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

Posted in Conversations | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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.



Posted in Comments, Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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? http://www.etcgroup.org/content/who-will-feed-us-industrial-food-chain-vs-peasant-food-web

2 Frances Moore Lappé ‘Farming for a small planet: agroecology now’ https://www.grain.org/bulletin_board/entries/5457-farming-for-a-small-planet-agroecology-now

To see blog on FEC site click here:

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Visiting the world’s largest oregano processor

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Posted in Interviews, Reports | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Creating a vibrant gastroeconomy in Turkey

How do you get people to treat food and cuisines as a serious part of the creative economy that supports economic as well as social development in a country? That is what a group of restaurateurs in Turkey have just tried to do by convening a global gastroeconomy summit in Istanbul on 29th March. They brought together speakers from around the world, including me, to talk about how other countries, such as Denmark, Peru and Spain, have made food a key part of their creative economy, to discuss what trends they should consider and guidelines for investment, as well as speakers from around Turkey.

After a packed day of talks, I managed to interview a few of the speakers to get a flavour of what was discussed and some of the major points made at the summit. We met at Mikla, which is run by chef Mehmet Gürs, a speaker at the conference and proponent of the New Anatolian Kitchen – building on the traditional cuisines found around Turkey. It’s listed as the 51st best restaurant in the world – a well deserved view judging by what we ate. It was amidst the chatter of the diners I asked Kaya Demirer, chair of the association putting on the summit why they had done so:

Spain is country that already makes millions from its cuisine and their approach was explained by Inaki Gaztelumendi:

While Spain’s may be a very familiar cuisine around the world Peru’s was not. That, however, is changing as part of a deliberate policy to use food as part of developing the economy, according to Isabella Falco:

In Korea, it has been government support for a key element of Korean cuisine that has helped put its food on the map worldwide explains Dr Jaeho Ha, General Director of the World Institute of Kimchi:

Government legislation can be an essential ingredient in securing the ability of a place to build its reputation for food and wine, as Clay Gregory from the Napa Valley in California explained:

There are, though, some essential things to consider if you are investing in this area as well as one key equation, as investment advisor Sebastian Nokes pointed out:

Food is part of the creative economy and a means to support the sustainable development goals and is supported by the UN Conference on Trade and Development, said Marisa Henderson:

Ismail Erturk, senior lecturer from the University of Manchester explained about gastronomy’s role in the economy.

As I pointed out in my talk, it was 40 years ago this year since I first went to Turkey to help establish an agricultural information centre at the Aegean University. At the time, my wife and I were thrilled to discover the fantastic cuisine that we found in Turkey, which was then a self-sufficient food exporter.

It is good to see that is now being celebrated more but it is important, as several speakers acknowledge, that when people talk about cuisines and gastronomy they do not think it is about fine dining for the rich and take a relatively narrow perspective in thinking about food. Rather, it is about understanding food in all its social, cultural, economic, political, and scientific contexts. It is this approach to gastronomy as a holistic understanding of food and the cultures and habits that surround it they take in the Masters course in gastronomy at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh where I’ve been giving an annual lecture for the past few years (see this blog). As such, my view of a gastro-economy perspective is that it must look at how we create a world in which everyone is well-fed through a diverse range of cuisines with sustainably, fairly produced and healthy food. It was good to hear that in thinking of developing the gastroeconomy in Turkey that is something people are also considering.

UPDATE: You can see the speeches from the day on line here


Posted in Interviews, Reports | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trading #food between countries – it’s harder than you think, especially if you’re a small producer

How to trade food between countries has been the lifetime’s work of Elsa Fairbanks. She’s worked on exporting food from the UK for all her career and is now a director of Food and Drink Exportese Ltd. It’s an issue that is exercising Britain’s food and drink producers as the UK prepares to leave the European Union but what is involved is relevant to any producers in one country wanting to export to another. I chatted to her about this and the various tariff and non-tarriff barriers, especially for the UK as it leaves the EU – not to mention who will be working in the food and farming sector. Listen on!

The table blow summaries the process any producer needs to go through to export foodstuffs to the USA which Elsa mentioned in her interview. The basic procedure is:

Copy of FDA Facility Registration Form 3537  for each Facility
Copy of Producer Food Safety Plan or equivalent for each Food line item in English with facility production floor plan and food production flow charts
Copy of Resume of Food Safety personnel at the Facility in English
Copy of Label to be affixed on to each Food line item in English. [FDA has adopted a new label format required to be adopted by July 26, 2019. However, Producers with less than $10 million in annual worldwide food sales will have an additional year to comply (ie by July 26, 2020) and Producers with less than 10 FTEE are exempt].
Food Specification and list of ingredients for each Food line item in English
Schedule of Food Sampling and Facility Audits Conducted for each Facility over the last three years together with a copy of the last sampling and audit reports
Schedule of recalls, import alerts or warning letters issued for each Food line item over the last 10 years together with a copy of the last recall, alert or warning letter issued in last year

There’s another set of rules on disclosure of origin that also matter greatly when countries negotiate free trade deals. These were highlighted by the UK Food and Drink Federation and the National Association of British and Irish Flour Millers (NABIM) in a report they commissioned from Global Counsel recently called ‘Rules of origin in an EU-UK FTA: A ‘hidden hard Brexit’ for food and drink exporters?’.

Rules of origin exist to ensure that when two or more WTO members agree a Free Trade Agreement (FTA), preferential tariffs are not abused by importers shipping goods produced in other markets through one of the signatories of the FTA in order to avoid payment of tariffs. According to Ian Wright CBE, Director General of the Food and Drink Federation, “Rules of origin are a big piece of the Brexit puzzle for the food and drink industry. If we fail to secure sufficiently generous rules as part of a preferential trade agreement with the EU, food and drink manufacturers will be the ones who suffer this hidden hard Brexit. They could be facing an increase in exporting costs, or a complete ban of entry to the market.”

For example, notes the FDF, UK chocolate producers that export £530m of products each year to the EU could face tariffs of 27 per cent or more depending on the value of UK refined cane sugar originating from the world’s poorest countries and the volume of Irish milk in their products.

“Flour millers in the UK source 80 per cent of their wheat from the UK, but also use grain from Canada, the USA and other European countries to make a range of flours with different baking qualities” according to Alex Waugh, Director General of the National Association of British and Irish Flour Millers. “If the rules of origin adopted in many of the EU’s trade agreements were to apply in a trade deal between the EU 27 and the UK, flour milled with even a small proportion of these grains, and many foodstuffs made from it, would no longer be considered ‘of UK origin’ and would therefore be subject to very significant duties. This would add, for example, €0.10 to the cost of a loaf in Ireland, which is mainly supplied with flour from the UK.”

The report looks in detail at how 5 products – wholemeal bread, rice and corn cakes, a milk chocolate bar, chicken curry ready meal and frozen pizza margherita – would fare under two existing different origin protocols and is well worth reading. The authors also suggest eight rules of origin provisions the UK could seek in a EU-UK origin framework.

Posted in Interviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

#Climate destabilisation and #biodiversity loss threaten our future – but too little attention is being paid to the latter

It seems to be a year of anniversaries for me. It’s 50 years since I went to university intending to study chemistry but then changing to study soil science. Soils are really complex physical, chemical, biological systems. Their health is affected by the social, cultural and economic activities of us humans who depend on them for our existence. Soils also host a huge amount of the biodiversity on the planet, yet you cannot see most of it.

I was prompted to think about this by a paper I was sent the other day. Its rather long title is “Our house is burning: discrepancy in climate change versus biodiversity coverage in the media as compared to scientific literature“. Basically, the multiple authors found that comparing the amount of research reported in the scientific literature on climate change and biodiversity versus the amount of coverage in the selected range of newspapers over a 25 year period showed a considerable imbalance. Given the level of research reports, there was far more coverage – up to 8 times as much – of climate change issues in the 12 English language newspapers they surveyed than that on biodiversity.

Climate change and biodiversity loss both impact on human well-being. This imbalance in coverage is impeding understanding and undermining efforts to address biodiversity loss. The authors called for more action by scientists to raise public awareness on biodiversity issues.

There have been a lot of longer-term scenarios and what is often called ‘horizon scanning’ on the impact of climate change. Much less so for biodiversity loss, most of which is hidden. The focus tends to be on the impact on iconic larger mammals like elephants, polar bears or tigers. Yet with soil, you need to dig down into it to see the different horizons in a soil profile. The amount of biodiversity in it is far from obvious – but is beautifully illustrated in the global soil biodiversity atlas (free to download).

While the biodiversity in soils may be largely invisible to the naked eye, healthy soils depend upon it (see also http://www.soilanimals.com/look/overview). However, as the report on The Status of the World’s Soils Resources noted “…the majority of the world’s soil resources are in only fair, poor or very poor condition. Today, 33 percent of land is moderately to highly degraded due to the erosion, salinization, compaction, acidification and chemical pollution of soils”.

The Global Land Outlook said “A minority has grown rich from the unsustainable use and large scale exploitation of land resources with related conflicts intensifying in many countries.”(see ch 9 on biodiversity and soil). To address concerns about this we also need to look at the rules, regulations and power relations that frame what people do with the soils and biodiversity on the planet. Here, one important set of rules are also little known and invisible to most people – those called ‘intellectual property rights’.

It is 20 years since I worked on a paper looking at the implications of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for food security and biodiversity (Trade, intellectual property, food and biodiversity: key issues and options for the 1999 review of article 27.3(b) of the TRIPS agreement). This agreement is one of the three key pillars of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Ten years later a book I edited with a Canadian colleague, Tasmin Rajotte, was published called “The future control of food: a guide to international negotiations and rules on intellectual property, biodiversity and food security“(free to download in English, Spanish and Chinese). Rules on IP are also a key bone of contention in bilateral trade negotiations.

What is clear over these last couple of decades is there has been much greater coverage and concern about climate change but less about the huge loss of biodiversity and especially agricultural biodiversity and the rules that shape what happens to them. It is time that changed.

Posted in Comments | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments