Reflections from the UK on COVID-19 and our food systems

GTConfPosterIn Mid-May, I was asked to make this video as a contribution to the Agricultural and Food Ethics Association of Turkey (TARGET) ‘Virtual Conferences in the days of Corona’. It starts with a brief introduction in Turkish with sub-titles in English then is in English with Turkish subtitles, please watch. As a member of the Food Ethics Council in the UK and as someone who has lived and worked in Turkey, I’ve been supporting the creation and development of TARGET since its inception. Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic their conference planned for this year went virtual. I also spoke at their first and second conferences in 2017 and 2019 as did most others who also feature in the English and Turkish Language contributions to these virtual conferences.


The other English language contributions are by:

Richard Falk on ‘Ecological Imperatives and the Right to Food during the Coronavirus Pandemic, A time of Bio-Ethical Crisis

Bart Gremmen on ‘Covid-19 as a Moral Stress Test of Agricultural Systems

Michael Roberts on ‘Covid-19 and US Food System

And for any Turkish speakers reading, here are the Turkish Language contributors to these virtual conferences. You can access all the talks by subscribing to the TARGET Online channel on YouTube.




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Sitopia: how food can save the world – an interview with Carolyn Steel

Sitopia201In her wide ranging book ‘Sitopia: how food can save the world’ Carolyn Steel aims to provide a tool with which to think – and re-think – the world through food. In this interview, she explains the meaning of the term, its philosophical grounding and why food is such a powerful lens to view society and what makes for a good life – and how using this lens shows a value system that is upside down. In seven chapters, she starts from a plate of food and moves out into the universe, beginning with food itself and moving out through the body, the home, society, city and country, nature and time.

You can watch Carolyn’s keynote talk on ‘How to feed a city – and change the world’ here on the Food Systems Academy website where you will find other talks including a guest lecture by Prof Tim Benton on Climate change and agriculture: adaptation and mitigation.



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Feeding Britain: our food problems and how to fix them

Tim Lang, professor of Food Policy at City University, London, spends 2 years writing Feeding Britain: our food problems and how to fix them and when it comes out it is in the midst of a global pandemic when feeding people hits the headlines due to COVID-19. Food bank use shoots up, catering stops, supermarkets shelves are emptied at first as people prepare to be locked down, and food parcels are delivered to the most vulnerable. If ever there was a time to seriously examine how to feed a country long term this is it. Britain is his and my country. In this interview, Tim discusses the major themes in the book, including what food defence means for the UK today, the failure of current policy to get to grips with the challenges, 12 interlocking problems and the framework needed to address them. He challenges what he sees as the complacency in government to do so and the failure to address food security in current thinking.

Screenshot 2020-05-05 at 11.36.22

Tim was also a member of the Eat Lancet Commission and co-author of Sustainable Diets. Do watch his two keynote talks on the Food Systems Academy : Changing our fatally flawed food system and Sustainable diets and public health.

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It’s time to turn swords into ploughshares, bombs into bread, and soldiers into good Samaritans*


It is blatantly obvious that there is no military response that can defeat the COVID-19 virus. It should be equally obvious that military spending can’t deal with the other two great long-term, slower-acting pandemics – climate change and biodiversity loss. It is also clear that the way we run the world and today’s global “leaders” are far from adequate to address these challenges.

We see the fragility of today’s food systems revealed, and hear calls for fundamental change to our food systems after we get through the current pandemic – for example, see IPES paper COVID-19 and the Crisis in Food Systems. What will be the response throughout the world as we come out of this pandemic – will it be a return to business as usual as far as is possible, or a recognition that now is the time to seize the opportunity for fundamental change? The latter is what is needed to address the challenges in the food system and far beyond.

At their best the world’s governments can come up with clear and sensible goals, such as the Sustainable Development Goals the first of which is to end poverty and the second to end hunger. But to achieve this we need to put our resources to work in the right direction. And for this to happen we need to see a worldwide commitment from every country to redirect its military spending away from mechanisms and technologies to better kill each other with into life-enhancing and environment sustaining activities. It is only by doing this that we will achieve the sustainable development goals, conquer hunger and poverty and make a fairer, healthy and sustainable world for this and future generations.

Now it is unrealistic to expect a complete redeployment of military spending to occur over night, it needs to be done in stages. So from 1 January 2021 every government in the world should shift 10% of its military spending into other areas that address the food, health, environment and climate destabilisation challenges that we face, that address the growing inequity in the world and aim to reduce it. These redirected resources must support new forms of business and productive activities which enhance our ability to mitigate and adapt to the climate disruption that is already underway. This annual 10% reduction should continue until world military spending is negligible. The valuable logistical and organisational skills found in the military should be redirected into international and national rescue services, peacekeeping and peacemaking. This redeployment of the brainpower and resources is aimed at achieving and going beyond the sustainable development goals.

This requires vision, leadership of the kind that we have not currently seen, and a ground swell from the bottom up, building on the kind of help and support we have seen being given throughout the world in many countries to those affected by COVID-19. The United Nations charter begins “We the peoples” and it is we the peoples of the world demanding this change, and to be part of it. We need to see every different means of calling on our governments and businesses to do this, including through the online types of petition such as 38Degrees, SomeofUs, WeMove, AVAAZ, and others. If governments and businesses can take unprecedented steps in acting to fight COVID-19 they can do this.

On April 16, 1953, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower said “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense.” It is time to stop that theft. Let us begin a better way of life and save millions from the consequences of the two great long-term, slower-acting pandemics – climate change and biodiversity loss.

*I come from a background in which Biblical stories permeated my childhood and this refers to a story of a man from a different and despised group (a Samaritan) from the dominant one but who helped a stranger in trouble when those you might have expected to do so from the religious and dominant group did not.”

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Food or War: is that the question?

FoodOrWar200Rather foolishly, when I set up my website  some years ago, I wrote that I was thinking of writing a book provisionally entitled Food is a Key to Avoiding World War III. Life has intervened and I haven’t been able to do that. Now Australian author and science writer Julian Cribb has written a book that covers much of the ground I would have needed to.  Food or War is not a jolly read. But it does end with a range of proposals to help humanity avoid what has been a recurring feature of human life – conflicts over food, land, and water leading to destructive wars. In this interview, Julian discusses the bleak history of the links between food and war and suggests what might be done to avoid them.

He outlines three key ways to avoid to conflicts over food, land and water and suggests how a Year of Food in primary schools and a Stewards of the Earth programme play a central part giving hope for the future and why fundamental economic drivers also need to change to avoid wars in the future.

Julian Cribb, Food or War, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2019

His other books include Surviving the 21st Century (Springer 2017), Poisoned Planet (2014) and The Coming Famine (2010). Poisoned Planet is currently out of print, a new edition is being written for Cambridge University Press. See also his blog post ‘Is a Food Crisis the next big hit for humanity?

For a broad ranging set of talks on the food system visit the Food Systems Academy. In his talk, ‘The crucial century, 1945-2045: Transforming food systems in a global context‘ Prof Paul Rogers puts the challenges of transforming food systems in a global, human security context and argues that food is at the centre of the third great transition humankind has to go through.

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Compassionate #meat eating – less and better respecting sentient animals says Joyce D’Silva

About 20 years ago I was commissioned to edit a book based on the papers from the Compassion in World Farming’s (CIWF) 1998 conference ‘An Agriculture for the New Millennium – Animal Welfare, Poverty and Globalisation’. The result was The Meat Business: Devouring a Hungry Planet, published in paperback in 1999. I was surprised to receive a hardback copy of the book a few months ago, reissued I assume as the publisher saw the growing interest in meat, health, livestock’s role in greenhouse gas emissions and thought reprinting it in hardback and as an e-book to be timely.

Joyce D’Silva was my co-editor and then director of CIWF. Today she is CIWF’s emeritus ambassador. I thought I’d catch up with her to discuss how their work has developed over the years, its impact on how animals are kept and are treated as sentient beings. She also discusses health, climate change and what the impacts new approaches to eating are having as well as CIWF’s  work on supporting regenerative agriculture in which livestock are treated humanely. We met in at the Royal Festival Hall in November where I recorded this interview.

You can find CIWF’s many research papers on sustainable and humane farming here.


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Ethics, ecological consciousness and rethinking #agriculture – a lot to digest at Turkish Agricultural and #Food #Ethics Association’s 2nd International Congress

A wide range of issues across food and farming were discussed at the 2nd International Agricultural and Food Ethics Congress organised by the Turkish Agricultural and Food Ethics Association. The congress was held on 24-25 October 2019 in Izmir, Turkey, a place where I first went to work some 41 years ago. I was there to share some of the things we in the UK in the Food Ethics Council are grapping with, notably our new work on food citizenship. You can download my talk and slides by clicking here.

Rethinking agriculture and kissing a mule!

While most of the meeting was held in Turkish, with simultaneous translation for one of the parallel sessions, I was able to record a couple of the international speakers. One was Robert Zimdahl, professor emeritus in the Department of Biological Sciences and Pest Management at Colorado University. He argued that technological fixes for the unintended consequences of technological innovation are not enough. Rethinking how we practice agriculture is necessary he believes – and ended his talk with a little story about kissing a mule – hang in to the end of this talk for that!


Ecological consciousness with a new politics of impossibility

The global challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, malnutrion and inequality require an ecological consciousness with a new politics of impossibility (beyond traditional political institutions) to achieve solutions, argued Richard Falk, emeritus professor of international law at Princeton University in this short closing address at Congress.


You can download the programme from the Congress Website

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#Potatoes – Crop of the Future? A discussion with Prof Anton Haverkort

PotatoHandbook.jpgForty years ago, when I was working in Turkey, I met another young man called Anton Haverkort, just setting out on his career. He grew up on a potato farm in the Netherlands, studied potatoes, and came to Turkey to work for the International Potato Centre at their base in the Menemen Research Institute near Izmir. He is now recognised as an award winning leading world expert on potatoes and has writtien ‘Potato handbook – Crop of the Future’, a magnum opus covering potatoes in society, the plant, propagation material, environment and cultivation, running to almost 600 pages. I went to meet up with him again in Wageningen, where he was a professor for many years, to hear his take on potatoes in the world today, and about the impact climate change and genetics will have on potatoes in the future.

As you heard, he is very much a technological optimist and proponent for using all the new techniques available to increase potato production in the future. By chance, I also met his older brother, Bertus, very briefly, and found out he had taken a different tack to Anton in looking at food and farming, focussing on the different ways different societies and cultures understand the world and use their knowledge and understanding about it. His work focuses on indigenous knowledge, agroecology and different approaches to science and use of knowledge. I wasn’t around for what I expect would be rather lively conversations between them but did see some of his books, pictured below. He is currently working on a contribution to a new book provisionally entitled ‘Agroecology, indigenous epistemologies and cognitive justice’ for the University of Coventry’. Here are some of the titles he authored:

For a non GM approach to breeding blight resistance potatoes take a look at this earlier blog with an interview with Dr David Shaw, of the Sarvari Research Trust here. The trust is still going despite doubts about its future at the time of my earlier blog.

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Resilience in the UK #foodsystem – 4 key questions

Resilience is one of the buzzwords of our times. Having a resilient food system is crucial in the light of climate destabilisation, biodiversity loss, and political changes such as will be brought about by Brexit in the UK. So what exactly does it mean? That’s a question I put to Dr John Ingram, food systems programme leader at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, at a stakeholder event called “Towards more resilient UK food system outcomes” held in Edinburgh in September 2019.

Food and agriculture are proportionally four times more important to Scotland than in the UK as a whole according to Fergus Ewing the MSP Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy. The Scottish Government has just committed to introducing Good Food Nation bill in the Scottish Parliament. In the face of a more unpredictable world mostly beyond their control, James Withers chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, said they brought together all parts of the industry and government to face the complex challenges ahead.

Pete Ritchie, who farms and runs an NGO, Nourish Scotland, talked about the need for farm level resilience. This includes investment in land and soil, in farm businesses, and in short food chains so farmers could retain added value as well as citizen trust, in which food is seen as a relationship about nourishing people not a commodity. It also needed diversity, with new entrants with new ideas, using better technology but involving more cooperation to help with marketing and logistics, more research on agro-ecological approaches as well as advisers. Beyond these it also needed rural housing and transport and payment for more public goods, amongst other things.

Bob Dougherty, Prof of marketing and chair in Agri-food at the York Management School, University of York, is principal investigator on Iknow food, a large interdisciplinary research programme on food system resilience. He is also a policy fellow at the Department for Environment Food and Rural affairs, where he is involved in a new UK food security assessment. He talked about the missing middle – the small and medium enterprises who make up 97% of the food manufacturing sector in the UK. These have a wide diversity in business forms, with a growing number of social enterprises that trade with a social mission, and are crucial for a resilient food system.

Tom Curtis, of 3keel, talked of the need to focus at the landscape level, to look at the landscape enterprise network, the functions needed in the landscape, the assets there and to bring people together around those. Andrew Whitley shared the lessons he learned from setting up the Village Bakery in Melmerby and then Bread Matters and farming in the borders of Scotland as well as developing the campaign Scotland the Bread (you can take a tour of his farm here and listen to an update of what he’s doing now here)

What these and other speakers drew attention to was the need to take a systemic approach to make the complex changes needed to increase resilience, the importance of diversity, of having the range of skills needed and of working together across the interacting socio-economic and biophysical impacts. As John Ingram said, there are four key questions – resilience of what, to what, for whom and over what time period – across the range of outcomes we need from our food systems.

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From #food #waste to #sustainable #foodsystems – digging deep into the reasons why and changes needed

Unusually, I spent yesterday, a warm and sunny September day, mostly outdoors in a short-sleeved shirt at a workshop held at the green oasis of Calthorpe Community Garden, near Kings Cross Station in London. Around 30 people had been gathered by Dark Matter Labs and Radicle as part of their work to understand how to create sustainable food systems. This is one of the workshops in the grand challenges series in preparation for EXPO 2020 in Dubai. Here, three of those involved (pictured above) explain more:

The day went from a big picture focus to looking at what was needed to get to a zero food waste London, as part of the thinking feeding into the Ellen MacArthur Foundation Food Flagship City Initiative. This is focuses on three cities – London, New York, and São Paulo – in which the Foundation will lead major food system projects to demonstrate how a circular economy vision for food can be achieved at scale.

The work going on at the Calthorpe community garden may be one contribution to that as Rokiah explains how they are working in the garden to experiment with creating a mini circular food economy.

If you find yourself in the area it’s well worth a walk down Gray’s Inn Road for a look round and a visit to the cafe. The Calthorpe Community Garden is around 500 metres from King’s Cross station, next door to the Eastman Dental Hospital.

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