Saving and using Mexico’s fantastic #tomato agricultural #biodiversity

Tomatoes have spread into cuisines around the world but most commercial varieties have a narrow genetic base and only grow well in optimum conditions often in greenhouses. As climate changes and interest in the fruit’s nutritional properties grows, drawing on the huge number of indigenous varieties in Mexico to meet these challenges is hugely important as they grow in a wide range of conditions and have different nutritional properties. That’s a central aim of a project I heard about at Lancaster Environment Centre* earlier this month from Jacob Phelps in a talk on “Charting a future for Mexico’s endemic tomatoes”.

In this interview, he explains more about the importance of Mexico’s significance for the future of tomatoes and the role of the indigenous people in breeding a huge range of varieties and why they need urgent work to ensure they are not lost.

You can read more about his work here and that of fellow Lancaster researcher Dr Gabriela Toledo-Ortiz here

*I’m an honorary teaching fellow at the centre

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#Food’s role in creating healthier, happier #cities for all

Belfast in Northern Ireland is, unfortunately, perhaps best known for the decades of violence, called the Troubles, and as the place where the ill-fated Titantic was built. While the local TV news bulletins were reflecting about how the start of the Troubles could be traced back to events some 50 years ago, they also carried a report about the World Health Organisation (WHO) International Healthy Cities Conference 2018 held in the city from 1-4th October 2018.

Representatives from 60 countries and more than 200 cities – roughly half of them located in the WHO European Region – gathered in Belfast for this. I was asked in a keynote to the final plenary to reflect from a food system perspective on the aims set out in the Copenhagen Consensus of Mayors document, ‘Healthier and happier cities for all – a transformative approach for safe, inclusive, sustainable and resilient societies’.

Addressing the challenges our food systems face is a key element in any strategic approach to delivering on the Copenhagen Consensus’s goals as they touch on every aspect of the people, places, participation, prosperity, planet and peace focus in the document. And turning the aspirations in the declaration to emerge from the Belfast conference (click here to download) into reality requires cities to focus on the role they play in shaping food systems and how those food systems need to change to deliver healthy, sustainable diets for their citizens.

They require cities and urban areas to know their food economy and its impact, to use advisory, regulator and fiscal actions to support fair, healthy and sustainable food systems, to see food as a way to build community connection and enjoyment and to work together with other cities to share best practice and influence national, regional and international policy that support these goals.

Taking the Consensus’s six themes in relation to food, areas to address include:

People – city actions on food accessibility, availability and affordability and ensuring food systems include any excluded communities, with a focus on eliminating household food insecurity.

Places – using the urban environment to grow food and design places where food system and sustainability can be built into the urban environment

Participation – involving people (particularly the vulnerable and excluded) in the food system (for example, through school projects, procurement of catering services from vulnerable groups) and create events that celebrate and connect different cuisines and food cultures.

Prosperity – tackling poverty and its impact on people’s diets and health through the mechanisms at cities’ disposal, including monitoring household food insecurity, as well as measuring urban ‘success’ or prosperity through a food systems lens, including seeing a sustainable food system as a focus for urban economic development

Planet – leading by example and using sustainable procurement for the cities’ own services, and with advocacy for sustainable food systems through city diplomacy and in global networks

Peace – ensuring food security within a city, and contributing to food security beyond the city, which requires measuring household food insecurity and acting to eliminate it, in keeping with Sustainable Development Goal 2, Zero Hunger.

The theme for the Belfast meeting was ‘Changing Cities to Change the World’. Belfast has been involved in the Healthy Cities movement since it started 30 years ago with the creation of the WHO European Healthy Cities Network. And today the city, or at least parts of it, has been transformed. The Troubles are over, although people I spoke to expressed concern that the impact of Brexit could destabilise the area once again. From the waterfront conference centre to Titanic Belfast, a lot of investment has been put into the infrastructure in central Belfast. Indeed, Titanic Belfast has now had 5 million visitors since it first opening 2012, and in its first five years has brought in £160million to the local economy. Participants in the conference went on many site visits to where change had been happening.

As WHO argue, cities have a vital role to play in achieving better health for all and making progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While they occupy only about 2% of total land in the world, cities’ impact is substantial. They account for 70% of the global economy and over 60% of global energy consumption, and produce 70% of greenhouse gas emissions and 70% of global waste. Sometimes viewed as the culprit behind many of the most pressing challenges facing the world, they can and must be viewed as the drivers for change and finding solutions to these problems.

The healthy cities movement started in Europe 10 years after the landmark WHO conference on Primary Health Care in Alma-Ata. This adopted the definition of health as being a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. It also called for urgent and effective national and international action to develop and implement primary health care throughout the world and particularly in developing countries – something that has yet to be achieved.

After the European network was established, other healthy city networks grew up in all the other WHO regions. And once again this month WHO has been meeting in Kazakhstan in Astana at which they once again made a commitment to primary healthy care for all. “Today, instead of health for all, we have health for some,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO. “We all have a solemn responsibility to ensure that today’s declaration on primary health care enables every person, everywhere to exercise their fundamental right to health.”

There is an intimate connection between food, health and sustainability. To carry the work forward from both Belfast and Astana, requires making those connections. One step would be to link the healthy cities work to that coming from the Milan Urban Food Policy Pact, signed up to by 179 cities with 450 million inhabitants. As that text recognises ‘current food systems are being challenged to provide permanent and reliable access to adequate, safe, local, diversified, fair, healthy and nutrient rich food for all… cities which host over half the world’s population have a strategic role to play in developing sustainable food systems and promoting healthy diets’.

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Future #Food #Sustainability and research needs for the UK and EU facing #Brexit?

I was at an horizon scanning workshop organised by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics last week to discuss the future of food sustainability in the UK. It was run under the Chatham House rule, which means you can say things about what was said but not who said it. In a summing up at the end of the day for Nuffield, it was felt that  they may be able to help to recognise and integrate the moral claims on food sustainability especially around research and technology. There were a range of principles that were quite widely shared among the broad group of participants. One was that a holistic food system approach was needed with interdisciplinary research including the integration of social sciences at the outset. A multilevel approach in policy was also needed from local to global to landscape. A big question was how diets could be changed and who are the duty bearers to do so. There was an emphasis on recognising the need for nutrition security not just food security, in other words it’s not enough simply to think about calories but how well the diet gives nourishment to those consuming it. The need for equity of access to food linked to climate and social justice was also emphasised.

There were questions on what research was for, what is its focus, who pays and who gets the benefits from it. Where does the money come from for research, what is the institutional structure that makes the most sense in whose interests and what are the opportunity costs of doing research in some areas and neglecting others, such as agro-ecology. There is also a need to recognise that there different ways of dealing with problems that may or may not include technology and, in fact, is there too much focus on increasing production, too few interdisciplinary approaches raising questions about what the appropriate balance is between high-tech and social, economic, political and cultural approaches. Others pointed out the need for a clear appreciation of a range of externalities involved in our food system.

The day began with a presentation that outlined seven areas that had to be addressed. The first was that a great transformation was needed and the enormity of what had to happen is now clear from changing the way we use animals to plants to the ecosystem. The need to deal with biodiversity loss by moving to plant-based diets was understood and the social dimensions of sustainability, which are often underplayed. Food culture is often missing. The UK was not narrowing the evidence gap and is off-shoring its greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption. It needs a one nation approach looking at the whole population in terms of health, social values, quality, quantity, environment, economics and governance. Secondly, food is a key driver of unsustainability of our present system and Brexit illustrates the just-in-time food system we have in the UK. According to report today (see below) the government is planning to suspend all food regulations in the event of a no deal Brexit. The third point was the need for multilevel policy initiatives not just in the UK. Here the sustainable development goals were a useful framework but we need to realise that Britain is in the heartlands of where world food power and capital lie. A fourth point was recognising that companies are very interested in these issues. They are looking long term, seeing Armageddon ahead and working out how to deal with it. However, this tends to be the larger ones and it is not being dealt with by small and medium enterprises.

A fifth point was the need for civil society organisations to take on this broad view and understanding of the food system challenges and how they connect together to deal with them. A sixth point was that three lessons could be drawn from all this. These are that there are three kinds of policy approaches at the moment – first, is sticking to simple points and not trying to deal with the complexity as people find it too challenging. Second is choice editing and the third one was targeting meat and hoping everything else would fall into place. The final point was that we do not have a great food transition the UK but there are throughout the country different interesting democratic experiments going on. While the circular economy was a useful material approach to reduce waste the question was what drives waste. It was not the answer to sustainability. Brexit makes everything harder as the UK is embedded in a Europeanised food system from which 41% of its food comes.

Interestingly, a paper published today Feeding Britain: Food Security after Brexit from the Food Research Collaboration’s Food Brexit Briefings, calls upon the UK government to “Maintain a clear and explicit focus on the potential adverse effects of Brexit on food security in the UK, while negotiating the UK’s future trading relationships with the EU and other jurisdictions” as well as publish “Brexit impact studies on the UK’s agricultural and food system” amongst other things. It also calls for a rethink of the Food Standards Agencies Regulating Our Future programme plans for changing the way food is regulated in the UK.

It is also interesting to see that there is much more discussion in the EU about taking a more food system change approach to rethinking food and farming as shown by the recent publication from the FOOD 2030 Expert Group “Recipe for Change: An agenda for a climate-smart and sustainable food system for a healthy Europe

Many of the issues around research in food and farming are discussed in For whom? Questioning the food and farming research agenda, a Food Ethics Council Publication with a collection of articles addressing key questions about how the research agenda is set in food and farming, the dominant research paradigm, and inclusive alternatives to deliver public good.

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A #food tale of two cities – Cape Town and New York grappling to improve their food systems

About 20 people gathered in Cardiff in early June for a workshop on the role of cities in delivering food security and sustainability prior to a public conference on the new urban food agenda of sustainable food cities. In this interview with Dr Jane Battersby and Prof Nevin Cohen, they discuss how both local government and communities in their respective cities – Cape Town and New York – are grappling with the challenges of ensuring food security and sustainability.

You can read more about their work by following the links and references below:

Dr Jane Battersby, African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town, is Principal Investigator: Nourishing Spaces Project. Her publications include:

Food System transformation in the Absence of Food System Planning: The Case of Supermarket and Shopping Mall Retail Expansion in Cape Town, South Africa

Hungry Cities Partnership Discussion Paper No. 5: Mapping the Informal Food Economy in Cape Town, South Africa’

The Western Cape provincial food security strategy can be found here

Prof Nevin Cohen is Associate Professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Public Health, and Research Director of CUNY’s Urban Food Policy Institute. His publications include:

Let Them Eat Kale: The Misplaced Narrative of Food Access

Ten Years of Food Policy Governance in New York City: Lessons for the Next Decade

The Park Slope Food Coop in New York is a member-owned and operated food store– an alternative to commercial profit-oriented business. Details of the Paris version are here.

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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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