protesters, for or against government, but as problem-solving partners with government accountable to us.

Frances Moore Lappé wrote this article as part of Food for Everyone, the Spring 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Frances is the author of many books including Diet for a Small Planet and Get a Grip. The author thanks Dr. M. Jahi Chappell for his contribution to the article.
The above was reprinted under Creative Commons License. Please see the original article at

Find out more about #BTEHbook (Beginning to End Hunger) and see links to previous blog entries on it here.
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What do you do when 20% of the population causes 80% of its problems? Possibly nothing.

Brilliant summary: “The evidence-based policymaking dilemma: Overall, we are left with the sense that even the best available evidence of a problem may not help us solve it. Choosing to do nothing may be just as ‘evidence based’ as choosing a solution with minimal effects. Choosing to do something requires us to use far more limited evidence of solution effectiveness and to act in the face of high uncertainty.”

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

caspi-et-al-abstractAvshalom Caspi and colleagues have used the 45-year ‘Dunedin’ study in New Zealand to identify the ‘large economic burden’ associated with ‘a small segment of the population’. They don’t quite achieve the 20%-causes-80% mark, but suggest that 22% of the population account disproportionately for the problems that most policymakers would like to solve, including unhealthy, economically inactive, and criminal behaviour. Most importantly, they discuss some success in predicting such outcomes from a 45-minute diagnostic test of 3 year olds.

Of course, any such publication will prompt major debates about how we report, interpret, and deal with such information, and these debates tend to get away from the original authors as soon as they publish and others report (follow the tweet thread):

This is true even though the…

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What is Policy?

Great observations breaking down the challenges & reality of policy & policy studies by the always-insightful Paul Cairney.

Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy

what is policy

(you can stream the podcast here or right click and save this link)

The first thing we do when studying public policy is to try to define it – as, for example, the sum total of government action, from signals of intent to the final outcomes. This sort of definition produces more questions:

  • Does ‘government action’ include what policymakers say they will do as well as what they actually do? An unfulfilled promise may not always seem like policy.
  • Does it include the effects of a decision as well as the decision itself? A policy outcome may not resemble the initial policy aims.
  • What is ‘the government’ and does it include elected and unelected policymakers? Many individuals, groups and organisations influence policy and help carry it out.
  • Does public policy include what policymakers do not do. Policy is about power, which is often exercised to keep important issues off…

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#BTEHbook Friday post: Belo Horizonte In a Nutshell: The Movie(s)


Help help I’m in a nutshell! Where did such a gigantic nutshell come from? Oh, wait, there’s an entire municipal food security program in here. That’s unexpected.

Beginning to End Hunger will not be the first examination of Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s amazingly successful and renowned food security programs (though it will be the first book-length version). And this is for good reason. Since it was founded in 1993, the Municipal Secretariat of Food and Nutrition Security has presided over gains in food justice, food security, and food sovereignty like

  • The creation of 126 school gardens and 48 community gardens, with 91 gardening workshops with 1,090 participants in 2012 (Duffles 2013)
  • 200,000 meals served/day within the 186 schools of the Municipal Education system (Duffles 2013)
  • Infant mortality, for babies under a year old, has fallen by more than 70% (PMBH 2016)
  • A 33% decrease in hospitalization due to diabetes (PMBH 2016)
  • 14,000 low-cost, high-quality meals/day through the Popular Restaurant programs, open 248 days/year (Duffles 2013)
  • Large increases in per capita household consumption of fruits and vegetables between 1987 and 1997, taking it from the 6th to the 1st place among Brazilian cities for green vegetables, and 8th to 2nd in consumption of fruits (IBGE 1991, IBGE 1997).
  • An estimated 800,000 citizens interact each year with BH’s programs—almost 40% of the population in 2003 (Aranha 2003).

But tired of dry numbers? Here are two videos that highlight BH’s successes, including the World Future Council’s mini-documentary from BH’s win of the Future Policy Award in 2009, and a short video created by food systems planner & consultant (and dear friend) Lindsay Smith. (Enjoy Lindsay’s great soundtrack while you’re there!) And, as always, pre-order your copy of Beginning to End Hunger, out January 2018!

Works Cited

Aranha, A. V. (2000). Segurança alimentar, gestão pública e cidadania: a experiência do município de Belo Horizonte – 1993/1999. M.P.A. Thesis, Escola da Governo da Fundação João Pinheiro, Belo Horizonte.

Aranha, A. V. (2003). Food Security, public management and citizenship: the experience of Belo Horizonte, Brazil – 1993/2003. Paper presented at the Conference on Community Food Security, Ryerson University, Toronto, Canada, July, 2003.

Duffles, F. (2013). Addressing city food and nutritional security and the human right to food. Paper presented at the 4th Global Forum on Urban Resilience and Adaptation. Bonn: Local Governments for Sustainability. Retrieved from

Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE). (1991). Pesquisa de Orçamentos Familiares 1987/88, No. 2: Consumo Alimentar Domiciliar Per Capita. Rio de Janeiro: IGBE.

Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE). (1997). Pesquisa de Orçamentos Familiares – POF 1995-1996. Rio de Janeiro: IBGE. Retrieved from

Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE). (2006). Pesquisa nacional por amostra de domicílios: 2004. Rio de Janeiro: IBGE.

Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE). (2010). Aquisição Alimentar Domiciliar per capita Brasil e Grandes Regiões: Tabelas Completas: Municípios. Pesquisa de Orçamentos Familiares 2008-2009. Retrieved from

Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE). (2013). Censo Demográfico 2010: Resultados gerais da amostra: Minas Gerais. Rio de Janeiro: IBGE.

Prefeitura de Municipal Belo Horizonte (PMBH). (2016). Estatísticas e Indicadores: Saúde. Retrieved from

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Repost from LSE Politics & Policy: How proximity and trust are key factors in getting research to feed into policymaking

A post that reiterates, to me, deep flaws in how academics (both formally and informally) think about impact, “evidence-based” policy, and change. (See the work of University of Stirling’s Paul Cairney and his “1000 word” summaries of key policy theories for much better takes on how policy change happens.)

Re-posted without alteration under Creative Commons license. Original linked in the title below.


How proximity and trust are key factors in getting research to feed into policymaking

Jo MaybinPolicymakers frequently fail to use research evidence in their work. Academia moves too slowly for the policy world, and its findings do not translate easily into policy solutions. Using the Department of Health as a case study, Jo Maybin outlines how research most likely has an impact as a result of personal interactions between individual researchers and policymakers. But this can limit the range of knowledge being used to inform policy, and be problematic when individuals change or leave jobs.

Within busy government departments, who is it that policymakers speak to and what happens in those conversations? And why are these interactions such an effective and appealing means of learning for policymakers? I spent 18 months studying civil servants working on high-profile policy documents and legislation in England’s Department of Health, observing them in meetings, reading what they were reading and writing, and interviewing them about their work.

Researchers were indeed one important knowledge source for these policymakers but time pressure, combined with the delicate process of alliance building that constitutes policymaking, meant that authority, proximity and trust were key implicit criteria when it came to selecting which individuals to speak to.

The qualities of the knowledge brought by individual researchers (in comparison to research documents) made it particularly well suited to the civil servants’ interests, because it was seen as up-to-date, candid, synthesised and editorialised. Conversations enabled the civil servants to ‘drill down’ into what they were most interested in, and to discover ‘unknown unknowns’. But one major downside of ‘embodied’ knowledge like this is that policymakers move jobs and leave, which risks severing the relationships through which research knowledge flows. A succession of recent and planned cuts to the Department’s own staff brings this weakness into sharp relief.

Insiders and contacts-of-contacts

When they needed to learn about a new policy topic civil servants drew, to a large extent, on the accumulated knowledge of colleagues within the Department. Interviewees talked in abstract terms about how the best civil servants were those with generalist policy skills, and not specialist subject knowledge. Yet in practice these generalists relied heavily on the insights of individual colleagues who had built up expertise in a particular policy area by dint of staying in a team or on a topic for a longer period of time.

Attempts at capturing this knowledge (and other aspects of ‘organisational memory’) in a formal document-based knowledge management system seemed to have been largely ineffective: the civil servants wanted to talk to the person, and not to read the notes they had logged on the system intended to serve that purpose.

The civil servants did also speak to outsiders, who were most commonly individuals from:

  • Professional representative or membership organisations, such as the Royal Colleges and the British Medical Association
  • Academia
  • Think-tanks, such as the Nuffield Trust and The King’s Fund
  • Patient charities, such as Diabetes UK or Rethink
  • GP practices, hospitals and local health commissioning organisations
  • Charities involved in providing health services

Having a sense for who are the ‘relevant organisations’ and ‘big players’ in any particular policy area was seen as an important policy skill. The civil servants identified outside individuals through contacts of contacts: the recommendations of colleagues, and in turn of the outside contacts themselves.

Why did the civil servants favour colleagues and contacts-of-contacts? The decision on who to speak to was partly a matter of expediency given the time pressure the civil servants often worked under. Studies of organisational learning describe how it is common for individuals to engage in ‘local’ rather than ‘general scanning’ for information, and communication theories show us how we find it easier to communicate with people who share similar frames of reference.

But this was also a matter of trust. To have a meaningful conversation about an issue, the civil servants had to reveal something about emerging policy thinking on the topic. Policy formulation was a craft of delicate alliance building. Particularly in the early stages of a policy’s development, the civil servants were most comfortable divulging sensitive information about a policy’s possible content with individuals who shared an interest in protecting the Department’s work and its reputation, or at least in maintaining good relations with the Department in an effort to secure future influence.

The limits and potential of personal networks

The problem with this strategy is that the Department may be drawing on only a very small pool of knowledge, views and experiences. The civil servants described with embarrassment how they had sometimes approached particular outside individuals only to find they had already had a number of other recent contacts from others in the Department. It was also telling that the civil servants often struggled when it came to wanting to engage directly with the ‘public’, who were partly defined by their lack of existing connection to the Department.

Yet using the ‘contacts of contacts’ strategy to source knowledge need not necessarily be limiting; think of the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory that underpins the Kevin Bacon Game. Social theories of information diffusion tell us that if this method is pursued for a number of iterations, and with the aim of seeking out acquaintances rather than ‘strong ties’ of each individual (eg. not a close professional or personal contact), then the approach can lead you to varied and innovative sources of knowledge. The risk comes if contact is limited to those with strong links who are in regular contact with one another.

Why people? Why interaction?

Again, expediency is part of the story here. The knowledge that people bring is already synthesised. The individual may have years of experience which, if written down, could fill a library shelf at least. But by meeting with a civil servant, and hearing about what they are interested in knowing, the individual can quickly select the most relevant items of their knowledge to share.

People can also offer their judgement. This was really prized by civil servants who wanted to know, given everything that individual had learnt about this topic, what did they really think? As carriers of knowledge people brought not just ‘facts’, but also opinions, and new ways of seeing and thinking about issues.

People also have (in theory at least) the most up-to-date knowledge on a topic, whereas documents, even electronic ones, may become dated as soon as they are drafted. And people are the holders of certain kinds of practical and risky knowledge that doesn’t get ‘committed to paper’. For example, the civil servants often needed to understand how a particular system, or process, or set of relationships works in practice. There are rarely documents that describe such practices, partly because they are seen as too mundane to record in that way, but also because they are variable, ever-changing, and often run more or less counter to some official policy about how things should be done. The civil servants felt they got more candid accounts from people by meeting them in person.

Talking together with others also allowed for ‘simultaneous translations’, helping civil servants to quickly learn the language of new topic areas by being able to pause or interrupt to ask about particular terms and acronyms. And the distinctive qualities of dialogues allowed the civil servants to discover ‘unknown unknowns’. As one interviewee said: ‘In talking about it you get to the point where you think “aha! That’s what I was after!” You might not have known it yourself when you first sat down’. In the most constructive conversations, the civil servants and their dialogue partners were not simply telling each other what they already knew, but were rather ‘creating something new together’.

The shortfalls: when people leave

One of the problems with this ‘embodied knowledge’ is that people move on. They change jobs or careers, or stop working altogether. The Department has recently announced the latest in a long series of cuts to its staff numbers, and each of those staff will take with them a body of knowledge about particular policy areas and a host of contacts outside of the Department.

It is now even more incumbent on those who are left behind to challenge and support themselves and each other to pursue contact chains beyond the usual suspects, through pursuing a series of ‘weak ties’. This will maximise the chances of health policy being informed by a true breadth and depth of knowledge and experiences.

About the Author

Jo MaybinJo Maybin is a fellow in health policy at The King’s Fund, where she leads research on patient, carer and staff experiences of healthcare in England. Her book, Producing Health Policy: Knowledge and Knowing in Government Policy Work, which draws on her ethnography of policy-making in England’s Department of Health, was published in 2016.


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When the answer to “Do you want a lawsuit?” is “Yes”: BH & claiming rights in #BTEHbook

This week’s excerpts from my forthcoming book, Beginning to End Hunger, recounts an anecdote from my experiences in Belo Horizonte and gives a hint at what makes the city’s successes fighting hunger so notable.justice-2071539_1920As I write in the section “Rights, agency, and substantive democracy” in the concluding chapter,

Alongside its holistic approach to food security, [the city of Belo Horizonte] has long grounded many of its programs in a rights-based approach. The goal from the program’s early days was to recognize, at a city level, a right to food that its administrators (and social movement allies) saw as a vital part of the full suite of human rights. BH further built on the food security discourse of the time in ways that anticipated later national advancements. For one, thirteen years after SMASAN’s founding, Brazil passed the National Food and Nutritional Security Law of 2006. The Right to Food was added to Brazil’s constitution four years later (Rocha 2016a, pp. 36-37). These legal innovations, and a newly-mandated National Food and Nutrition Security Council (CONSEA), further reinforced SMASAN’s approach to the right to food as a foundational right; one that obligates government action to guarantee its realization.

In other words, the city of Belo Horizonte’s rights- and empowerment-based approach to food security is what led to the following story, excerpted from the preface of Beginning to End Hunger:

“You know, we were really happy when they threatened to sue us,” said Rubens, an administrator in the Belo Horizonte city government. Welcoming litigation is not something you would expect from a municipal official. Or anyone else, for that matter.

It was 2003, and I was on my first visit to Belo Horizonte, Brazil, with a group of Canadian nutrition students, coordinated by Cecilia Rocha, a Brazilian-Canadian nutrition economist. Cecilia is the foremost scholar of the extraordinary case of Belo Horizonte, a city whose food security policies are a “rare example of success” (Rocha 2001). While it might not—yet—literally be the “city that ended hunger” (Lappé 2010), it has made such significant strides in food security that such a tagline cannot be dismissed as hype alone. In fact, Belo Horizonte’s innovations in food security helped pilot some of the Brazil’s national “Zero Hunger” food security policies, which have contributed to unprecedented decreases in inequality and poverty in Brazil since 2004. And Belo Horizonte itself has seen dramatic drops in malnutrition, and increases in fruit and vegetable consumption, since its food security programs started in 1993.

The “they” Rubens celebrated for their possible lawsuit against the city—his employer—was an alliance of a local nonprofit and several community daycares. We were at the time being driven to one of the daycares in Belo Horizonte that received fresh food and meals through the city’s food security programs. These programs were managed under a unified Municipal Secretariat (or Department) of Food and Nutritional Security, which had partnered with some of the community-run daycares in the city almost from the Secretariat’s start. But a number of daycares in lower-income areas felt that they had every right to access the daycare meal programs as well. So they coordinated with local NGOs and movements for daycare access to pressure the city to extend its partnerships beyond the limited initial number of daycares. For Rubens, the push indicated that the city’s message and the goal of the Secretariat—to guarantee the right to food for all of its citizens—had been truly internalized by Belo Horizonte’s citizens. That some citizens had organized to force the city to fulfill its commitments was a good sign, and helped solidify the Secretariat’s plans to extend its programs.

Our tour of the daycare complete, our guide offered to give several of us a ride back. Rubens casually mentioned in the car that our driver and guide had been one of the NGO leaders at the forefront of the lawsuit effort. “Of course we sued them,” she said. “There is still a lot of work to do, and the daycares that are not part of the program [need the help], but we have made good progress working [with the Secretariat]. Sometimes, you have to force the government to do the right thing.” Rubens smiled.

Since that first trip in 2003, Belo Horizonte has been a major part of my life. Its extraordinary advances, and the barriers and limits to its successes, offer a unique lens through which to glimpse the potential to decisively end all hunger, everywhere…

At the daycare, while kids laughed and played, I had read a Paulo Freire quote posted on the wall in marker: “No-one walks without learning how to walk; without learning how to make the path by walking it, retracing and re-dreaming the dream that bade them to walk in the first place,” (Freire 1997, p. 155 [my translation; see alternatively Freire 1997/2014]). The sum of my efforts—the results of which you [will] hold in your hands—is aimed at helping us make the path by walking it. And my efforts, of course, are in turn fundamentally built on the hard work and struggle of all of the citizens, organizations, movements, program staff, and policymakers behind Belo Horizonte’s programs.

The course to universal food security will never run smooth, but steps forward have and can be made. Belo Horizonte has walked a bit farther down the path than most. It remains to all of us to retrace, re-dream, and continue to forge the path by walking it, until hunger has well and truly been ended, in Belo Horizonte and beyond.

Beginning to End Hunger: Food and the Environment in Belo Horizonte, Brazil and Beyond will be published January 2018 by University of California Press; available now for pre-order.


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