Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Monday, July 08, 2013

Summer Plans

This summer Agdes will be working for CRS in their "5 Skill Program." These are the skill CRS has identified as essential to become more viable farmers and link more effectively to farmers.

The skills include:

  • How to manage themselves as a group (developing and implementing a common vision, democratic decision-making, conflict resolution, etc.)
  • Savings and financial skills (crucial for protecting and accumulating assets)
  • Basic business and marketing skills (specifically how to identify an authentic market opportunity, and develop it as a business)
  • Basic principles of sustainable production and natural resource management (how to maintain and increase the productivity of their natural resource base; also to understand the importance of natural resources and ecosystem services); and
  • Technology and innovation skills (how to access, adapt and apply new technology to increase the productivity and profitability of their enterprises).

See video below. You can also find more information about the program at:

Sunday, May 26, 2013

TED Talks about Food and Nutrition

Our friends from the FoodTank have compiled an excellent list of TED talks that touch on the issue of agriculture, food and nutrition. Watch and listen: 

1. Roger Thurow: The Hungry Farmer - My Moment of Great DisruptionThurow, author of The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change, explains the profound "disease of the soul" that hunger represents, and how empowering smallholder farmers can bring long-term sustainable health and hope to the people of Africa.

2. Mark Bittman: What's Wrong with What We EatBittman, a food writer for The New York Times, examines how individual actions--namely food choices--contribute to both the detriment of the climate and long-term chronic health diseases. He suggests that we eat meat in moderation because agriculture is responsible for more greenhouse gas pollution than transportation.

3. Anna Lappe: Marketing Food to ChildrenLappe, author of Diet for a Hot Planet: The Climate Crisis at the End of Your Fork and What You Can Do About It, questions whether multibillion dollar corporations should be marketing unhealthy foods to impressionable children, especially considering the numerous food-related health issues that are increasingly common among young people.

4. Ellen Gustafson: Obesity + Hunger = 1 Global Food IssueAccording to Food Tank co-founder Gustafson, the American food system has changed dramatically in the past 30 years; agriculture has been consolidated, new and cheap processed food have gained popularity, and U.S. agricultural aid abroad has decreased. These factors are major contributors to the current problem of one billion hungry and one billion overweight people on the planet.

5. Tristram Stuart: The Global Food Waste ScandalStuart laments how supermarkets, cafeterias, bakers, farmers, and other food producers are “literally hemorrhaging” food waste--the majority of which is fit for human consumption, but has been discarded because it is not aesthetically pleasing. He offers a radical solution: “freeganism,” a movement in which food that would normally be thrown away is eaten instead.

6. Brian Halweil: From New York to Africa: Why Food Is Saving the WorldHalweil, publisher of Edible Manhattan, was on track to become a doctor until he realized that repairing the global food system could help to conserve people’s health and wellbeing more. Halweil believes that the local food movement is a truly powerful medicine.

7. Fred Kaufman The Measure of All ThingsKaufman, from the City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism, heralds the rise of a “Great Greenwash.” He further questions whether Wal-Mart and other corporations participating in the Sustainability Index are living up to their claims.

8. LaDonna Redman Food + Justice = DemocracyRedman, founder of the Campaign for Food Justice Now and long-time food activist, examines how the root causes of violence and public health concerns experienced by her community are strongly connected to the local food system, and are best addressed by making changes in that system.

9. Jose Andres: Creativity in Cooking Can Solve Our Biggest ChallengesChef Andres highlights the power of cooking. He demonstrates how we can tackle obesity and hunger using our inherent creativity. He urges everyone to turn simple ideas into big solutions--something we’ve been doing for centuries. Creativity and cooking are what he claims can give us hope for feeding the world.

10. Jamie Oliver's TED Prize Wish: Teach Every Child About FoodCelebrity chef Oliver has waged a revolution to combat the biggest killer in the U.S., diet-related disease, through food and cooking education. Using stories from his anti-obesity project in Huntington, WV, he shows how the power of information can defeat food ignorance and obesity.

11. Dan Barber: How I Fell in Love with a FishBarber tells a humorous love story starting with every chef’s predicament: with the worldwide decline in fish populations, how are we going to keep fish on our menus? He is skeptical of the current trajectory of fish farms, and asks whether they are truly sustainable. But there is a solution – Barber tells of one farm in Spain utilizing a revolutionary, yet basic idea: ecological relationships.

12. Carolyn Steel: How Food Shapes Our CitiesMeat consumption and urbanism are rising hand-in-hand. Steel, an architect, explains how we got here by tracing how human settlements have fed themselves through time and, thus, shaped our cities. But in today’s cities, our relationship with food is misshapen--it is disconnected. Steel suggests an alternative to urban design in which we use food as a tool to reconnect and interconnect.

13. Ann Cooper: Lunch Lessons: Changing the Way We Feed Our ChildrenCooper, the “renegade lunch lady,” wants us to get angry about what kids eat at school. She wants kids to eat healthy, sustainable food; but first, we all need to care why this should happen. In this talk, she tries to rally us around changing the financing, facilities, human resources, marketing, and food in the school lunchroom.

14. Ron Finley: A Guerrilla Gardener in South Central L.A.Finley plants vegetable gardens in South Central Los Angeles -- in abandoned lots, traffic medians, and along the curbs in order to offer an alternative to fast food in a community where "the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys." He explains how his community is desperate for nutritional food, and why he thinks urban gardening is the solution.

15. Tama Matsuoka Wong: How I Did Less and Ate Better, Thanks to WeedsWong describes the path she took to discover that weeds are not only nutrient-rich, environmentally sustainable foods, but can also be quite delicious. She abandoned her career as a corporate attorney to become a professional forager, eventually founding MeadowsandMore, an initiative that teaches people to take advantage of the food resources right in their backyards.

16. Stephen Ritz: Green Bronx Machine: Growing Our Way Into a New EconomyMost of Ritz’s students live at or below the poverty line, and/or live with disabilities. But through his Green Bronx Machine project, he has turned their lives around. By teaching them the business of installing edible walls and green roofs, he has empowered his students to make a real difference in their own lives, in their communities, and beyond.

17. Angela Morelli: The Global Water Footprint of HumanityMorelli, Italian information designer and World Economic Forum’s 2012 Young Global Leader nominee, helps consumers visualize the enormous expenditures of water that occur daily in the food system using graphic design. In this talk, she explains the concept of the “water footprint”--something that is hugely affected by simple diet choices.

18. Birke Baehr: What's Wrong With Our Food SystemBaehr, at just 11 years old at the time of this talk, presents the most glaring problems in our food system with the directness that, truly, only a child could do. He gives hope that future generations will really lead the charge in changing the food system: "Now a while back, I wanted to be an NFL football player. I decided that I'd rather be an organic farmer instead."

19. Graham Hill: Why I'm a Weekday VegetarianDespite his “hippie” upbringing, founder Hill is not a vegetarian. In this short talk, he explains his choice to become a weekday vegetarian, instead, and outlines the many benefits of choosing this lifestyle. 20. Joel Salatin: Thinking About SoilSalatin, the “lunatic farmer,” decries the modern farming practices that destroy necessary insects, create chemically engineered plants, and breed sick livestock, resulting in a “dead food system” based on a “mechanistic view of life.” He calls for a return to organic, natural farming and processing practices. 21. Roger Doiron: A Subversive PlotGardening is a subversive activity. Food is a form of energy, but it’s also a form of power.” This sums up Doiron’s persuasive argument as to why everyone should undertake the project of a home garden, and control their own access to fresh, hyper-locally grown produce.

22. Britta Riley: A Garden in My ApartmentRiley struck out to plant a garden in her tiny New York City apartment, and ended up developing an environmentally sustainable window garden - that yielded delicious results. Riley describes her method as “R&DIY - Research and Develop It Yourself.”

23. Arthur Potts Dawson: A Vision for Sustainable RestaurantsDawson has designed two environmentally sustainable London restaurants, Acorn House and Water House, that work toward eliminating waste entirely and using only clean energy. He explains how, by pursuing more projects such as these, the restaurant industry, “pretty much the most wasteful industry in the world,” can be reformed. 24. Ken Cook: Turning the Farm Bill into the Food BillCook, President of the Environmental Working Group, explains how farm subsidies are being placed into the very wrong hands; specifically, those of farmers producing corn only for fuel. His talk is a call to change the federal incentive system that is directly threatening the food on our plates.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Monday, April 08, 2013

Save the Bees

Check out the NYTimes reports on the bee crisis and its excellent editorial demanding action. While many questions remained unanswered,  I'm glad that the times, CBS, and others are covering the story and pressuring officials to respond. The culprit, so far, seems hard to identify. In the UK, studies have liked the bee crisis to increased use of a pesticide called neonicotinoids. Europe's Food Safety Authority said that these pesticides pose an unacceptably high risk to bees. Efforts to ban it, however, have failed. Stay tuned.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Al Jazeera's Inside Story on the Politics of Global Food Security

Much Needed Reform to Food Aid - We Hope

© Flickr:
What better way to end the month-long hiatus than by sharing the good new on food aid reform. According Politico, NYtimes and others, the Obama administration is expecting to announce a full transition to local procurement and cash vouchers. Instead of the sending containers full of US-grown commodities across the ocean, humanitarian and development organizations would soon be able to buy the food needed in regional and local markets.

Although I've written many times here and elsewhere about this, allow me to recap why I consider this a huge deal. First of all, our current system - in-kind food aid programs - is extremely inefficient and expensive. Most of the funding goes to pay for shipping and the food often takes months to arrive to its destination. In addition, the practice of selling food aid in local markets - monetization - can reduce local prices, leaving poor farmers worse off. The type of food is often not culturally adequate, and -with few exceptions-  it provides little nutritional value as it's mostly basic staples.

Local and regional procurement - the way WFP and other international donors do food aid - is much cheaper and efficient. Reporting for NPR's Morning Edition, Dan Charles interviewed Andrew Natsios (former USAID Administrator)  on the proposed changes to Food for Peace, the main program used to distribute food aid. According Natsios, when he first proposed the local procurement at one of the food aid conference in Kansas City, he was almost physically attacked. Virulent opposition coming from the shippers and some sector of the farm lobby prevented the reform from taking place.

I had the opportunity to visit one of the Kansas City Food Aid conferences few years ago while working for a small Nicaraguan NGO that relied on some USAID programs for its operations. The one thing that stuck in my mind was the shiny showcases the shippers used to allure contractors and NGOs into hiring their services when sending food aid across the ocean. I would later learn that close to half of our food aid budget goes to pay for these services.

Few stands from the shippers, my nostrils captured the smell of salmon coming from one of the corners. I followed my nose expecting a guy giving out delicious d'œuvres to find instead an Alaskan company sampling canned wild salmon used in food aid. While quite tasty, the cost of shipping these guys to places like Somalia, Ethiopia and Bangladesh takes up to 90% of the total tab American tax payers have to pay for the program.

Later in my career I had the honor to work with the USDA in a pilot program to replace in-kind food aid. Our proposal was one of the few in Latin America and the only one used to supply rural schools with fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy from nearby farmer cooperatives. I saw the tremendous impact programs like these can have in the communities where they are implemented. One of the farmer coops we worked with was able to expand its market to other costumers. In fact, a key factor behind the famous Brazil's Zero Hunger program was its local procurement for public schools, a model similar to the current proposal.

While we are all still waiting for the official announcement from the administration, I really hope this time we get it right. It wouldn't be the first time powerful lobbying groups and a handful of humanitarian organizations get away with maintaining our current broken system. I'll keep you all posted.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Reforming American Food Aid

Below are two key policy recommendation that Agdes has been advocating for a while. Thanks to The Chicago Council on Global Affairs for preparing the summary below and providing the leadership to support these important reforms. 

Increase funding for local purchase of food aid
US food aid would be more efficient and cost effective if the US transitioned to a more cash-based food aid system except in certain emergency situations in which a food donation is required.  A cash-based food aid system is a speedier and more cost-efficient way to reach beneficiaries in developing countries than shipping U.S.-grown food to low-income countries. Cash can also be distributed rapidly even to remote locations.  Local and regional purchases of food aid reduce delivery time by an average of 13.8 weeks, or by more than half the current delivery method, while stimulating agricultural development.  The transaction costs of a cash-based system are also lower than shipping food aid.  According to the FAO, approximately one-third of the total funds allocated for emergency food aid is spent on transportation costs.  Moreover, a cash-based system will allow local and regional purchases of food and stimulate local markets without artificially lowering prices. 

The United States is the only aid donor that still gives food in-kind rather than cash. Donation of U.S.-purchased food aid should continue only when local supplies are inadequate or nutritionally dense foods are not readily available.  These instances could include donations to refugee camps in famine areas or aid following natural disasters.

Scale down the monetization of food aid
Both task forces also recommended that the United States should scale down the practice of monetization.  The loss to taxpayers is huge considering the overhead costs, and the practice contradicts efforts to eliminate wasteful government spending.  The 2011 GAO report on reducing duplication in government programs and saving tax dollars found that the process of using cash to procure, ship, and sell commodities costs $219 million out of total budget of $722 million over a three-year period.  Almost 30 percent of the funds appropriated for development projects did not reach intended recipients due to the monetization process.   The GAO report concludes that monetization “cannot be as efficient as a standard development program which provides cash grants directly to implementing partners.”  Additionally, the sale of U.S. goods can drive down local market prices and discourage local food production.  Groups recommended that the US government transfer funds directly to nongovernmental organizations to conduct their development programs overseas.

About the task forces
The 2012 US Agriculture and Food Policy Panel was a bi-partisan task force led by Catherine Bertini, former executive director, UN World Food Program; August Schumacher Jr., former undersecretary of Agriculture for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services, US Department of Agriculture; and Robert L. Thompson, professor emeritus of Agricultural Policy, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.   The panel’s final statement, released in June 2012, included recommendations for how to modernize US food and farm policy to meet the production, nutrition, and environmental challenges of the future.
The 2009 Global Agricultural Development Leaders Group was a bi-partisan task force led by Catherine Bertini and Dan Glickman, former secretary, US Department of Agriculture.  The group released recommendations in February 2009 laying out the opportunities and benefits of greater US investment in agricultural development in Africa and South Asia as a means to alleviate global poverty and hunger and increase global food production.
More information:

Monday, February 04, 2013

Egypt and its Forgotten Farmers

In an excellent mini-documentary, PBS explores Egyp's agriculture sector and its impact of  the revolution. The film explores how disfranchised farmers had to migrate to the urban centers after export-oriented policies left little of their livelihoods after access to capital and water was redirected to the well-connected. Poor farmers, and urban consumers tired of increasing food prices, provided the fuel that toppled Mubarak.

In a short report, BBC gives us an update on how those poor farmers' have been doing since the revolution. Unfortunately, despite promises from the new government, little has changed.

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Sunday, January 27, 2013

'World needs to work together to feed itself' - Cargill's Greg Page

In a BBC interview Cargill chief executive Greg Page talks about the importance of the global food system, giving the example of how Brazilian feed was key for the American livestock industry during last year's drought. 
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Friday, January 25, 2013

Request for Information on Extension Workers

See below a special request from Jessica Fanzo. A group of Columbia students (including yours truly) is working with her in this initiative. Any information is more that welcome. 
The Secure Nutrition Knowledge Platform and the Global Forum for Rural Advisory Services (GFRAS) are undertaking a mapping exercise on home economics and nutrition in extension and advisory services and workers in Africa, South Asia and the Americas. Currently, the role and status of extension and advisory services in nutrition is largely unknown. Except for home economists, many extension services do not have a focus on nutrition. Moreover, home economics extension is no longer present in many countries.

The objective of this work will be to document and map the past, current and future rural extension services that include nutrition, home economic and diet related activities within their portfolio, and identify good practice country or program cases, and note comparative advantages of different types of models. We hope that this mapping exercise informs the nutrition sensitive dialogue in the Scaling Up Nutrition movement and other global, regional and country initiatives.
We are interested in hearing from individuals who have had experience with integrating extension services with dietary, nutrition, and/or home economic activities. This experience could be through trainings, programs, or research. If you are interested in sharing your experiences, please email Jessica Fanzo at We appreciate your responses and participation.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mark Lynas Speech on GMOs

Mark Lynas' video has been circulating the blogosphere for a while now. For those of you seeing this for the first time, Mr. Lynas presents a robust defense of biotechnology and GMOs at a lecture to Oxford Farming Conference in 3 January 2013. What made so popular though, was the fact that Mr. Lynas was a former anti-GMO crusader, publishing books against it and spreading myths about the technology. Now, in a complete reversal, he tells his the world audience how he was dead wrong to oppose biotechnology.

Also, don't forget to check The Economist debate about whether biotechnology and sustainable agriculture are complementary or contradictory.