Great start for the free, on-line Food Systems Academy launched Monday 27 October


I’m delighted that the new on-line, open education resource, the Food Systems Academy got off to a great start yesterday.

Many thanks to all those who have already tweeted – @FoodSystemsAcad – and blogged about it.

It provides a dozen key-note talks for those in education, citizens groups or individuals concerned about our food future. The initial contributors are Olivier de Schutter, Paul Rogers, Peter Drahos, Elizabeth Dowler, Janice Jiggins, Harriet Friedmann, Malcolm Dando and myself. The talks cover four themes:

  • Thinking about food systems
  • Patents, power and food – the growing impact of intellectual property
  • Food, human security and thriving people
  • Gender, nutrition and the right to food

For lecturers and students, the talks can provide a guest speaker in a class at college or university and be an addition to set reading. Sometimes, follow-up question and answer sessions via Skype can be arranged with the speakers.

Voluntary groups can use the talks to provide guest speakers to kick off a discussion. Or you can use them like a book group – listen to or watch one or more of them and come together to discuss your responses.

If you are just plain interested – watch, learn, reflect and connect.

Every talk has its own page where the speakers provide ideas for further reading or websites you might like to check out.

“I am very keen on what you are doing,” says Bill Davies CBE, Distinguished Professor of Plant Biology at the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, UK. “Your cast of contributors is impressive and the views that they record will be authoritative and useful for our teaching here. We have set “The Food System – An overview” as required viewing for our MOOC on Global Food Security and also for our Masters class.* Thus far the material has been well received by the students on both courses. We look forward to seeing more!”

*Some viewers comments:

‘Excellent – very clear and informative.’

‘It’s an excellent resource to introduce the topic of food systems.’

‘Articulate and very well presented.’

‘Loved the visual presentation… Easy to listen to, nonaggressive, non-hectoring.’

Try them for yourselves – and do fill in the 60 seconds survey after each talk and for the website as a whole. And please keep spreading the word.

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First world hunger – wasted food for surplus people?

Why is there food insecurity and hunger in rich countries? What can be done about it? Prof Graham Riches from the University of British Columbia first wrote about hunger in rich countries over 30 years ago. He has just revisited the subject with a Finnish colleague, Tiina Silvasti, professor of social and public policy at the University of Jyväakylä.

I caught up with him in Sheffield on Sunday to ask him about what they had found. You can listen here:

The book they co-edited – First World Hunger Revisited: Food Charity or the Right to Food? – includes chapters on Australia, Brazil, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Turkey, the UK and USA.

If you happen to be in London you can hear him speak at a Food Thinkers lecture at City University at 2.00pm on 27th October. If you are not then the lecture will be up on-line afterwards on the Food Research Collaboration website.

Some of his key messages are:

  • Charity and voluntary action to address people’s hunger and food insecurity, while a moral imperative and commendable, are not the answer to the problem but a sticking plaster over it.
  • Governments need to fulfil their obligations under international law to respect, protect and fulfil the right to food.
  • Food banks should be a matter of shame in rich societies and have arisen from the failure of 30 years of neo-liberal economic policies. They are part of the problem not part of the solution but public health and nutrition policies are part of the solution.

You can download his earlier paper in Development in Practice “Thinking and acting outside the charitable food box: hunger and the right to food in rich societies” here

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Food justice is about more than food security and nutrition’

We need fundamental change in the food system that has developed in the rich world, particularly in the last 75 years or so.

It is dysfunctional and unjust — and it fails to deliver a safe, secure, sufficient, nutritious diet sustainably for everyone with equity. As Amartya Sen noted more than three decades ago, if people go hungry, that is about them not having enough food to eat, not a characteristic of there not being enough food to eat.

The majority of the world’s chronically hungry people are rural, most living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Increasingly, all societies are also faced with problems of being overweight and obese. Our concern should therefore be with malnutrition of both too little and too much and the systemic reasons why — taken together — this is growing and spreading globally.

…Read the whole of this article published on Devex here



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Soil running out, growing faba beans in Scotland for people & fish, and Miscanthus for power stations?

When will our planet’s soil run out, given the way we’re (mis)using it? In about 50 years, according to Professor John Crawford, now director of the Sustainable Systems Programme at Rothamsted Research and formerly at the University of Sydney, Faculty of Agriculture and Natural Resources, who was speaking at a British Ecological Society organised meeting. Soil stores about 70% of the planet’s fresh water and provides 99% of the food we grow. Yet we still don’t understand it as a dynamic, living ecosystem of great complexity.

It’s over 40 years since I graduated in Soil Science from the University of Aberdeen and I was fascinated to hear about both some of what’s been learnt since then and that there is still so much unknown. I was blown away by a great video his research group in Sydney did, which was an animation of flying through a tiny part soil through the minute pores within the soil structure – reminded me of a bit from Star Wars. You can see it here – and hear him say a bit more about how soil structure is organized by the billions of bacteria and mycorrhiza in it in a short Tedex talk here

The BES meeting was held at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany’s Innovation Farm, just outside Cambridge. It was in the demonstration fields outside that I spoke to another of the speakers at the meeting, Dr Pietro Ianneta, from the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, about his work on getting more pulses grown in Scotland, in particular faba beans. Making less demands on the soil linked to changing dietary patterns was one of the point John Crawford touched on – with the costs of beef consumption US Style in particular hitting the headlines at the moment. Pietro’s work with faba beans is helping lay the groundwork for that – as a food both for people and fish, possibly replacing the fishmeal and soymeal used in fish farms, eg salmon.

More controversially, Jon McCalmont from Aberystwyth University, is just finishing his PhD on growing another crop – elephant grass or Miscanthus – as a fuel. He also argues this is far better than growing maize and oilseed rape for anaerobic digestors. I asked him, in a somewhat windy spot in the field, to explain more.

The title for the meeting was ‘Growing Ecosystem Services Around Farming’ which, perhaps fortunately, we did not get into discussing the meaning of too closely, as most of the other talks focused on ensuring biodiversity around farms to support pollinators and wildlife. I think the term ecosystem services is seriously problematic, as Geroge Monbiot expanded upon in a just published article – The Price of Everything.

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Landgrabs – the new enclosures

What is land for? Who is it for? Who owns land? What is the future for millions of farmers whose families have farmed land for generation but who have no title to it. These are some of the most pressing questions in the world today.

UK writer Fred Pearce took a look at the whole issue of land grabs in a recent book The Landgrabbers and spoke about his findings at the Halifax festival earlier this month. You can hear interview with him about what he found by clicking on the link above.

The documentary Land Rush gives and insight into just one example in Mali.  75% of Mali’s population are farmers, but rich nations like China and Saudi Arabia are leasing their land in order to establish large agribusinesses. Many Malian peasants do not welcome these efforts, seeing them as yet another manifestation of imperialism.

The film follows American sugar developer Mima Nedelcovych’s Sosumar scheme – a $600 million partnership between the Government of Mali to lease 200-square kilometers of prime agricultural land for a plantation and factory.

However, unlike some of his competitors, Mima sees the involvement of the local community as key to the project’s success and offers partnership to local farmers as contracted sugar cane growers with the prospect of becoming, in time, “a small commercial farmer and then a larger commercial farmer.”

But the scheme isn’t welcomed by everyone and the Sosumar experiment abruptly ends when a military coup takes place in Mali.

What is happening in Mali is just a tiny fraction of what is going on globally. “A new look at land-grabs in the global South linked to EU biomass policies” argues Biofuelwatch, while UK pension funds and asset management companies could potentially have £37 billion invested in ‘land grabs’ worldwide, according to a new report published in mid June by Friends of the Earth.



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A stoker’s tale, an extraordinary, ordinary life: from D-day to grocery sales


One of the many who did not make the 70th commemoration of the D-Day landings was my uncle Bill. When I was growing up he worked as a rep for a wholesale grocers. He had had other jobs – as a surface worker at Cronton colliery, working on the roads relaying kerb stones, making metal boxes electrical connectors for the mining industry, running round in a van getting customers for a cooked meat manufacturer and later selling cakes. But before all that, on June 8th 1944, aged 19, he was a stoker on a landing craft heading for Gold beach in Normandy.

As he wrote a few years before he died earlier this year, soon after his 88th birthday, “When your mum and dad got married I could not get leave because [it was the] 6th June. Was to be a secret and special day. Our job on D-day was to take a converted Thames barge to Normandy gold beach [on June 8th]. We loaded a specially adapted vehicle with engineering equipment on to the beach. This would be used repairing damaged craft, we achieved our objective and then ferried Canadian troops from ship to shore. We eventually sat on a mine, this disabled us. We left the craft, slept on the beach until we got home to Southampton on an l.s.t [landing ship, tank] loaded with German prisoners. We then [were] put [on] a train to take us back to our home depot.”

After his survivors leave, he wrote, “I went back and drafted to Cape Town South Africa, there I joined a destroyer HMS Rapid. We then proceeded to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, I celebrated 21st birthday on the upper deck in Trincomelee harbour, we set from there to invade Japan, fortunately surrender was declared so we returned to Trinco. When my time was up we returned bringing back to Scotland H. M. Sasonia, this was a depot repair ship mothballed” [on the Clyde]

None of this I knew as a child or young man. He never spoke of it. And even towards the end of his life never in very much detail. But at least he did speak a little about it, went on parades, was a proud member of the Landing Craft Association, in his latter couple of decades. To me growing up he went round selling groceries to shops. How little I, or even his sons, knew. How little he said. And now he is gone, it is too late to ask more.

But he remembered everything and everyone so clearly, as so many of those interviewed seem to. When he was working on the roads soon after the war he wrote how “One day a lorry arrived to remove dirt, it was a contract firm working for Whiston council. And the driver was George Langley. He was the driver of the engineering ferry we took from Poole Harbour to Normandy for D day landing in 1944. He lived in St Helens. What a coincidence. I tried to make contact recently but unfortunately he had deceased.”

Bill Dando served in the navy from 22nd April 1943 to 12 December 1946. He died in February 2014.

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Cutting food waste at sea – experiences between Hull and Zebrugge

Take £200 in £10 notes and throw them in the waste bin. That’s what Reis IJsselstein did to bring home the cost of throwing away left over food from the buffet on board his ferry. Well, not actually his, but one of P&O’s ferries that cross the North Sea between Hull and Rotterdam and Zeebrugge every night. A recent trip to Brussels meant I had the chance to take a ferry and see what was happening with food on board.


Today, Reis is the Dutch head chef on the Pride of Bruges. In the mid 2000s, he and some colleagues decided to try and cut down the amount of waste food left from the buffet restaurant, which serves breakfast and dinner to the passengers.

There’s always some waste from buffets, as all items need to be available for the last person to dine, who has paid just as much as the first person, he says. If it’s not then some complain vociferously. Once they started the waste management scheme and the galley team became more aware of what was being thrown away he saw the amount of waste at the end of a serving dropping. Now, they reduce the amount put out later in the evening and waste levels run at a minimum of around 10%, any significant excesses beyond 15% leading to changes.

What started as an initiative among the chefs is now up and running on a computer programme after he got a manager to set it up for them. After every sitting, each of the people in charge of different parts of the buffet have to weigh and record what is left. That amount is entered onto a spreadsheet, its cost shown and totted up by the day and week. That way he keeps track of waste levels and picks up on excessive levels.

There’s not much creativity left in what they cook for passengers today, with menus and buying of the ingredients and many dishes done by head office and only changed twice a year. He and his fellow chefs, some of whom he’s training up on board, can be more creative with the crew meals. On the Pride of Bruges, of the 100 person crew, 80% are Philippinos who live on the ship for 6 months, working 7 days a week before having travel paid, two months back home. There is a five week menu cycle for the crew and much more chance for the chefs to show their creative skills.

Over on the sister ship, Pride of York, head chef Vic Tyson says he’s seen the amount of waste drop tremendously in his 21 years at sea. He too runs the same waste management system and likes to see if he can beat his colleagues on the other ship. There’s a different crew mix on the British ship, more British and Portuguese, who do not live on board for the same length of time.

Vic has noticed a general increase in size of the passengers over the years, more vegetarian and special diets, but thinks the younger generation now seem to be eating more healthily. A big change over the years has been in the requirements from the port health authorities, says Alistair Macphail, food and beverage manager on the Pride of York. After the norovirus outbreaks in cruise ships in the past and e.coli food poisoning outbreaks ashore, the authorities are much more vigilant in wanting to know if anyone is ill, what they have eaten and how the food was handled. On board, all raw meat, for example, is handled in a separate part of the galley, which is not used at any other time. There are also stringent procedures to follow in case of an outbreak and crew training on how to deal with them.

I was struck by how long most of the crew I met, including the waiters, had worked for the company. People either stayed a long time or got out quick, says Annuska Popelier, food and beverage manager on the Pride of Bruges.

These two ships make the longest trips of P&O’s 15 ferries around the UK. Across all the ships the most popular dish, says Phil Wilkin, Category Manager for them all, who is based in Dover, is still fish and chips, accounting for about half of all meals served across the fleet.

The question that sticks with me is, is it time to rethink buffets more generally, not just at sea? Given their built in levels of waste, perhaps they are a good place to start and for everyone to monitor those levels and get them down. Even if it means cooking to order towards the end of service, especially for the meat, dairy and fish products that have a much larger environmental footprint. Perhaps it is time for an audit on food waste not just food hygiene – and a good place to start with the proposal developed by This is Rubbish on The Industry food waste audit proposal (IFWAP).

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