#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 http://resilient-cities.iclei.org/fileadmin/sites/resilient-cities/files/Resilient_Cities_2013/Presentations/D5_Duffles_RC2013_RUFS.pdf.

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 http://www.ibge.gov.br/home/estatistica/populacao/condicaodevida/pof/defaulttab.shtm.

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 http://www.ibge.gov.br/home/estatistica/populacao/condicaodevida/pof/2008_2009_aquisicao/default_zip.shtm.

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 http://portalpbh.pbh.gov.br/pbh/ecp/comunidade.do?evento=portlet&pIdPlc=ecpTaxonomiaMenuPortal&app=estatisticaseindicadores&tax=20043&lang=pt_BR&pg=7742&taxp=0&.

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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: foodsecuresolutions@gmail.com

Loconto pic.jpeg

Each of us attending…

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New Paper: Assessing sustainable biophysical human–nature connectedness at regional scales

Some important new work from researchers at Leuphana University.

Ideas for Sustainability

By Christian Dorninger

Humans are biophysically connected to the biosphere through the flows of materials and energy appropriated from ecosystems. While this connection is fundamental for human well-being, many modern societies have—for better or worse—disconnected themselves from the natural productivity of their immediate regional environment by accessing material and energy flows from distant places and from outside the biosphere.

In the search for the most “efficient” sustainability solutions for land-use based management issues modern societies often tend to supplement, or replace, (potentially) naturally renewable regional energy—its net primary production (NPP)—with external material and energy inputs (e.g. fossils, metals, and other minerals extracted from the lithosphere). The extent and consequences of these biophysical disconnections remain unclear.

In our new paper, we conceptualize the biophysical human–nature connectedness of land use systems at regional scales. We distinguish two mechanisms by which the connectedness of people to their regional ecosystems has been circumvented.

  1. ‘Biospheric…

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Brief primer on the “great” land-sharing debate: Ripped from the #BTEHBook cutting room floor…

This “excised excerpt” is one of several I’ll be posting here that I was not able to fit in my forthcoming book Beginning to End Hungerbut which I think are useful or (hopefully) interesting and informative. As a friend said when I made the difficult decision to cut this out, “That’s what blogs are for.” :-p

In this case, it is my simple (but hopefully not overly simplistic) two-paragraph summary of the land-sparing/land-sharing debate (about which, much has been written; some might argue too much).

[The erstwhile] Box 4: The great land debate

Land sharing: Sharing both space and governance with farmers and other land-users to foster both agricultural production and biodiversity conservation. Recognizes both the need for protected areas and the need to manage agricultural land to support on-farm biodiversity and biodiversity in surrounding natural habitats. But views it as equally fundamental to conduct this management through substantively democratic and just processes, in concordance with securing adequate livelihoods for all land-users.

Land sparing: Seeking to produce as much as possible from any given agricultural plot, regardless of its impact on biodiversity within that plot, in order to allow other spaces to be set aside and protected from production, given the assumption (and some empirical results) that the net effect on biodiversity is positive if and when corresponding additional areas are placed under protection. May assume, but rarely directly addresses, substantively democratic and just mechanisms and outcomes.

Both land-sparing and land-sharing recognize the vital need for protected natural areas. But how to design, designate, and manage those areas and the spaces around them, and how to effectively implement the necessary variety of locally-tailored approaches are matters of substantial on-going debate.


Butsic, V., & Kuemmerle, T. (2015). Using optimization methods to align food production and biodiversity conservation beyond land sharing and land sparing. Ecological Applications, 25(3), 589-595.

Fischer, J., Abson, D. J., Butsic, V., Chappell, M. J., Ekroos, J., Hanspach, J., . . . von Wehrden, H. (2014). Land sparing versus land sharing: moving forward. Conservation Letters, 7(3), 149–157.

Hill, R., Miller, C., Newell, B., Dunlop, M., & Gordon, I. J. (2015). Why biodiversity declines as protected areas increase: the effect of the power of governance regimes on sustainable landscapes. Sustainability Science, 10(2), 357-369.

Law, E. A., Bryan, B. A., Meijaard, E., Mallawaarachchi, T., Struebig, M. J., Watts, M. E., & Wilson, K. A. (2016). Mixed policies give more options in multifunctional tropical forest landscapes. Journal of Applied Ecology, Early Access. doi:10.1111/1365-2664.12666

Phalan, B., Green, R. E., Dicks, L. V., Dotta, G., Feniuk, C., Lamb, A., . . . Balmford, A. (2016). How can higher-yield farming help to spare nature? Science, 351(6272), 450-451.


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Early praise for Beginning to End Hunger

Rob Wallace, the astute political phylogeographer and author of Big Farms Make Big Flu and Neoliberal Ebola (and, full disclosure, a friend who spent no small amount of time offering advice and feedback) has this to say about my forthcoming book, Beginning to End Hunger (out December 2017; available for pre-order now):

Jahi Chappell’s Beginning to End Hunger is at one and the same time an erudite, passionate, and accessible account of Belo Horizonte’s award-winning efforts to end hunger in that Brazilian city of 2.5 million people. Chappell connects the impacts of Brazil’s history and the politics of regional interventions on food access to the economics of local farming and the agroecology of the forest.

But the book is much, much more than that. Beginning to End Hunger is a road map for the difficult path to ending hunger and famine everywhere. The two chapters with which it begins take on the big picture, refuting the core of the productivist model of food and famine upon which much of the agribusiness paradigm depends as an existential rationale. In passing, Chappell shows us the extent to which even many a dedicated food activist and scholar has accepted false premises about food production and availability.

Ludwig Wittgenstein offered that the best a philosopher can do is help free his or her reader from many a historical trap, like helping a fly out of a bottle. What is done with that liberty is entirely up to the reader. For Chappell’s efforts here, I am grateful for my new found freedom. A foundational text.

Rob’s positive comments on the book mean a lot to me. I highly recommend checking out his writing at FarmingPathogens.wordpress.com and his recent books, particularly Big Farms Make Big Flu. And don’t forget, in light of Rob’s assessment, to pre-order your own copy of Beginning to End Hunger, of course.

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How to make “good policy” from “good science”? An agroeco-infodump with Steven Rosenzweig

In other “original content” news, the following conversation on ResearchGate with my co-author Steven Rosenzweig seemed like it might be useful, so I thought I’d give it a (slightly?) larger audience than the comments section for my 2013 conference presentation, The need for action, ethics and values in ecology: Examples from food systems and conservation (though thank you to all of the countless folks who no doubt have been closely following it with baited breath!)
Steven commented:
I think your point about the disconnect between “good science in” and “good policy out” is as salient as ever. I’ve often fantasized about really diving into the solution implementation literature, which it appears you may have done. Is it as enlightening as you would have hoped? I feel as if there is more analysis to be done about why we aren’t seeing the environmental policies we would expect by looking at surveys of public environmental concern. Maybe I’m still swimming in pessimism of the election, but many federal politicians aren’t beholden to the public or to the truth, and the incentive structure in policymaking isn’t necessarily designed to reward well reasoned and forward thinking decision-making. Where do scientists fit in in this new political reality? I think you may be right that we need to enter the political and moral realm more explicitly.
Writing back to him, I pointed to some sources others might find useful:
Thanks for the comment, Steven Rosenzweig .
From my point of view, the “solution implementation literature” is fully as enlightening as I would have hoped, though of course what it did not provide was a straight-forward recipe for fixing things.
That said, it has offered any number of useful insights.
One, as well established in numerous venues, science is not and cannot be “neutral,” particularly with regards important issues of the day. (Even the choice of a researcher to focus on one issue versus another, and seek to procure public or private resources for it, is a powerful signal of what that researcher considers important, and puts at the very minimum support for their research as having a higher priority in their mind than other research, and implicitly higher than other uses of public funds. The fact that researchers often don’t think of it this way does nothing to decrease the force or effects of this dynamic and its implications.)
This may or may not be a point I have made before
I continued —
Two, policies almost never get changed/passed/improved without a policy advocate. One necessary corresponding idea is thus that if a scientist has an idea about proper/better policies, and incorporates it into their work (motivations, questions, or conclusions), they are implicitly assuming one of the following:
(a) Someone involved in policy will read their article/ideas and advocate for it on their behalf;
(b) Their article/ideas may influence a broader consensus, such that someone involved in policy will be influenced by the “proper” synthesis of this consensus and advocate for appropriate corresponding policy ideas;
(c) Policy advocates are not necessary and that policy-making bodies as a whole proceed based on careful assessment of often-complex, often-contradictory, often-paywalled, often-technical body of research, and make time for this above other completely valid priorities (and any questionable ones as well).
None of these are true or present. A scientist with ideas for proper policy who does not advocate on their ideas’ own behalf, or work with others who may be willing to do so, is consigning him or herself to very, very low probabilities of having any important influence on policies.
Further, ethically speaking, scientists should not assume that there is unlimited time for everyone in society to consider each problem in its details, and so in the scheme of things, priorities have to be made. Scientists who are not involved in considering the larger political economy–competing priorities and effects on others of their preferred policies, whether directly or from opportunity costs–again are hobbling their ability to be effective.
I have a rather long bit on how policy change *does* work, but for short versions, I highly recommend Paul Cairney’s work: https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/ . His “1000 word” summaries are very useful.
Hmm…. I also would add that something scientists seem loathe to consider “how much evidence is *enough* evidence for action?” in their opinion. While evidence & research are important and necessary, we too often act like it is possible or desirable for things to slow down and wait for nice, clear research, instead of the constant need to make decisions in the absence of certainty. When scientists lack any idea of competing priorities, limitations on budget, etc, their ideas are all the more likely to be ignored.
But I suppose the SHORT SHORT version of policy implementation is I am quite convinced we cannot achieve many of our policy objectives–substantive equity, sustainability, halting and adapting to climate change, stopping biodiversity loss, food security–fully within our current governance systems. From many researchers, but including Elinor Ostrom and Prugh, Costanza & Daly, I believe there is clear and compelling evidence that a more participatory democracy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for solving these various problems. While many see political change as hopeless or too slow, I would point out that political change obviously *does* happen, so while it does not happen on a set schedule, it behooves us to work towards it, as working towards it makes it more likely to happen; and that I think there is ample evidence we don’t have an alternative, so however long it takes is how long it takes, but that there are no effective shortcuts. (Prugh, Costanza and Daly argue that top-down/benevolent dictator approaches seem attractive with reference to stopping environmental catastrophe, but that there is ample evidence that this does not, and is extremely unlikely to ever, work.)
In the “meantime”:
The snake finally eats its own tail! I’ve managed again to link to myself.
Steven made the claim (which I cannot scientifically verify) that he found these responses enlightening, and that others would, too. I leave that question to you, dear reader. (Or readers, if there actually is more than one of you.)
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