It’s never, ever just #food: Food history helps us see the world as it is – a conversation with Dr Polly Russell

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It may look like a quaint Victorian book on ice cream but behind it lies a tale of slavery and colonialism, that has shaped the tastes and food systems of today. This is one of the points to emerge in this conversation with Dr Polly Russell, Curator for Contemporary Politics and Public Life at the British Museum. She is also a co-presenter in a series of BBC TV Programmes – ‘Back in time for dinner’ and ‘Back in time for tea’ – that take a family back through the decades since Victorian times to show how what we’ve eaten in Britain has changed – along with the social relations and technological changes that go with it.

For Polly, looking at the history of food is the way to understand culture, economics, politics and power. If you want work towards fair, sustainable and healthy food systems in the future being aware of how all these other forces interplay with that goal is essential.

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The many arguments for urgent #climate action – in 32 A5 pages


How do you convince governments to take more urgent action on climate change? When ministries spend so much of their time, as one ex-downing street advisor once said to me, firefighting the immediate problems of the day? The authors of this little 32-page booklet recognised this was also a challenge for climate change negotiators on their return home, who struggled to engage their busy Ministries with the urgency of the situation. A Negotiator’s Toolkit – Engaging busy Ministries with concise argument for urgent climate action marshals arguments from a wide range of perspectives – economic, food security, human rights, peace & conflict, gender, civil society, ethics, health, and mitigation – drawn from nearly 200 peer-reviewed sources.

“Ministers and other decision makers face competing demands and priorities, but they may also be more receptive to one argument over another.” says Lindsey Fielder Cook, co editor. “One person may better respond to economic concerns, for example, another to scientific findings.” She is the Quaker UN Office Representative for Climate Change and has been working with negotiators at the Climate Change talks from some time. Click here to download the pdf of the toolkit.

I should declare an interest as I worked on trade, food security, biodiversity, intellectual property and health with QUNO Geneva (there’s also an office in New York) in the 2000s (see here for the many publications to come out of that work) and until recently for a short time was a member of the Quaker UN Office Geneva committee.


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Corporate charity undermines the human right to adequate #food and #nutrition

It’s nearly 4 years since I interviewed Prof Graham Riches about growing levels of hunger in rich countries in Europe and North America. Since then we’ve had the Hungry for Change report from the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, which I chaired, and the ongoing EndHungerUK campaign in the UK. When I heard Graham had just published a new book Food Bank Nations. Poverty, Corporate Charity and the Right to Food I asked him to explain why. Below is what he wrote ( listen here to Olivier De Schutter, the second rapporteur on the Right to Food talk about what that right means):

Food Bank Nations. Poverty, Corporate Charity and the Right to Food (Routledge, 2018)

When invited to write a text about food and poverty in 2015, I wondered why another book. Would it simply be a case of changing the dates of previous studies written about charitable food banking and the recurring welfare crises dating back to the mid-1980s or was there something new that needed to be said or to be reiterated. In fact I felt more like writing a polemic. Over the years I had come to understand domestic hunger in the rich world as the deep hole and moral vacuum at the centre of neoliberalism: a perpetual tragedy of ‘left-over’ food for ‘left behind’ people.

A bundle of questions were uppermost in my mind. Morally is feeding corporate food waste to hungry people really the best we can do while the indifferent state looks on? What explains Big Food’s corporate capture of US style food banking now exported across OECD member states? Is it really OK to leave the hungry poor to the corporate social responsibility (aka investment) of the likes of Walmart and transnational food retailing giants while publicly funded income security and social safety nets are shredded to be replaced by surplus food aid?

Moreover in the interests of solidarity, food democracy and social justice why and how might civil society hold uncaring governments to account? What is the role for civil society with a ‘right to food bite’ as a counter-narrative to corporate food relief and as a platform for human rights action? What are the moral, legal and political obligations of the state as the ‘primary duty bearer’ ensuring food security for all, especially those on the outside looking in?

Food Bank Nations is my account, review and analysis of the history and institutionalization of food banking with its roots in the USA and Canada including its global spread and corporate capture across the OECD. As the indifferent state looks on philanthrocapitalism is shown to be an ineffective response making false claims about solidarity with the poor undermining the human right to adequate food and nutrition. The right to food has significant implications for public policy, with governments meeting their economic, social and cultural rights obligations under international law. It requires civil society to act with a ‘right to food bite’.”

Graham Riches, Emeritus professor of Social Work, University of British Columbia, Canada

Other books: Food Banks and the Welfare Crisis (Ottawa, CCSD, 1986)

First World Hunger. Food Security and Welfare Politics ed, (Macmillan, 1997)

First World Hunger Revisited. Food Charity or the Right to Food? co-ed with Tiina Silvasti (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

You might also like to hear my interview with Andy Fischer, author of Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-hunger Groups warning others not  copy failed US foodbanks model.





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Radical change needed in #farm and #food policies to tackle world’s #obesity crisis – in conversation with Prof Philip James

In this conversation, one of the world’s leading experts on obesity, Professor Philip James, discusses the origins and nature of the obesity crisis that has developed. He sees its roots in policies originating in the second world war and agricultural policies promoted globally since that fuel it, linked also to marketing practices. “The whole of our food system changed, based on, putting it crudely, pre-war malnutrition and the threat of semi-starvation in the second world war. And we produced an obese population.” He calls for a radical transformation of farming and food systems globally in order to address obesity because ‘agricultural policy is based on the wrong ideas.’

After discussing his work on obesity I asked Prof James just how he got started on his long career. It’s a tale of a Quaker school, international view, work on child malnutrition as a paediatrician in Jamaica that ends up with him in being a leading nutritionist involved at the heart of the BSE (mad cow disease) response in the UK and EU. And finally he adds a few words of advice to anyone starting out today.

If you would like to read more about Philip’s work and see some of the reports or institutions mentioned in these interviews follow the links below:

Research on obesity : a report of the DHSS/MRC group, 1976

OECD Obesity Update 2017

McKinsey & Company, How the world could better fight obesity, November 2014

Foresight, Tackling obesities: future choices – project report (2nd edition), Government Office for Science, 2007

See here for World Health Organisation’s materials on obesity

Chris Murray, Global Burden of Disease Study, University of Washington 

International Obesity Task Force EU Platform Briefing Paper, EU Platform on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, Brussels, 2005

See here for a history of the International Obesity Task Force. The World Obesity / Policy & Prevention (formerly IOTF) was set up to manage and develop the policy and advocacy work of World Obesity. This is is a global network of experts working to alert the world to the growing health crisis caused by soaring levels of obesity.

James, P., Kemper, F., Pascal, G. (1999) The Future of Scientific Advice in the EU

Below are some of Philip’s more recent publications:

James WPT. Obesity: a global pubic health challenge. Clin. Chem. 2018;64:1-6

Alwan A, McKoll.K, Aljawaldeh A, James P. Proposed policy priorities for preventing obesity and diabetes in the Eastern Mediterranean Region. WHO.EMRO Technical Publications Series 46.2017

James WPT. From Childhood Malnutrition to Public Health Nutrition. Ann. Nut. Metab..2018;72:202-209

James WPT. The Epidemiology of obesity.  In “Obesity: Further progress?” Editors Finer N, Braccia S in an Endocrinology Series by Springer Publishers 2018

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Intellectual property fundamentally contributes to #inequality argues Peter Drahos

IPgraphicOne of the biggest changes in  food systems in recent decades has been the widespread expansion of the intellectual property (IP) regime from seeds to trademarks to access to knowledge. This is having a major impact across the world in reshaping food systems and many large businesses involved. It has profound implications for the distribution of wealth and power in the 21st century.

In an interview in April 2018 on the Real News Network Professor, Peter Drahos, Professor of Law and Governance in the Law Department at the European University Institute, Florence, explains how China has been pushed into accepting IP rules by the USA. In the second half of the interview he explains more broadly why he feels this is a mistake and why ‘intellectual property fundamentally contributes to inequality’.

These issues are explored more in relation to food systems in three on-line talks on the open access Food Systems Academy (FSAc) website. In an overview talk, Peter briefly discusses property in general and its importance for how societies function before examining so-called ‘intellectual property rights’, which include patent, trademark and copyright laws. He reflects on their benefits and costs, their justifications and their impact on societies, including conferring the private power of taxation. Finally, he uses the example of copyright to amplify his arguments that we should be sceptical about having more of them and, indeed, would benefit from having less.

In his second talk on the FSAc, Peter outlines how concerted business lobbying inserted intellectual property into the global trade negotiations, which resulted in the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) becoming part of the World Trade Organisation. He sketches out some implications of this on states’ ability to act on citizens behalf through regulating for food provisioning, health and environmental well-being. He uses the example of Australia’s tobacco plain packaging legislation to illustrate this.

In the other talk, Seeds of contention, control or diversity?, I discuss briefly the changing global rules on biodiversity, plant genetic resources and intellectual property and their impact on the future control of food. These are explored more fully in a book I co-edited with Tasmin Rajotte called The Future Control of Food – A Guide to International Negotiations and Rules on Intellectual Property, Biodiversity and Food Security, Earthscan, London, 2008. It is also free to download in English, Spanish and Chinese – click here for links.



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Svalbard #seed vault and #seedbanks are not enough to safeguard #agricultural #biodiversity says Patrick Mulvany

I must admit to a tinge of jealousy when I heard that fellow Food Ethics Council member Patrick Mulvany had been invited to go to speak at a meeting to celebrate 10 years since the Svalbard Global Seed Vault was set up and celebrate receiving its millionth acquisition. Looking like something out of a Bond movie, the seeds are kept deep underground at -18°C. But, says Patrick in this interview, this is only a back stop to where the real action should be in safeguarding the agricultural biodiversity the world needs. This is best maintained in farmers’ fields in thriving communities where it can be adapted to changing conditions.

You can read more about Patrick’s visit in a blog he wrote for the Food Ethics Council, which is reproduced below with thanks to Patrick and the FEC:

Listen to farmers!

16/04/18 (FEC blog)

Patrick Mulvany

The voices of food producers are vital. At last, they are starting to being heard

As we finally sow seeds and plant potatoes in the belated spring sunshine, it’s a good moment to reflect on a not so surprising fact – that producing good food needs people, their knowledge and seeds suitable for local soils and tastes. And that’s what provides most people in the world with their food. Yet, most research goes towards substituting people and their knowledge with machinery, chemistry and compliant seeds. Isn’t it time to change priorities?

“Nothing less than a paradigm revolution is needed to democratise food and agricultural research for the common good and the wellbeing of the planet”  Michel Pimbert, ‘For Whom? Questioning the food and farming research agenda.’

And the people to listen to, as Ibrahima Coulibaly, a peasant leader from West Africa, concludes should be the smaller-scale farmers, gardeners, livestock keepers, artisanal fishers and forest dwellers whose biodiverse and agroecological food provision nourishes more than 70% of the global population [1, 2]. Yet, for all the evidence of the need to back these women and men, their vital food production systems are being degraded.

There are big obstacles to overcome but, this month the combined views of these food producers are being voiced at significant international forums.  The obstacles are chronicled in the Food Ethics Council’s special magazine, ‘For Whom? Questioning the food and farming research agenda’ and they include, as Helena Paul confirms, that research in the UK is fixed on growth and innovation, especially in genomics and industrial agriculture. This results in the skewing of policy and research priorities to GM crops and their new variants – gene edited plant varieties and animal breeds as Claire Robinson asserts – with this model extending beyond industrialised countries to other regions as Suman Sahai reports from India, where the dominant research agenda is seemingly intractably allied with hi-tech solutions for larger-scale producers.

But, encouragingly, this month, food producers’ voices are being heard. In Rome, FAO held its second international symposium on Agroecology, which concluded that these smaller-scale food providers’ production systems needed to be supported, if the SDGs are to be realised. Civil Society concurred. The symposium was, coincidentally, held in the same month as the 10th anniversary of the UN and World Bank’s landmark International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), the reports of which were approved by 58 governments including the UK in April 2008. These were summarised in 22 Key Findings which were supportive of these smaller-scale food providers’ production systems and the shift in research effort towards agroecological systems. In Geneva, at the UN’s Human Rights Council, progress is being made in negotiating the UN Declaration on the rights of peasants and other people working in rural areas. Good news in the month of the International Day of the Peasant Struggle, held in memory of 19 peasants martyred in Brazil on 17th April, 1996, for defending their territory and way of life as food producers. Their voices need to be heard. Paraphrasing Pat Mooney’s remarks in ‘For Whom?’: Peasants need to have more ‘facetime’ with politicians than agribusiness and the dominant research community currently do, in which to promote their nutritious, biodiverse and resilient agroecological systems.

“…the private sector has all the facetime with politicians whilst peasants have almost none.” Pat Mooney, ‘For Whom? Questioning the food and farming research agenda.’

These agroecological systems require secure back-up for the farmers’ seed systems with which they have co-evolved. This was a focus of the Seed Vault Summit, “Towards rational conservation and sustainable use of plant genetic resources” held in February to mark the tenth anniversary of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This was set up in the permafrost high in the Arctic in 2008 as the repository of last resort – a Doomsday Vault, as it has been dubbed – for samples of seeds, taken from farmers’ fields, of all the crops of the world to be stored ex situ, away from the place they were originally found. In the event of the disastrous loss of national seed or gene banks, as happened in Syria, seeds are available to regenerate those collections. This noble cause, backed especially by the Norwegian Government and  the Crop Trust and managed by NordGen, protects this important heritage of seeds collected over the past 120 years from farmers across the world. On the occasion of the Summit, the millionth seed sample was deposited in the Vault. It’s costly, though, and it does suck funding away from arguably the more urgent and important task of supporting, and backing-up, the regeneration of today’s seeds on-farm and in situ, as it’s often described. In peasants’ hands the seeds are constantly being dynamically managed to adapt to new challenges, such as climate change, and to respond to the current needs of citizens for nutritious foods, produced locally.

I was privileged to be asked to offer some comments to the Summit about this in a presentation entitled: “Saving snapshots of farmers’ biodiverse seed systems: re-visioning in situ & ex situ conservation strategies in the framework of food sovereignty.” Ironically, as if to emphasise the global challenge of climate change, during the Symposium it rained in Svalbard, while it snowed in Rome, as Bloomberg summarised in their account of the Summit, underscoring that the permafrost might not be there forever to protect these heritage seeds. The main point I was making is that it would be better to spend a bit less on storing the ‘fading snapshots’ of past biodiversity in remote seed banks and a lot more on continuous backup of the ‘live footage’ of farmers’ and other growers’ biodiverse seed systems on-farm. This will require a reversal of funding priorities towards supporting and backing up these farmers’ seed systems of today.

To achieve this, seed banks should ‘listen to biodiversity-enhancing farmers’ and provide resources mainly for strengthening their informal seed systems and wider agricultural biodiversity, rather than developing industrial seeds and new GM crops. This will entail the seed bank system at all levels, from community seed banks to the Global Seed Vault, to prioritise back up and availability to farmers of their biodiverse varieties /populations of manifold food crops, while reducing the effort to service the demands of industrial commodity production. This would be facilitated if seed banks prioritised farmer-led governance, including on issues such as Farmers’ Rights to have control over their seeds and knowledge, and the principle of the International Seed Treaty’s Article 12.3.d which rejects Intellectual Property Rights on stored seeds or genes extracted from them. In sum, to ensure that seed banks’ policies, actions and programmes help strengthen farmers’ informal seed systems, managed in the framework of food sovereignty, which can adapt to current challenges.

“Research can have its role in agroecology but only if the agenda is set by farmers.” Ibrahima Coulibaly, ‘For Whom? Questioning the food and farming research agenda.’

These biodiversity-enhancing food producers regenerate nutritious, biodiverse and culturally-appropriate food crops as a priority. They value their biodiverse locally-adapted seed systems. They give priority to seeds for biodiverse localised food systems that directly link food providers and food eaters. They develop ‘Community Seed Banks’, controlled locally, which in effect operationalise their Farmers’ Rights to save, use, exchange and sell seeds. They enhance their seed systems through local innovations, such as Participatory or Evolutionary Plant Breeding, which increase food system and ecosystem resilience, that benefit future generations. In sum, they use biodiverse seeds in low external input agroecological production and harvesting methods, developed in the framework of food sovereignty, that improve resilience and the capacity for seeds and farmer-managed ecosystems to adapt, especially in the face of climate change.

There’s plenty of scope to make the necessary changes to the research agenda so that it prioritises agroecology and farmers’ seed systems. And now, there are many opportunities – as we can see in the way global forums are embracing the challenges. Speaking about an earlier international forum ‘Nyéléni 2007: forum for food sovereignty’ which he led, Ibrahima Coulibaly said: “Yes, I think we planted a seed that germinated very well, by resisting. [Farmers’] seeds are important, more so than the more engineered/certified versions of governments… There is so much scope to diversify research, but it isn’t tapped into. And smaller-scale farmers don’t have the time to do the research. They can’t be both farmers and [formal] researchers. Research can have its role in agroecology but only if the agenda is set by farmers.”


1 etcGroup Who will feed us?

2 Frances Moore Lappé ‘Farming for a small planet: agroecology now’

To see blog on FEC site click here:

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Visiting the world’s largest oregano processor

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Ever bought any dried oregano or eaten anything with oregano in it? Then you’ve probably eaten some that came from the Kutas factory in Turkey. Here you’ll find and smell the most oregano in one place in the world, as well as other herbs such as sage, thyme and savory. There’s a lot more that goes into getting these herbs into your food than you might think – as I found out after the gastroeconomy summit, thanks to a chance meeting in Izmir, with Kazim Gurel, president and CEO of Kutas Food Group.

When I head about what he did I asked if I could go and see for myself this processing plant which is very close to where some friends of mine live whom I was visiting. In the first of two interviews, we tour what he thinks is the world’s biggest oregano processing facility. In the tour he describes the process by which herbs are cleaned and processed ready for use by other businesses, whether in consumer packages or by the food and catering industries – as well as about the adulteration that goes on and how to detect it. You’ll almost certainly not have heard of the company though, as it is a business to business operation that does not sell to the final consumer. As you listen to him showing me round have a look at the pictures in the picture gallery.

After the tour in the relative quiet of an office in a second interview I asked him about how the business started, what it does today, the challenges of avoiding adulteration of products and the various trends he sees emerging.

The company is about to open a new processing plant as he discussed with lots of new technology. There’s a video about them on youtube you can see here which shows off some of the technology they use for bay (laurel) leaves and which will be in the new factory for other herbs.

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