Colombia must get rich fast, data rich that is

In 2013, hundreds of thousands of Colombian farmers engaged in acts of civil disobedience in what is now remembered as one of the most important agrarian strikes the country has faced. Hungry for effective and long-term agricultural public policy, farmers and supporters blocked the country’s main roads for weeks.

38% of Colombian territory is used for agriculture [i], a land area approximately twice the size of The United Kingdom and about the same size as the state of California. For all its magnitude, Colombia is notorious for its lack of agricultural data. Only two agricultural censuses have ever been completed (1960 and 1970) and both of them covered roughly only half of the country. Virtually every report that assesses the Colombian agricultural sector made available by the government or an external agency, highlights the need for better production and distribution of agricultural information. In an article recently published in the journal Global Food Security, the country has been classified with only two other South American countries (Bolivia and Uruguay) in the category high priority for improving cropland maps.

Despite announcing that the results of the third national agricultural census, which was motivated by the 2013 agrarian strike, were going to be publicly available in 2015, no such information can be found online.

My social media conversation with the Colombian statistics department. The meteorological institute (IDEAM) was quick to point out that the census was not their responsibility. The statistics department has not answered.

My social media conversation with the Colombian statistics department. The meteorological institute (IDEAM) was quick to point out that the census was not their responsibility. The statistics department has not answered.

Colombia has an impressive agricultural potential due to its topographic characteristics and location, which create a variety of soils and landscapes that can sustain a broad production of known commodities which include coffee, flowers, sugar and a myriad of ecosystem services. With all its biodiversity it could be home to responsible businesses within a blooming agricultural sector. Mining and fossil fuel extraction are not sustainable ways of managing Colombia’s natural resources but these industries thrive because, amongst many other reasons, they have enough data and information to operate and generate an income for the many Colombian families that need it.

Extreme weather events, such as drought and floods, are increasing the country’s agricultural vulnerability. The 2008 – 2011 coffee leaf rust outbreak (roya), most likely weather-driven by increased precipitation, resulted in an estimated loss of 12 million sacks of coffee – roughly the equivalent to the yield of an entire yield. The 2010-2011 flood events are estimated to have caused losses of around $7.8 billion in reconstruction and governmental subsidies costs. In 2014, drought intensified the ongoing food insecurity of indigenous groups in the Northern Guajira Peninsula. All these events have collateral effects beyond agriculture that include reduced newborn health.

These threats, predicted to increase in frequency, call for organised and informed public policy, which has at its core a thorough recognition of the country’s current capabilities through rigorous agricultural data collection. That’s why Colombia must get rich fast, data rich that is.

[i] Total area 1,109,000 square kilometres, agricultural area (421,420 square kilometres)


Why do we have to be so many?

“How to feed a population of 9 billion people in 2050?” That’s the way roughly half of my classes begin as a Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture student.

From there, my lecturers steer the conversation into a specific dimension of food production: soil, intensive farming, meat demand, crops, yields, etc.

“But wait!” I raise my hand and ask, “why do we have to be so many people? Wouldn’t it be easier to stabilise the population to manage our planet sustainably?”

Since I haven’t done that in any of my classes so far, that’s what I intend to explore with this post.

I checked today and it’s estimated that in July 2015 we’ll be 7.325 billion lovely faces on this planet according to the UN Population Division statisticians.

Max Roser (2015) – ‘World Population Growth’.  Click to the image to go to the source and one of my favourite websites

Max Roser (2015) – ‘World Population Growth’. 
Click to the image to go to the source and one of my favourite websites

The opening question gets much more complicated if we combine factors like dietary preferences and increasing purchasing power. What this means is that, typically, as a person earns more, they can afford foods they formerly couldn’t and generate demand for them. Beef, salmon, cheese, dairy are part of these increasingly preferred foods. The problem with this dietary liking is that these foods are very resource intensive to produce (i.e. water, animal feeds, fuel for transportation).

It is really difficult to feed 9 billion people meat and dairy considering that we’re failing to feed our current population and simultaneously pushing planetary boundaries.

Click the image to go the Stockholm Resilience Centre where this framework was developed.

Click the image to go the Stockholm Resilience Centre where this framework was developed.

If you’re still not overwhelmed, let’s add, you know it was coming, climate change into the problem. Extreme weather, associated to climate change, has affected and will continue to affect food production. You see, agriculture is pretty risky. In 2012, drought and heat waves impacted maize production in the U.S. reducing it 29% compared to trend. What this meant for the U.S. was less exports, and since the U.S. is the largest exporter of maize in the world (72%), countries depending on these  maize imports, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and the Latin America and Caribbean region, had less food as a consequence (Gbegbelegbe, Chung, Shiferaw, Msangi, & Tesfaye, 2014).

These are just a few constraints that exacerbate the problem. There are plenty more because resources are limited. That’s the fundamental truth behind life. Humans have limited time and Earth has limited resources.

Why do we have to be so many? Why can’t we just stabilise the population? It seems reasonable at a large scale, but then I think about enforcing the policies on a personal level. As an example, China’s one-child policy to me feels like it crosses self-determination. Who is anyone to tell someone else, “no, you can’t have three children. You need to have one, deal with it!”

It’s aggressive and it’s an invasion of rights. But then I go back to this speedy population growth and everyone eating meat. Even if magically we all woke up vegetarians, under current climate change scenarios, crop production and distribution is tricky.

The planet is, however, finite. Are we going to keep multiplying until resources harshly limit us like rats in the famous Calhoun experiments. Are we not smart enough to self-stabilise? What is the way forward?

This is a very contestable topic, that’s why I’d like to start a conversation about it here. Let me know your stance in the comments below.

How does food security happen? Alternative title: deconstructing a bowl of porridge

The first few times I read the definition of food security, even though I could recite it and maybe even come up with convincing examples, I didn’t really understand how food security happens. Reading related articles and visiting farms has been helpful, but what has truly made the difference is thinking about how and why, as an individual, I am food secure. I like to think about this as often as I can. That’s what I’ll do in this post. How does food security happen in my life explained with a bowl of porridge. Hopefully it’ll help you reflect upon how food secure you are and to what extent. It’s really interesting stuff we’ll continue to explore in upcoming weeks. But for now, how does food security happen?

Cuadros vacios

How does food security happen? Let’s fill out these empty blocks, shall we?

What is food security?

The most widely-cited definition is this one: “Food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” (FAO, 2002)

Even though that definition is non-intimidating, I prefer the next one because it’s more specific. It gives me a set of criteria which I can later use to assess situations (FAO, 2008):

Food security exists when the following four conditions are met: a) food is available (i.e. crop growth and harvest); b) food is accessible (i.e. exchange at market); c) food is utilised (i.e. correct preparation and assimilation by the body); and, d) the previous three conditions are stable over time.

Deconstruction of oatmeal

So after reading those definitions my typical reaction used to be: “Okay. Those four criteria have to be met. But how does that actually happen?” Feeling pretty food secure as I ate my breakfast, I asked: How did this bowl of porridge come to be? That’s where the idea for this post came from. Let’s focus on the oats to find an answer.

It all starts with a question, where do the oats in my porridge come from?

Assumptions (things we’ll imagine for the sake of this post):

  • There is only one producer of oats.
  • The farmers who grow the oats also process and sell them directly to the market without any middleman.
  • All trading occurs at a centralised market, that is, consumers don’t visit the farm directly – I don’t fly to Ireland to pick up my oats.

Stage 1: Producing food

Food system 1

Stage 1: Food production – it refers to agriculture and includes crops, forests, livestock and fisheries (Betts et al., 2009).

Somewhere oats have to be grown from soil, water and sunlight – because oat is a cereal that grows above ground. Obvious, right? Is it? Flashback to the results of that survey by the British Nutrition Foundation where a third of the primary school participants thought cheese came from plants and a tenth of the secondary school participants thought tomatoes were grown underground.

Stage 2: Processing food

Food system 2

Stage 2: Food processing and packaging – after harvesting, crops or animal products usually require some form of processing before consumption (Ericksen, 2008).

Although you probably know, it doesn’t hurt to repeat this: oats, as commonly bought in supermarkets, are not the result of just shaking the plant and collecting what comes off. The part of the oat plant we eat in our porridge is a seed within a harder outer layer called ‘hull’, which is attached to the stalks. The process of threshing and hulling is well explained here (with pictures).

After that, depending on how you prefer them, there is still more processing. In our example, groats (oats after the hull is removed) are steamed and flattened. You can see the differences here (yes, with pictures).

Stage 3: Distributing food

Food system 3

Stage 3: Food distribution – it aims to connect producers and consumers but it also strives to allocate food appropriately (MIT, 2014).

Great. So food is ready to eat, sort of. It’s been grown and processed. But there are still steps left before I can enjoy a delicious warm bowl of porridge.

Oats need to make it to a market. What does this entail? Close your eyes and imagine thousands of packages of oats being put into boxes. Multiply these boxes and visualize them going into a container straight to a retailer or market. There is fuel involved to get them to Exeter (where I’m living right now), there is of packaging involved to make sure the oats arrive as the producers in Ireland intended them to and there is unloading and unpacking until an employee finally stocks shelves.

On one sunny, or not so sunny (because England), morning I get up and decide to go grocery shopping. For me to buy oats, I have to have resources. That is a given in this example but lack of resources is a serious cause of food insecurity for millions of people around the world. Particularly because the less income a family earns, the fraction of their earnings spent on food is higher, making them very sensitive to changes in food prices.

Let’s continue for now. Imagine I walk to the supermarket, reach for the oats and buy them. We’re almost there.

Stage 4: Consuming food

Food system 4

Stage 4: Food consumption – adequate use of food, ingestion and nutrient assimilation. A big fear of mine is having a lot of quinoa to eat, but no food or source of heat to cook it!

Every morning as soon as I get up, I take these four ingredients and put them inside a slow cooker so that my porridge is done by the time I’m ready. This seemingly trivial process involves access to energy to power the slow cooker and knowledge to understand how to use these foods to prepare a bowl of creamy oatmeal.

Finally, I use a spoon to scoop this deliciousness into my mouth. My body has no problem digesting the ingredients and absorbing its nutrients. Never to be taken for granted! Serious medical conditions that impede nutrient absorption by the body can cause severe food insecurity even if everything else I just mentioned is met!

I consider myself to be food secure because I think all the circumstances just described will continue to happen regularly during my lifetime. Truth is, nobody is exempt from becoming food insecure! My health is not guaranteed, or is my access to resources – global food production is under pressure.

 Food systems and food security


Food security is an outcome of food systems (FAO, 2002).

The four stages just explained form what is called a food system. As you hopefully understood, food security is an outcome (result or product) of food systems. If you were paying attention, you probably realised that there are many things that interact with each stage of the food system: environmental, social, political and economic drivers affect and are affected by food systems. In upcoming weeks we’ll explore how our changing environment influences food systems and consequently, food security. Great fun!


Betts, R. a., Falloon, P. D., Gornall, J., Kaye, N., Wiltshire, A., & Wheeler, T. R. (2009). Climate change and food security. doi:10.1098/rstb.2005.1745

Ericksen, P. J. (2008). Conceptualizing food systems for global environmental change research. Global Environmental Change, 18(1), 234–245. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2007.09.002

FAO. (2002). Chapter 2. Food security: concepts and measurement. Retrieved April 13, 2015, from

MIT. (2014). Inadequate Food Distribution Systems | Mission 2014: Feeding the World. Retrieved April 11, 2015, from