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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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

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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.



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