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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#BTEHbook Spoilers: Excerpt from the last chapter


SPOILERS! Used under Creative Commons license from DCNerd


A lightly edited excerpt from my forthcoming book’s last chapter for your Friday reading pleasure. (And don’t worry about spoilers, I’m pretty sure this won’t ruin the suspense from the rest of the book…)

Listening to our food futures

Several years ago, members of the Cornell University students’ New World Agriculture and Ecology Group (NWAEG) and I met with staff of the Southside Community Center in Ithaca. Jemila Sequeira, a social worker, advocate for food dignity, and then-Vice President of the Community Center, was one of the people we spoke with—to think through how NWAEG and the Center could work together. At one point, sitting back from the conversation between the students and the Center staff, I thought to myself that there was a real enthusiasm and openness to working with us on the part of the staff. That contrasted with the critiques of university-community partnerships that Sequeira had voiced at a NWAEG-sponsored event the previous year. She had been critical of university staff and students “helicoptering” in to supposedly help the local community, but usually, in her view, without truly engaging with or respecting the community.

I jumped back into the conversation at a pause to ask the Center staff why they were so willing to work with us, with their limited resources and time. I was glad they were, of course, but why did they trust us enough to invest their time and open their Center to us, when they previously had expressed wariness about partnering with the university? Without missing a beat, Jemila, who has since become a dear friend, looked at each of us in turn: “Because you all listen.”

Those four words capture both how easy and how hard it is to work on what matters. It is no small thing to listen to others such that they feel heard—to hear their meaning in the context of their experiences and not just the surface of their words. This sort of listening requires one to stop and devote oneself to engaging with others as equal fellow human beings; someone whose priorities matter at least as much as your own; someone who may have something to say that is different from what you expect, or want, to hear. It is usually difficult to build the trust that, having listened to people from another community, you will truly work with them, rather than “at” them, to engage in conversations and work that matter and come out of their experience and not just your own agenda. It is as difficult to truly “hear” as it is to act on this responsibility.

But this is what the case of Belo Horizonte tell us we must pursue if we are to end hunger. While the voices of those who have been marginalized—particularly small-scale food producers and all those disadvantaged by poverty and inequality—must be given, or must take, the platforms upon which they can be heard, we have to make sure at the same time that those of us involved in the more technical literature or the fine points of public policy are listening. What is more, we must dedicate ourselves to supporting and expanding spaces where we can truly listen (and learn lessons that are just as important any of the lessons from peer-reviewed literature).

Brazil saw such an accumulation of understanding leading up to Belo Horizonte, Brazil’s revolutionary food policies: from Josué de Castro’s analyses and efforts in 1932 to the implementation and then dismantling of the Brazilian Social Security Food Service in the 1940s; the post-70s social movements; the National Constitutional Assembly of 1986-88; the Citizens’ Action Movement; the thousands of state-civil society-business citizens’ councils; the consolidation of the Workers’ Party’s broad agenda; the formation, dissolution, and re-institution of regional and national food security councils; and finally Belo Horizonte’s SMASAN in 1993, which was followed by Fome Zero in 2004 and the Constitutional Right to Food in 2010. And now, as of April 2017, even with regressive if embattled President Michel Temer and his allies seeking to limit spending on social programs, including Fome Zero, we should remember that the progress in the battle against hunger in Brazil saw many setbacks. Similarly, despite the threat the current U.S. administration and Congress offers to the healthcare programs implemented under former President Obama, we should remember the decades of ebb and flow in the problems, policies, and politics streams that led to the new health care program being passed in the first place. Setbacks, even serious ones, can be surmounted.

What does Belo Horizonte mean for Brazil moving forward as for the rest of us? Different parts of civil society came together after the dictatorship to create a common agenda, yes, but it is also true that trust and reciprocity were already forming across society. The dictatorship was formative not just for spurring so many people to action. In the face of exile and persecution, leftist scholars and activists such as Josué de Castro, Hebert de Souza, and many members of the Workers’ Party persisted in their work nonetheless. Their commitment to listening and advocacy despite often heavy personal costs both burnished their reputations and solidified trust among other social actors for change. The value of putting yourself on the line for the well-being of others should not be underestimated.

…And so as I think about the importance of bringing about a new reality with new institutions capable of ending hunger—in Belo Horizonte and beyond, including the U.S., the proverbial belly of the beast—I see the “good-news stories, pockets of reality that could be seeds of a wider vision” (Meadows 1996). The future, unevenly distributed as it may be, is also firmly present, whether it be in organizations such as Portland’s Growing Gardens, SoulFire Farm, La Vía Campesina, the U.S. Food Sovereignty Alliance, or the beats and flow laid down by the youth of North Minneapolis’s Appetite For Change. People are showing their commitment to a new world and new ways of new futures. We can see these initial steps along the path not as isolated efforts, but as multiple manifestations of a world where broader visions are already becoming reality. It is down to all of us to end hunger. The work will be extremely difficult, but as so much evidence, peer-reviewed and otherwise, now shows us, ending hunger is possible.

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Pangloss’s Guide to Changing the Food System (from the #BTEHbook cutting room floor)

Dr. Pangloss, at a dinner party at Stauf Mansion

Pictured: Either Dr. Peter Pangloss, or preternatural toymaker Henry Stauf

Another quasi-excerpt from my forthcoming book, Beginning to End Hunger. Cut from Chapter 1, again, because “That’s what blogs are for,” (Shattuck 2017). This was actually one of the first things I wrote when I seriously got started on the book’s final form two years ago. It is one of my favorite little pieces of writing, and I’m sad it didn’t make the book, but here it is for your reading enjoyment:

Pangloss’s Guide to Changing the Food System

It is… not possible for the levels of consumption in food and material goods enjoyed by the wealthy in rich countries to be enjoyed by all without grave, and possibly catastrophic, risks to the global environment in terms of biodiversity loss, water scarcity and climate change… While reductions in food waste and changes to less meat-intensive diets would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the need for land clearing… wishing this were the case is very different from making it happen.” (Grafton et al. 2015)

I’ll take my chances with trying to change the politically impossible, because I don’t think I can change the biophysically impossible.” (Herman Daly, in Montenegro 2011)

Assumptions and models shape our world. As we have been discussing, it is not usually easy to tell when our own assumptions or models are bad ones, nor to see that they are not the only ones. This last observation is also why this section is “Paging Dr. Pangloss.”

Dr. Pangloss, a character in Voltaire’s 1918 novel Candide, maintains throughout the book that “all is for the best” in this, “the best of all possible worlds.” Notably, he maintains this view of the world through the course of a long series of misfortunes, including his contraction of syphilis, the murder of many of his associates and students, the destruction of his home, and being hanged, for starters. From this fictional character, the term “Panglossian” has come to mean “naively optimistic.” It’s an “always look on the bright side of life” attitude akin to the song of the same name at the end of the movie Monty Python’s Life of Brian. (The characters also happily advise looking on the bright side of death in a later verse.)

However, “naively optimistic” does not catch two other underlying flavors present in the depiction of Pangloss. For example, he mixes causes and effects throughout the book in his explanations of why all is indeed for the best. This includes the idea that syphilis was necessary for Europeans to get chocolate, as it was explorers and conquistadors who brought both back from their travels.

Think about that.

Not only does it make a mess of cause and effect, but it is actually weirdly pessimistic: claiming that syphilis is the price to pay for getting luxury goods ignores many better possible worlds, including the very slightly alternative world where Pangloss simply chooses not to have the affair that led to his syphilis, while conquistadors still pillage the Americas and bring back chocolate. It strikes me as pessimistic, not optimistic, to decide “There’s no way all of Europe could have ever had chocolate if I didn’t contract a venereal disease.”

The connection to food security, agriculture, and sustainability here is the pessimistically Panglossian tone of the first quote at the top of this box. The reality that not everyone in the world can eat like Americans (nor should they!) without causing environmental catastrophe is uncontroversial, but their assessment of decreasing food waste and achieving dietary change reads almost as a rebuke: Wishing won’t make it so. This seems to me but half a step from something we could imagine Pangloss saying: “Well, sure, we may have global disaster and environmental collapse, but such is the price of universal access to Whoppers and having enough food for everyone to throw away one third of it uneaten. What can you do?”

This is important because, as I said, models and assumptions shape our world. It also is true that wishing, for example, did not end South African Apartheid, grant the right to vote to women and minorities in countries throughout the world, free African-American and Indigenous slaves throughout the Western Hemisphere, nor win United States, India, Haiti, or any other country its independence. If anyone is seriously suggesting that we can wish our way to a better food system, then I am right there with Grafton and colleagues: it’s not going to work.

But, as Daly reminds us, between changing the laws of reality (which places limits on what and how much humans can consume) and changing the “laws” of political realism (our models and assumptions about what kind of changes are possible or likely), there’s little contest: only one of those two things is, as far as we know, literally impossible. Changing our politics is very difficult, but it may in fact be necessary. And if we look at the long scope of history, it certainly seems possible. Or as the saying goes, “The difficult we do immediately. The impossible takes a little longer.”

Put another way, ecological economist Nathan Pelletier pointed out in 2010 that

“[Some maintain] that incremental improvements in current governance will have to be adequate… such an argument must be turned firmly on its head. What is grossly      utopian is the expectation that humanity can proceed on its current   trajectory of global industrialization, with a system of global environmental governance that is hopelessly inadequate to the task. The language of necessity must replace that of political expediency.” (p. 226)

Thus the idea that “wishing it were so” will not work cuts both ways: we may wish that there were alternatives to reconsidering the very way we do governance, production, and consumption. But the expectation that this can be avoided is perhaps yet another kind of perverse Panglossianism: the idea that we live in a world where it is not only impossible to change the fundamental sociopolitical elements of our trajectory, but unnecessary. All is for the best (and worst) in this, the best of all possible worlds…

Works Cited

Grafton, R. Q., Daugbjerg, C., & Qureshi, M. E. (2015). Towards food security by 2050. Food Security, 7(2), 179-183.

Montenegro, M. (2009). Rethinking growth. Seed Magazine, (February issue), 20-22.

Pelletier, N. (2010). Of laws and limits: An ecological economic perspective on redressing the failure of contemporary global environmental governance. Global Environmental Change, 20(2), 220-228.

Voltaire. (1918/2006). Candide (Anonymous, Trans.). New York: Boni and Liveright, Inc.

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Is there space for innovation (and technology) in the CFS?

Food Governance

By Allison Loconto

 This entry is part of a special series of blog posts about the UN’s Committee on World Food Security (CFS): The Future of the CFS? Collectively reflecting on the directions of UN’s most inclusive body. Read more about this project here.

Today we continue with our fourth thematic cluster: “Emerging Issues at the CFS: How are they being addressed?”.  In this post, Allison Loconto reflects on the politics of knowledge and techniques within in the CFS and in turn, how these contribute to food security.She acknowledges that frank debate about innovation and technology for sustainable agriculture and food security are not yet high on the CFS agenda, but that the CFS could become a mechanism to provide guidance on these questions as the global community begins to tackle them.

This is not an exclusive project. If you would like to participate, please let us know:

Loconto pic.jpeg

Each of us attending…

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