Plant-based #foods and going #plastic free key themes at #ife2019

I’ve been going to the biannual international food and drink event (ife2019) on and off for years. Ife2019 finished yesterday and I spent a couple of afternoons wandering around chatting to some of the 1350 exhibitors to get a feel for some of the trends. Judging by the number of exhibitors promoting plant-based and vegan foods – from puffed lotus seeds to meatless burgers – many food companies are embracing the opportunities the eat less meat and dairy messages that are coming from those with health and environmental concerns offer.

I couldn’t get near enough to hear the talking trends panel on ‘How the rise of plant based eating is continuing to shape our industry’ but was able to ask on panellist, Holly Shackleton, editor of Speciality Food magazine to share her views afterwards:

The Meatless Farm Company stand was busy serving its meatless burgers and chilli every time I passed it so I asked Frank Lewis, their innovation and R&D director, to step away from cooking them to explain just what they are:

The event draws visitors and exhibitors from around the world, so I was interested in what Chetan Dalal from Premium Foods in India came for – and he was very interested in the kind of products the plant-based trend might hold for a country with 700 million vegetarians:

Different exhibitors had different experiences, some very busy, others less so and this was the case for Koray Yilmazlar, from the Gourmet Group in Turkey who wondered if Brexit had caused an impact:

Closer to home Jim Williams, brand manager for snack bar maker Wild Trail, explained the various ways they can now get their product to market and the impact new outlets such as Amazon was having:

What many of the new plant-based foods I saw have in common is that they are processed or ultraprocessed, so it was a bit of a shock when I passed a stall from a New Covent Garden with fresh fruit and vegetables on display – which was something I craved for after sampling a bewildering range of tastes, from seaweed products from Korea to the meatless chilli. Apart from the food itself another hot topic is what do you package it in – and how to get rid of plastics.

Going Plastic Free

Ife runs alongside a packaging exhibition, pro2pac, and it was here I found Sian Sutherland, enthusiastic co-founder of A Plastic Planet, a group aiming to help manufacturers go plastic free.

I only saw their Plastic Free mark on one exhibitor of fruit ice lollies – success for them will surely be when everyone at future events will be displaying the mark.

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We can, but don’t, feed everyone on Earth and there’s #NoPlanetB to go to, says Mike Berners-Lee

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We live in the anthropocene age. It’s a time when what people do changes how the Earth works – and whether it will be comfortable for us all to live on it or not. Today, humanity needs to wake up to the urgency of tackling the huge range of changes created by our impact on the planet if we are to avoid the dire consequences of that impact. So where do you start to take up the challenge? Well Prof Mike Berners-Lee of the Institute for Social Futures and Small World Consulting at Lancaster University starts where I would, with food, in his new, easy to read, book – There is no Planet B: A handbook for the Make or Break Years*. So I asked him why?

Starting with key questions such as can we feed everybody now and in the future, he moves onto to questions about how to keep fossil fuel in the ground, how should businesses think about the world to what are the economics, values and ways of thinking we need to avoid disaster and why he retains some optimism that we humans can do so.

The book is full of detailed analysis, such as how many edible calories we produce in the world and where they go. He explains why ‘The median Italian is about twice as well off as the median American, despite Italy having only just over half of the wealth per person.’ The key challenges lie not with technologies to address the problems, he argues, but through developing new thinking skills and practices that include ‘big picture thinking, joined up thinking, future thinking, critical thinking, dedication to truth, self-awareness, global empathy, and a better appreciation of the small things in this beautiful world that we live in’.

*He is speaking a various events around the UK until mid-May. You can tell him what you think about how we should and could live well in the Anthropocene and find out more on I interviewed him just before the launch of his book last week at the Lancaster Environment Centre where I’m an honorary teaching fellow.



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Pigs, organics, soils and the future of farming – a conversation with Helen Browning

Helen Browning is a passionate, committed organic farmer in love with pigs, CEO of the Soil Association, author, instigator and member of the RSA’s Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, business woman and the only person I know who’s been on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. She’s also been a member of the Food Ethics Council for slightly longer than I have. Full of energy, she is always busy – as comes through clearly in her recently published book Pig, which chronicles the life of one of the families of pigs grown on her farm near Swindon in Wiltshire.

We met late last year at the Chatham House 2018 Sustainable Food Future conference (see my blog) and I took the chance there to discuss her journey from being an organic farmer to working for food system change through her many other roles and what needs to be done.

You can hear a longer interview with her discussing a different style of leadership and growing younger people’s talents at Changehackers.


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#Brexit, #food and disruptive governance – there’s trouble ahead

As the Brexit debacle shambles on in the UK, what it signifies is part of a bigger shift that Prof Terry Marsden calls disruptive governance. This has profound implications for the food system and supply chains.  In this interview, he explains more about the risks this shift poses and what some of the opportunities and challenges, including financialisation, are for the future of food in UK, with an example from the dairy sector.

I met Terry in Cardiff earlier this week when I went to discuss some presentations by MSc students on the Food Politics and Sustainability degree. Terry is Director of the Sustainable Places Research Institute at Cardiff University, where I’m an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Geography and Planning.

Terry is one of the authors of Feeding Britain: Food Security after Brexit a paper produced by The Food Research Collaboration which produces a range of Brexit Briefings, and Voices as part of its workstream on ‘Influencing Brexit to achieve food system sustainability


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Artificial Intelligence (#AI) and #Sustainable #Food Systems – help or hindrance?

CH-FoodSysIneffLast month, the day after the world’s scientific academies warned that global food systems are failing humanity and speeding up climate change, I was at a workshop at Chatham House on “Artificial intelligence for a sustainable and healthy food system“.

The Chatham house conference on food that preceded the workshop, (see my last blog), ended with the key point that trying to increase the productivity of commodity crops within the dominant cheaper food paradigm – with its feedback loops that reinforced climate change, biodiversity loss, and malnutrition in all its forms – is the wrong vision to pursue. It’s a system that is not designed to deliver sustainable nutrition and promote good health. The total externalised costs of agriculture to health care were far greater than the profits generated from food production.

This workshop began with that challenge.  The key danger was that employing artificial intelligence within the current fatally flawed food systems is likely to make matters worse not better. As another participant pointed out, technologies are not separate from  social problems which are embedded within them. Technology is never value free and always embodies some vision what the future would be like. The need, it was argued, is to move from a business as usual approach to a business unusual approach.


The question was how would artificial intelligence be used in ways that don’t reinforce business as usual but help transform our food systems. We heard about the many ways in which artificial intelligence is being used today – with over a hundred companies working on areas such as robotics and roles, precision agriculture and predictive analytics, farm management software, smart irrigation, plant data and analysis, animal data, and next-generation farms.

There were various examples of how satellite data could be cross-linked with mapping and soils data to optimise applications of agrochemicals, drive robotic machinery, increase efficiency of complex supply chains – the UK imports foodstuffs from 196 countries, ranging from £500 worth of yak milk to £7 billion worth of foodstuffs from the Netherlands – help in differentiating products, and improve response to disasters.

But for me the most interesting piece of work gets to the heart of what drives the way we currently run our food systems and helps in the words of that old adage to “follow the money”. For it’s what people invest in that decides what is grown where. The trase project – Transfer and supply chains for sustainable economies – aims to make transparent who’s investing what throughout our food systems. This helps people and governments understand where to direct money, and shape the rules, regulations and incentives, to make more sustainable farming and food systems possible.

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That needs to go along with better policy-making governance frameworks to tackle the unacceptable levels of malnutrition and promote healthy food production and consumption, as the 2018 global nutrition report, released around the same time as the workshop, points out.

GlobalNutrRep2018Graphic from 2018 Global Nutrition Report

The European Parliament (EP) commissioned a study to look at Precision agriculture in Europe: Legal, social and ethical considerations drawing upon a recent scientific foresight study on “Precision agriculture and the future of farming in Europe“. The EP study warned that the potential misuse of farm-related data could lead to anti-competitive practices including price discrimination and speculations in commodity markets that may affect food security especially in Europe. It also suggests that precision farming, while holding out the prospect of increased efficiency, may also lead to a growing digital division between small and large farms, severe informational asymmetries and a dependence on off-farm service support, abuse of data by agricultural commodity markets, undermine the autonomy of the farmer and local farming structures, and lead to an unprecedented power shift in the industrial farming process.

For all the various promise technological innovation offers, in the end the question is what kind of world we want it to lead to and which scenarios will most clearly lead us to one in which we can achieve sustainable development goals, have more varied diets and farming systems in which less agricultural efficiency, as currently defined, could actually mean more system efficiency and lower waste.

So in the excitement many have about the opportunities artificial intelligence offered we need to be clear about the kind of world we want it to help create.

You might find some of the following links to further reading of interest:

Smith Matthew J. (2018) Getting value from artificial intelligence in agriculture. Animal Production Science

Rob Bailey (2017) Disrupting dinner? Food for the future, Hoffmann Centre for Sustainable Resource Economy

Marco Springmann et al (2018) Options for keeping the food system within environmental limits, Nature, 562, 519-525

Juergen Voegele (2018) Farm and food policy innovations for the digital age, Brookings Institute

World Economic Forum (2017) Shaping the Future of Global Food Systems: A Scenarios Analysis – Shaping the Future of Global Food Systems: A Scenarios Analysis

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Taking responsibility for a #sustainable #food future?

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Whose responsibility is it to ensure we have a sustainable food future? That was the theme of this year’s food conference at Chatham House – the Royal Institute of International affairs – at the end of November 2018. The 6 sessions covered the challenges and outlook for food systems; international food trade; sustainable agriculture and the future of land, investment innovation and disruptive technologies, delivering sustainable and healthy diet; and, system inefficiencies food loss and food waste. You can find the programme here.

The meeting was held under the Chatham House rule. This means you can talk about what was said at the meeting but not about who said it or where they where from. The Twitter feed for the meeting – #CHFood – gives a flavour of what was discussed. I interviewed a few of the speakers in the breaks between sessions. It was generally agreed that although agriculture had never produced more, it was neither sustainable nor resilient not did it feed into a food system that provided nutritious diets for all.

Scaling up Nutrition is a global movement to end all forms of malnutrition with a particular focus on a child’s first 1000 days as its coordinator, Gerda Verburg, explained:

Governments ultimately have responsibility for ensuring their citizens have a healthy life and to respect, protect, and fulfil people’s right to food (See talk by Olivier De Schutter, 2nd UN Rapporteur on the Right to Food here). Following the food crisis around 2008, the UN’s Committee on Food Security was reformed to bring many more voices to the table to tackle these issues, as Mario Arvelo, current Chairperson of the committee explained;

For Greg Garrett, director of Food Policy and Finance at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), finding the financing for healthy food businesses is a key focus:

It is in Africa where many of the major farming challenges will come in the future according to Channing Arndt, Director of Environment and Production Technology Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute:

So what about business? For Hendrik Bourgeois, vice president Corporate Affairs of Cargill’s Europe, Middle East and Africa region, new technology can help ensure farmers adopting more sustainable farming practices are rewarded with higher premiums:

One of the interesting ideas discussed in the meeting was de-commodification of food systems so that different farming practices could be rewarded with different prices. While that is good for the farmers, it also offers businesses a better way to segment markets and increase margins on their products – as only a small percentage of the final price of any foodstuff ends up in the farmer’s pocket.

The most devastating critique of our current food and farming systems came at the end of the conference, instead of the beginning. A fundamental change in the way food is produced and what food is produced is needed to address the challenges posed by climate change, biodiversity loss and malnutrition in all its forms. Technical fixes will not work. The challenge was to move out of a vicious circle of a ‘cheap food paradigm’ (see photo) that produces externalities in healthcare and environmental costs that are 10 times higher than global GDP for agriculture. (see also my conversation with Professor Philip James, in which he argues the world’s farming was set on the wrong track after the second world war)

Interestingly, that challenging critique was the starting point for a workshop on Artificial Intelligence for a Sustainable and Healthy Food System I went to after the conference also at Chatham House – more of which in a later blog.

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Phosphorus – friend for crops, foe in the sea

Phil Haygarth’s passion is phosphorus. He’s a professor at the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University (where I’m an honorary teaching fellow). He’s one of the authors of a Nature Communications paper called ‘Major agricultural changes required to mitigate phosphorus losses under climate change

I heard him talk about his work recently when I was at LEC. Afterwards I asked him in this interview to explain why phosphorous is important for food production, where it comes from, some of the problems with it and the risks that much phosphorus that’s locked up in the soil might, with our changing climate, end up in the sea to the detriment of marine life.

You can follow his blog here


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