#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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Rat hairs, hormones and chlorine – why food standards matter in trade deals

BittersweetBrexitI interviewed Dr Charlie Clutterbuck when his book Bittersweet Brexit came out. Given the many stories about the impact of trade deals, particularly with the USA, on current food standards in the UK I asked him for his take on these potential deals:

A trade deal around food with the USA is not just about chlorinated chicken, hormone drenched beef, or even ractomine-fed pigs – the chemicals used in USA to clean, to grow and to keep creatures lean. The USA is ‘more macho’ about these matters than we in the UK are. They allow more white blood cells (a signal of infection) in milk with ours. But the one that seems to stick in people’s memory (or is that throat?) is allowing ‘rat hairs’ in peanut butter. The US Food and Drink Administration (FDA) says you can have 5 per jar along with 150 insect parts; you can also happily find 5 whole insects in every half kilo of frozen fruit. They call these sorts of contaminations ‘unavoidable defects[i] Yet we seem to avoid these defects quite well. The FDA says these “Food Defect Action Levels” are set on the premise that they pose ‘no inherent hazard to health’. Yet, there are nearly 400 deaths a year in America from Salmonella, whereas we’ve not had one for many years.[ii] 80% of UK people say they do not want to drop these standards. Yet this may be another price to pay for a ‘No Deal’ – or rather a ‘Trump Deal’ – Brexit.

The EU has stricter standards, claiming scientific methods underlie the regulations, although the US will challenge any attempts we may make to maintain those standards once outside the EU. Generally, the EU implement a ‘hazards’ based approach – ie one that looks at intrinsic harm. This is linked with the ‘Precautionary Principle’ based on the idea of being ‘safe rather than sorry’. An example of this is the use of Maximum Residue levels of pesticides in food, which most food retailers follow closely.

The other main approach is ‘risk’ based where somebody tries to work out what actual damage may be caused. In the UK we have always favoured this way. While on the UK government’s Advisory Committee on Pesticides, we were asked which approach we preferred. I said ‘Hazards’ – and lost 1 to 18. We can expect a challenge from the USA on what they call ‘acceptable risk’- see full details of their negotiating position[iii]. They make it clear in that document, that they believe our standards are ‘non science’. The rest of Europe is fearful the USA will challenge the UK – and win, and thus weaken the EU ways.

If we have a ‘No Deal’, we will be handing Trump his menu on a plate. This is because these standards represent much more than the numbers, reflecting two different ways the EU and US deal with the main problem with food production in the world – overproduction. Worldwide we can grow far too much food for people to buy to eat. Many go hungry because they cannot afford the food, not because we can’t produce it.

The US subsidises its farmers over $850 Billion this year[iv], while EU pays their farmers around €60bn[v] to deal with the low prices caused by saturated markets. The US produces as much as possible, then tries to get rid of it round the world. The US Farm Bureau clearly says we ‘must accept their standards so they can increase their market’. They have done ever since the Marshall Plan after WW2 when they realised the political power that dependence on food could bring. In 1970s, Earl Butz’s – their then Secretary of Agriculture – rallying call was ‘food as a weapon[vi].

Europe also encouraged food production post war – so it was never again dependent on US political food power. But the food mountains started to appear, so we took a different tack in the 1990s. Instead of encouraging more production, efforts were directed to ‘greening’ – not very successful. However, we came up with another way of dealing with excess, and this was promoted by Mrs Thatcher’s encouragement for a SINGLE market. By maintaining high health, safety and welfare standards, it limited agricultural production to only those who could afford to invest, yet knowing they were protected’ from outsiders – unless they were using the same standards. This kept the EU internal market more buoyant. This is what led to all those mythical complaints about rules banning mince pies, prawn cocktail crisps and mushy peas – many promoted by our present PM.

However, there is a big distinction – as I spelt out in Bittersweet Brexit – between people wanting rid of the ‘bureaucracy’, ‘Brexiteers’, and those wanting ‘Free Markets’. These marketers hide behind Brexit, as they dash off to do deals, most of which will involve selling our financial services and buying their cheap food. More cheap food, without any standards, will come into the country, making us still more dependent on overseas food, causing environmental impacts elsewhere. Our DEFRA Chief Scientist thinks that is good as ‘we should have choice’ [vii] Yet our family farming community growing the sheep and beef, will be off to slaughter soon, and we will get fatter with the sugary corn syrup and soya, that the USA is trying to get rid of – especially now that China aren’t buying it.

You can follow developments in this area here: https://sites.google.com/view/bittersweetbrexit/trade/trump-trade. If anybody wants to help me keep this up to date and better designed, please let me know as it is dead easy. Thanks Charlie Clutterbuck 

[i] https://www.fda.gov/food/ingredients-additives-gras-packaging-guidance-documents-regulatory-information/food-defect-levels-handbook


[iii] https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/Summary_of_U.S.-UK_Negotiating_Objectives.pdf

[iv] https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2018/12/11/congresss-billion-farm-bill-is-out-heres-whats-it

[v] https://ec.europa.eu/info/food-farming-fisheries/key-policies/common-agricultural-policy/cap-glance_en#howitspaidfor

[vi] https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/ethics-of-aid-and-trade/food-weapon-and-the-strategic-concept-of-food-policy/114F207E97A9BA33C9DCBDD209BBCB40

[vii] https://www.fginsight.com/news/shoppers-should-have-choice-to-buy-hormone-treated-beef-says-defra-chief-scientist–92489





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Eating Tomorrow – #Agribusiness, Family #Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of #Food

EatingTomorrowCoverNov2018In this conversation, Timothy A. Wise takes us to Africa, India, Mexico and the USA to explain the key findings in his book ‘Eating Tomorrow: Agribusiness, Family Farmers, and the Battle for the Future of Food‘. He also discusses trade deals and some lessons the UK could learn post Brexit when it comes to negotiating with the USA. Tim directs the Land and Food Rights Program at the Small Planet Institute and is a senior research fellow at Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute, where he founded and directed its Globalization and Sustainable Development Program.

Note: This is the first time I’ve used the recording facility in Skype to do an interview so the sound quality, while reasonable, is not as good as if I’d been able to do it in person.

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Trading away #food and #health post #Brexit?

IPRs picForget the day after Brexit – deal or no deal. The disruption then, though serious, will be temporary. Long-term, the key issue is what kind of country Britain will be in the decades following our departure. To understand that, we need to get real about trade deals as what they cover will shape the country. Trade deals are about power and national economic interests. They are complicated, take time and are made in secret. I learned this in working with negotiators at the World Trade Organisation on and off for about 10 years to 2008.

I was working with negotiators, mainly from the Global South, on the issues arising from the TRIPS Agreement article 27.3(b). TRIPS stands for Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights. 27.3(b) is a subsection in the article that requires everything to be patentable but allows for exceptions for plants and animals. However, it still requires plant varieties to have some form of intellectual property protection. Esoteric sounding? Yes. But crucially important for who has what power and control over the food system in the future – from control of seeds to trade marks.*

Moreover, intellectual property (IP) rules and this TRIPS agreement are crucial for the business model of the pharmaceutical industry – as well as software, music, and film businesses. IP rules are central to the question of the price of, and access to, medicines. The TRIPS agreement was one of the most hard fought against by countries in the Global South as it constrained their development options by requiring them to introduce minimium standards for IP protection in ways the now rich countries were not subject to. For the US and those businesses dependent on IP, it was a crucial element in the bunch of agreements that make up the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as that introduced global minimal IP standards in a way they could not get through the World Intellectual Property Organisation.

The WTO is a trade liberalising organization and brought agriculture fully into the global trade rules. Intellectual property is not trade liberalising, it is about creating scarcity where there is none and restricting access. And the WTO is not, as its first director-general said, a free trade organization, it is a rules-based trading organisation. The question is who makes the rules in whose interests? Free trade only ever makes sense for the top dog in the trading game – which was Britain in the 19th century. But today it is the transnational corporations and the billionaire class who are the top dogs and whose agenda is generally promoted by the United States.

What people do in trade deals is trade things that have nothing in common with each other e.g. chalk and cheese. One party in a trade deal will be asked to give up something in an area that may matter to a small part of their economy or politically weak groups in exchange for something that they want that may matter in a bigger part of the economy or to more powerful political interests. For the UK seeking a deal with the United States, that might mean giving up concerns about food standards and farmers for access of other sectors, such as services, to the US market. It will almost certainly include pressure to extend the data protection exclusivity period for drugs and strengthened patent rules as well as opening up the National Health Service to private providers even more than it already is.

As the old Wizard of Id cartoon said, those who make the rules get the gold but unfortunately those who have the gold tend to have the biggest say in making the rules. And in free trade agreements (FTAs), as Peter Drahos and I noted, ‘the economics of an FTA do not favour the weaker state…, [but] the leaders from that weaker state may see political benefit in having a bilateral relationship with the world’s strongest state’ (p200 in The Future Control of Food). This is even more likely if members of a ruling elite stand to benefit from such changes.

It was also clear that negotiating in multilateral international fora, with others, gave a state more leverage than negotiating alone against either the USA or EU. For those seeking to see trading rules that promote sustainability, greater justice and equity, and reflect the needs of people and the environment, one lesson is to focus on the clear principles that matter in arguing for what you want – such as the polluter pays, or public health and access to medicines before patent profits – and not get lost in the detail. But along side that, to have the lawyers and others who can pay attention to the detail, such as where commas go and the use of the right wording in such agreements so that they deliver on the principles you are seeking to uphold.

*For more details see The Future Control of Food – a guide to international negotiations and rules on intellectual property, biodiversity and food security, downloadable for free in English, Spanish or Chinese here


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Young people facing #food insecurity in the UK have spoken. Was anybody listening? #Right2Food

Children's Future Food Inquiry

It’s been a couple of months since the Children’s Future Food Inquiry launched its final report and children’s #Right2Food Charter in late April. So, has anything been done to address the issues raised? I invited Pandora Haydon, Communications Manager at the Food Foundation, to outline what the Inquiry asked for, what has happened since then and what they expect to come out of the Parliamentary Backbench Debate led by Frank Field MP today.

When the Children’s Future Food Inquiry launched its final report in April 25th 2019, its priority was to call attention to the policy recommendations put forward in the children’s #Right2Food Charter. Written in consultation with the Inquiry’s fifteen young Food Ambassadors (aged between 10 and 20 years old), the Charter draws on young people’s experience of and response to food insecurity in the UK, identifying key areas for improvement and proposing solutions to the problems they feel are most urgent.

The young people’s key recommendation is for a new, independent Children’s Food Watchdog. This body would monitor and improve children’s food in each of the four nations, and crucially would have children and young people involved in its leadership. The Watchdog’s first task would be to undertake a full economic costing of the rest of the policy proposals made in the Charter.

Bearing in mind that recent reviews of poverty and food insecurity have been largely dismissed by the Government (the UK assessment delivered by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, for example), it’s encouraging to see demonstrable cross-party parliamentary support for the #Right2Food Charter’s recommendations.

Children's #Right2Food Charter

The London launch itself was attended by Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families Nadhim Zahawi MP, and earlier this month he sent out a letter to headteachers across England urging them to look closely at the Charter and tackle some of the issues raised, including the absence of accessible free drinking water in school. Since the subsequent launches in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, Kerry McCarthy MP has led a Westminster Hall Debate on the Charter, Theresa May committed to looking carefully at it during PMQs, and today, Frank Field MP will be discussing the Charter during his Backbench Debate.

In the immediate aftermath of the Charter’s launch, the Department for Education began work with us to explore the recommendations and have promised a formal response by September

We hope the scope of a government response to the Charter is addressed during today’s debate, and that questions are asked about when the Watchdog will be in place, what its remit will be, and how the Government intends to involve the young Food Ambassadors in the next steps. The Healthy Start programme is a key point of discussion in the report – we’d like to hear Parliament hold the Government to account on the consultation promised in Chapter 2 of the Childhood Obesity Strategy when it was published.

The Inquiry is making significant progress in terms of meaningful policy and practice change, but the new food insecurity figures for London alone – published today by the GLA – show there’s a great deal more to be done. As the Food Foundation’s Executive Director Anna Taylor has commented, “Food insecurity is hindering the growth of our children, crippling their confidence and making it impossible to learn and develop. The young people we spoke to are calling for a new, independent Children’s Food Watchdog: it’s time we worked with them to poverty proof their futures and uphold every child’s #Right2Food.”

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