Great new guide to global #soil #biodiversity from #EU on show @ESOF2016

Version 3

My first degree was in soil science and it was great to see this beautifully illustrated Global Soil Biodiversity Atlas on display at the EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF2016) in Manchester earlier this week.

Despite all our lives depending upon soil, it is still remarkably poorly understood in many ways, not least being the rich reservoir of life in healthy soils. There are more organisms in a handful of good soil than people on the planet and we don’t know what most of them are. This new Atlas, which is free to download and costs €25 to buy, goes a long way in showing the fascinating range of living organisms in our soils around the world with some wonderful photos.

Despite the failure to agree a soils directive in the EU, much work continues to safeguard what we have and improve the way we look after the soils not just in Europe but globally. Last year was International Year of Soils, which hopefully has increased the awareness of the importance of maintaining our soils in a healthy state. If you want to know more about what is happening in Europe on this then you can e-mail Arwyn Jones (pictured) at the EC’s Joint Research Centre.

I was at ESOF2016 to take part in a session called FOOD 2030 debate: The sustainability and value of global and local food systems on Tuesday morning. This focussed on the results of an FP7 research project GLAMUR:‘Global and local food assessment: a multidimensional performance-based approach’.

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Seeing Brexit from China – where #food and #foodsecurity matters greatly

SummerPalace-BeijingJet-lagged and Brexit shocked, I’m trying to readjust after returning from a week’s visit to China. The shock began as I got up at 4.30am on Friday June 24th to hear the referendum result, then left for Beijing arriving there at 6 am on Saturday. Thereafter, I caught occasional news stories over the following week.

I was in China for meetings on Agricultural Development pathways for smallholder farmers in China, first in Beijing then in Lishu in Jilin Province in NE China – but more of that in a later blog.

The four Brits in the group – worried about the consequences of the result, for research, education, our children’s future, for peace – watched incredulously as the week’s events unfolded. Picking up a couple of papers on the way home on Friday, China’s Global Times front page headline was ‘Chinese snap up British bargains after Bexit’, while the International New York Times had ‘Which city is going to be the London of the future?’

I noticed yesterday that later this month our local cinema is showing ‘Alice through the Looking Glass’ and I wondered which rabbit hole or distorting mirror I’ve fallen through to arrive back in the UK. As Harold Wilson, who oversaw the last referendum on Europe, said, a week is a long time in politics. Seems more like a lifetime.

No-one it seems has any plans, or contingencies. Or perhaps a sense of proportion about our importance in the world? From N E China you could have said a small island, with a population the size of a couple of the largest Chinese cities, lying off the coast of mainland Europe has decided it no longer belongs there.

Yes, it was once a great imperial power, but not today. And Britain’s inglorious role in recent Chinese history is not forgotten, having forced opium onto the Chinese population and fought two Opium Wars in the 1800s. Almost every plaque I saw as we were shown round the Summer Palace on the Saturday afternoon when we arrived, noted it has been rebuilt “after the Anglo-French Allied Forces burned it down in 1860” after the second opium war.

And there is something Alice in Wonderland like about the talk of taking back control – as, for example, it’s the Chinese government that owns, through Bright Food, Weetabix; a Turkish firm Jaffa cakes, Penguin and McVitie’s Digestives and all the other United Biscuits; Kraft owns Cadbury’s; Canadian investors, Jammie dodgers and so on. I wonder what’s on the new shopping list now the pound is falling in value.

The importance of food and food security seems like a forgotten issue in the UK though some are starting to talk about it. In China, food, and food security are central, are hugely important issues, as was clear from the discussions we had. Perhaps, as the Food Ethics Council (I’m a member) statement on Brexit said ‘Now – as the dust settles – is the moment to pause and reflect on the effect of this historic choice on the future of our food and farming.’ As our executive director, Dan Crossley, said “Lets’…treat it as a once in a lifetime for citizens and politicians to co-create a food system that is healthy, sustainable and fair.’

And that’s a challenge not just for the UK or China but for the world.

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Turks set to tackle #agriculture and #food #ethics

Profs Talug, Yalim and Aksoy discuss this new project. The 4 e’s logo represents etik (ethics), ekoloji (ecology), ekmek (bread) and emek (work)

What’s fair? What responsibilities do we have to future generations, weaker citizens or those of other countries? Are the science we are doing and technologies developing, even if sound, addressing the right questions? Are the rewards fairly distributed, do some have an unfair say in decisions? Does doing one thing undermine the opportunities for others, for animals, to act as they’d wish or reduce biodiversity? These are just a few of the many ethical questions facing us in food and farming today.

Last week, I was in Ankara, Turkey, where a new project aims to get to grips with these and other questions important not just for Turkey’s future but all our futures. I was there as a member of the Food Ethics Council (FEC) in the UK to share our experience and materials to help in the development a new EU-funded Agriculture and Food Ethics Project – TARGET, Tarim ve Gida Etigi Projesi.

The city has been transformed since I worked there 30 Years ago on TUYAP – the Agricultural Extension and AppIied Research Project. This visit I could hardly recognise much of it. Still recognisable though was Prof Cemal Talug, whom I first got to know in the late 1970s when I helped in the establishment of an agricultural extension and communications centre at Ege (Aegean) University. It was a surprise e- mail last October from him that led to me being there as a representative of the Food Ethics Council, which I’ve been a member of since 2000 and trustee since 2003.

The FEC was founded in 1998, a year before EURSAFE – The European Society for Agriculture and Food Ethics. It’s director, Matthias Kaiser from the Centre for the Study of the Sciences and Humanities, University of Bergen, Norway was also there along with philosopher Bart Gremmen  Professor, Ethics in Life Sciences and ’embedded ethicist’ at Wageningen University and Research Centre in the Netherlands. We are the three European Associates supporting the project and we met with the small group developing the project, led by Prof Neyyire Yasemin Yalim, chair of the Turkish Bioethics Association, and Prof. Cemal Talug former rector and dean of agriculture at Ankara University, Turkey’s oldest University.

It has ambitious plans for a survey, education and training in key ethical concerns for food and agricultural professional in Turkey during its 15 months duration but much longer terms plans to influence Turkish food and farming through the establishment of a new NGO – the Turkish Agricultural and Food Ethics Association.

Much to our surprise, Prof Talug had arranged for his three foreign visitors to take part in a live 1.5 hour discussion on Bereket TV – a specialist TV channel devoted to farming – about the project. You can see the programme on YouTube here. This led to a further interview with the national news agency during a conference for some key interested parties in the afternoon.

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From India’s green to greed to evergreen revolution – M S Swaminathen discusses a lifetime’s work

In 2009, I met M S Swaminathan during a visit to India. A plant genetistist, who was at Cambridge at the same time as Watson and Crick, he is often known as the father of India’s green revolution. A towering figure in the history of farming in India, the green revolution there has generated considerable controversy since the short-strawed wheat and rice varieties that responded well to fertiliser and water were introduced in India in the late 1960s.

When I met him at the research Foundation in Chennai that bears his name we recorded a wide ranging conversation about his lifetime experience, his views on the rhetoric and reality surrounding food security and creating a hunger free world, the role of science, and five key needs in India – for soil, water and biodiversity care, credit and insurance, and technical services for farmers. I have just edited this interview to remove some of the dated material and checked with him to ensure he is happy to have the views he expressed then published now, which he is.

He also reflected on the commodity-focussed green revolution, a key part of which was farmers were given a remunerative price they knew they would get. He felt that what went wrong with the green revolution was that it became a greed revolution, despite warnings he gave to avoid excessive soil and water exploitation, monocultures and not replace the many existing varieties. He discussed the importance of organic farming as well as assured and remunerative markets for farmers, with farming being the backbone of livelihood security. He also talked of the increasing social unrest and its links to gross inequity.

In reflecting on how in his day there were no patents and research was done for the common good, he discussed how patents and the expansion of intellectual property rules inhibited the sharing of knowledge and led to an emphasis on one type of technology. While he does not see problems with the use of biotechnology in medicine it is much more controversial in food. Key questions concern its impact and who will control it. The green revolution, he notes, was a public good enterprise but the gene revolution is a private sector enterprise and the issues we face are not just scientific but social and ethical. Do listen for yourself:

0 – 3’ 00”   Food security and hunger – rhetoric & reality

3’ 00” – 8’ 35” Role of science – soil, water, biodiversity, credit & insurance, technical services

8’ 35” – 13’ 30” From green to evergreen revolution – ecological farming systems approach, appropriate and affordable technology, assured remunerative markets

13’ 30” – 18’ 17” Importance of political will to change paradigm, eg in 1960s, plus professional skill and farmers’ action but farmers now want to leave

18’ 16” – 22’ 00” India’s economic & technological image and role of farming

22’ 00” – 28’ 05” Climate change, poor suffer most, equity and sustainable lifestyles and living

28’ 05” – 31’ 57” Patents, intellectual property, public good and sharing knowledge

31’ 57” – 37’ 09” Green revolution became greed revolution, mining soils & water, monocultures, abusing technology

37’ 09” – 42’ 30” Biotechnology, gene transfer between different species, difference between medicine and food, questions of impact and control, public good vs private interest, transparency and ethics

42’ 30” – 47’ 09” (end) Looking back, looking ahead: technology, population, employment and access to food

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Addressing #hunger, #debt, #trade and #finance – a lifetime’s work for Susan George

Susan George has been an indefatigable campaigner for a fairer world all her life. Her first book ‘How the Other Half Dies – the real reasons for world hunger’ published in the mid 1970s was hugely influential on a whole generation, including me. In this interview she discusses her lifetime’s work, starting with food and moving on into debt, international institutions like the World Bank, trade and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and finance. Power and the need to address how the global powerful class acts has been central to her work if we are to address inequality. She reflects on this and the future and recommends still to study the rich and powerful, not the poor and powerless.

0- 6′ 55″ Hunger

6′ 55″ – 8’50” Debt

8′ 50″ – 9′ 56″ Washington Consensus & World Bank

9′ 56″ – 11′ 39″ Trade, food and hunger, from NAFTA to TTIP

11′ 39 – 16′ 37″ Looking ahead, recognise enemies, Panama papers

16′ 37″ – 19′ 29″ Class perspective and advice

19′ 29″ – 21′ 27″ TTIP, impact on food system & agro-ecology

21′ 27 – 23′ 20″ Changing geopolitics

23′ 20″ – 26′ 30″ Finance, inequality and concerns for future

26′ 30 – 28′ 08″ (end) Hopeful vision







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Concentration and Power in the #Food System: Who Controls What We Eat


For years Phil Howard has been proving that a picture is worth a thousand words – or more – with his visualisations of food industry structures. These reveal the growing concentration and connections between the ever fewer firms that control more and more of the markets across the food system, from seeds to fast food chains. Now he has written a short book – Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls What We Eat­* – that develops these further. In the book he takes a political economy approach to understanding what this concentration means for power relations in the food system.

An associate professor at Michigan State University, his focus in the nine chapters is largely on what has been happening in the USA. He discusses the re-interpreting of antitrust in the USA and its impact on supermarkets, convenience stores and fast food outlets before looking at consolidation in distributors. In looking at packaged foods and beverages he takes beer, soy milk and bagged salad as examples. The soy theme is picked up in the next chapter on commodity processing where soybeans are one of his examples, the others being dairy and pork. Next, when considering farming and ranching, he looks at how tax payer funds have “reinforced the advantages larger-scale operations at the expense of smaller operations” in soybeans, milk, pork and leafy greens production.

As the seed industry graphic above illustrates there has been considerable concentration there, as seeds and chemicals are increasingly linked in complex relationships (see also The Future Control of Food). Livestock genetics are even more concentrated with a resulting growing homogeneity. Even the organics movement has been undermined by what he calls ‘stealth ownership’ by major food companies with pressures put on standards. While he sees various counter-movements that resist ‘dominant food and agricultural firm’s efforts to increase their power’ they have ‘failed to reverse trends toward increasing their market share’.

While currently he sees various positive feedbacks leading to further concentration he also sees various negative feedback possible that would undermine this.


* Philip H. Howard, Concentration and Power in the Food System: Who Controls What We Eat­, (2016) is published by Bloomsbury in paperback at $29.95 in the USA and £19.99 in the UK.

Philip Howard is also President of the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society (AFHVS) and a member of the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems.

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@_RajPatel on #sugar, capitalism and seven cheap things

Capitalism began with sugar argues Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: Markets, Power and the Hidden Battle for The World’s Food System. He was talking about a new book he’s working on at a meeting on Critical Agrarian Studies in the Hague in early February. For him, the seven cheap things illustrate some of the key problems with capitalism today, as he explains briefly in this short interview:

[Photo Credit: Sheila Menezes @ ]

The colloquium’s rather long title was ‘Global governance/politics, climate justice & agrarian/social justice: linkages and challenges’. You can also see an interview with Raj Patel about global governance here. All the 70 wide-ranging papers presented at the colloquium are available to download and recordings of the keynotes should go up on the Transnational Institute’s website soon.

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