Reacciones a una propuesta para certificar alimentos

El 28 de abril de 2016 publiqué una columna de opinión en la Revista Semana Sostenible proponiendo un sello que certificaría alimentos producidos en tierras devueltas por el proceso de restitución y que pertenecen a mujeres o a parejas. El propósito del sello es apoyar el proceso de restitución de tierras, la productividad agrícola y la equidad entre mujeres y hombres en Colombia. Si no la ha leído, la puede leer acá. Al final de la columna invité al debate constructivo por las redes sociales. Varias personas se animaron a participar en la conversación y me gustaría documentar todas esos argumentos en un solo lugar. En este escrito quiero compartir los puntos más interesantes que fueron discutidos. Hubo dos tipos de argumentos: posibles fallas de la certificación y rediseño.

Posibles fallas de la certificación:

  • @f8af señaló que muchas certificaciones pueden volverse algo para el “lavado de imagen” y no necesariamente se está implementando lo que se promete al consumidor.
  • @lobferoz insistió que los sellos a) y b) son dos sellos fallidos por no pensar en el posicionamiento con los consumidores.


  • @lobferoz propuso en vez de crear una nueva certificación porque son muy costosas de crear, se podría utilizar Colombia Fairtrade con los ajustes necesarios.
  • Camila Chacón compartió las excelentes prácticas que la marca de chocolate Ecuatoriana Pacari implementa.  Me gustaría compartirlas todas aquí pero resaltaré las tres que me parecen las más pertinentes.

1 – Hubo una en particular que me llamó la atención porque es una solución de bajo costo y que apoya la equidad entre hombres y mujeres: Como narra Camila, “es obligación para las familias cacaoteras que la entrega del cacao sea llevada de manera alternada entre el hombre y la mujer del hogar, la decisión fue tomada porque los sacos de cacao eran demasiado pesados y las mujeres no los podían cargar. Al final eran los hombres eran quienes disponían del dinero porque ellos sí podían cargar los sacos (casi siempre lo gastaban en alcohol, y poco lo destinaban para sostener el hogar). Ahora los sacos son más pequeños y fáciles de cargar por las mujeres.”

2 – También compartió una lección de cómo una tecnología específica puede empedrar a los agricultores para tener más poder de negociación: “Las mujeres indígenas de la región de Otavalo son expertas sembradoras de uchuva. El problema es que estas mujeres recibían poco dinero sus cosechas porque los compradores esperaban hasta que la cosecha estuviera a punto de podrirse para pagar lo que se les diera la gana. Para solucionarlo, Pacari entregó una máquina que deshidrata los frutos y así la cosecha ya no se pierde y ellas reciben un mejor pago por la uchuvas; a cambio las mujeres pagan la máquina con kilos de uchuva deshidratada.”

3 – Finalmente, quiero resaltar este requisito de siembra para promover la seguridad alimentaria en las familias cacaoteras: “Por obligación una proporción de la parcela de las familias cacaoteras debe destinarse a la siembra de otros alimentos, con el fin de proteger la alimentación de las familias en caso de que se pierda la cosecha de cacao por diferentes factores.”

Por último, a todas las personas que se animaron a formar parte de la discusión con críticas constructivas, ¡muchas gracias!

Plantwise by CABI

I like to talk about cool initiatives from time-to-time. This is a space where I like to briefly summarise and highlight projects and programmes in agriculture that work towards increasing food security and that I find cool. It’s important to say that cool for me means many things. From implementation of important theories, such as participative action research, to the use of novel tools to support old traditions, cool can mean different things but in each post I make sure I highlight why is the project or programme in question: cool.

Now, let’s begin with yet another problem to resolve:

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How does climate change affect food security? – Processing

This is Clementina Barajas, I first met her while I was working with Engineers Without Borders Colombia.


Clementina offers her vegetables at the local farmer’s market every Sunday morning. She almost always sells out because her produce is popular because it’s pesticide-free and grown with water that runs down from the mountains. I know people who get up very early just to get to her stand first and take home the best produce while it’s fresh. If you get to the market by, let’s say, 11 am, tough luck. There’s either nothing left or what’s left is wilted and goes to the compost post. Her vegetables have high demand not only in her town, but in Bogotá, the capital of Colombia, which is two hours away by car. Unless you have the time and patience to endure a traffic jam to enter and exit Bogotá and reach her farm directly, (I’ve done this), you’ll miss out on these greens.

Clementina can sell more, she wants to sell more, there is demand for her produce, but, wilting happens fast and nobody likes yellow, smelly spinach in their salad.

How does climate change affect food security? – Part 2: Processing

(Read introduction to series here)

Case: Global average temperature rise and the cold-chain

a) Climate change effect

Can you guess which food processing technique is directly impacted by climate change? Here’s a clue: climate change is associated with a rise in average global temperatures.

Any guesses?

Freezing and refrigerating!

We freeze and refrigerate food to change its sensory properties (i.e. ice-cream), to transport it more easily (i.e. supplying demand), to extend shelf-life (i.e. frozen berries), but also, because our food is susceptible to changes we might not want, like browning on apples or mould on strawberries, we freeze and refrigerate foods to slow down the rate at which food changes. Click here to learn more about food processing.

b) Direct and indirect consequences

When you open your fridge and pull out frozen peas for dinner, your fridge is the last link in what is known as the cold-chain. Peas were picked from a field, taken to a processing plant, separated from their pods, frozen, packed and transported to grocery stores where you opened a big freezer, bought them and quickly carried home to store in your own fridge. That is the cold-chain.

Growing vegetables takes a lot of resources: water, fertilisers, time, people, etc.; imagine all that effort wasted because environmental conditions spoiled food before it reached our stomachs. Or worse, imagine the rise in human and animal disease because of toxins in what we eat. Mycotoxins are substances produced by fungi that can be present in food and have potential to cause death and disease in humans and animals. Mycotoxin growth is predicted to increase under warmer conditions associated to climate change (E. Van de Perre & L. Jacxsens, N. Deschuyffeleer, F. Devlieghere, 2010).

That’s why we need the cold-chain. But! The chain is cold and the planet is, on average, warming. Since the energy required to create a temperature difference between two environments is proportional to the difference of temperatures between the environments (think about a mini-fridge in the dessert), increased pressure to the cold-chain as a result of a warmer environment translates into a higher energy demand. According to James & James (2010), the cold-chain contributes to 1% of CO2 production in the world and 15% of electricity consumed world-wide is used for refrigeration.

 c) Impact on food security

1As I mentioned in this post, food waste is widespread. Developed countries tend to waste food at home and developing countries tend to waste food post-harvest because heat and humidity increase rate of unwanted changes in food. As the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (2013) report mentions, in warmer places like India and Africa, fruit and vegetable post-harvest loss ranges from 35% to 50%, annually.

People are moving further away from where food is grown (urbanisation trend), the cold-chain plays a vital role in reducing food safety issues and post-harvest waste (FAO, 2008). According to the International Institute of Refrigeration (IIR, 2009), loss of perishable foods is 14% higher in developing countries compared to developed countries due to lack of refrigeration.

In short, how does climate change affect food processing?

Public health problems due to food-borne diseases and food waste could become more frequent.

d) Lessons learned

We need to improve our cold-chain in a warming world or, face the food waste and safety consequences (Kirezieva, Jacxsens, van Boekel, & Luning, 2014). As our environment gets warmer, we must optimise energy efficiency in cold-chains and extend infrastructure in developing countries. Strengthening local trade to reduce the time and distance food travels can also reduce the need for the cold-chain.

I’m curious to know if you store all your fruits and vegetables in a freezer at home. Feel free to comment in the section below or to e-mail me at

Read more from the series How does climate change affect food security?:

Growing food takes a lot of resources: water, fertilisers, time, people, etc. Imagine all that effort wasted because environmental conditions spoiled food before it reached our stomachs. Or worse, imagine the rise in disease in humans and animals because of toxins in food. Mycotoxins are substances present in food, which are produced by fungi and can cause death and disease in humans and animals. Mycotoxin growth (i.e. mould on food) is predicted to increase under warmer conditions associated to climate change.

How does climate change affect food security? – Production

Read this very, very, short introduction first (not boring I promise but super important).
Imagine you’re a maize farmer from Iowa or Illinois. On any given day, would you think about how your actions have a critical effect on the livelihood of millions of people in developing countries? Yeah, me neither. That’s why when I read this article, the foundation for this post, I couldn’t believe how many people depend on maize yields produced in the U.S. and what happens when maize is not delivered.
At some point in your life you’ve probably seen a plant wilt and die from either lack of water or too much of it. Climate change is expected to increase the frequency of extreme weather events, that includes both those things: too much water (floods) or too little (drought). Since 96% of our food is directly or indirectly derived from soil, drought and floods mean trouble for food production.
How does climate change affect food security? – Production
(Read introduction to series here)
Case: Drought in the U.S. ‘corn belt’ – 2012

a) Extreme weather event
March to April (2012), was classified as the warmest and seventh driest maize growing season in the U.S. ‘Primary Corn Belt – a region prominently dedicated to the intensive cultivation of this crop. According to NOAA, this dry and warm combination led to declaring 89.3% of this agricultural region as suffering from moderate to severe drought (little rain and high temperatures) in September 2012.
b) Direct and indirect consequences (Gbegbelegbe, Chung, Shiferaw, Msangi, & Tesfaye, 2014)
The 2012 drought in the U.S. agricultural maize region led to a reduction of maize yields of 97 million metric tons (m.m.t.)

The U.S. is the world’s largest supplier of maize exports responsible for 72% of global exports, however, these yields typically correspond to surplus. What does surplus mean? It means the U.S. satisfies their own demand for maize first and then sells what is left to the rest of the world. The drought barely affected U.S. internal maize consumption since most of the production stayed in the country, the 2012 losses meant a 5% reduction from what the U.S. usually uses.In numbers, the usual (trend) production compared with the actual one because of the drought. We’re not saying that the 2012 drought meant nothing for the U.S., it did, but the ripple effects for the rest of the world that depends on these maize exports were very powerful.77.8 m.m.t. less U.S. maize exports for the rest of the world in 2012 Here comes the critical question: who was expecting those 77.8 million metric tons of U.S. missing maize? Where were they suppose to go and what happened when they didn’t arrive?
(Spoiler: developing countries and millions of people at risk of hunger)
c) Impact on food security (Gbegbelegbe, Chung, Shiferaw, Msangi, & Tesfaye, 2014)
The consequences of this maize scarcity were surprising to me because they reached millions of people in places far from the U.S. Corn Belt region. East and South East Asia suffered the largest decrease in volume (19 m.m.t.). But! the largest relative decrease (this means compared to the levels without the drought) was in Sub Saharan Africa by 9% (4.8 m.m.t.) – uh oh.
If you remember, the U.S. was affected by 5%, only 0.3% of that was meant to go to food, the rest would have gone to animal feed or other uses. In contrast, 10% of the missing 4.8. million metric tons of maize in Africa, were for food. In Latin America and the Caribbean, there was also a pretty significant relative reduction of food: 7% which represents 1.8 m.m.t.
When these percentages are applied to the populations from these regions, we’re talking about millions of people at risk of hunger because of an extreme weather event associated to climate change.This graph shows the food security consequences of the 2012 U.S. drought that led to reduced global maize exports. Click on the graph to access the source. SSA – Sub-Saharan Africa; LAC – Latin American and Caribbean;  EA & SE Asia – East & South East Asia; ROW – Rest of the world; CWANA – Central and West Asia and North Africa So, how does climate change affect food security? Well, in this case we saw that an extreme weather event (drought) in a region that produces 72% of global maize exports leads to missing yields that put 17 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa at risk of hunger and 2.6 million people in the Latin America and Caribbean region.
d)  Lessons learned
There are two important factors that contribute to how many people become at risk of hunger in the face of agricultural scarcity that we can take from this case:
1. The number of people that depend on the affected crop and to what extent. In this case, how many people eat maize and how much of their daily caloric intake comes from this plant.
2. The capacity to substitute the missing calories. In this example, how easy or hard was it to access other foods like cassava, wheat and rice, in the context of maize scarcity.
The risk associated to these factors can be reduced in part by diversifying calorie sources: different foods from different places.  By depending on more than one producer, Brasil and Argentina also export large volumes of maize, risk can me mitigated. By getting calories from other types of crops: barley, wheat, cassava, rice, quinoa, the likelihood of having millions of people at risk of hunger because of one single incident, can also be lowered.
This post was based on this great paper that I’ve been able to talk about freely because it’s under a Creative Commons Attribution License! Woot!
I’d like to know what foods do you eat to get most of your calories?  Feel free to comment in the section below.

Read more from the series:

How does climate change affect food security?:How does climate change affect food security? – Challenge accepted

How does climate change affect food security? – Food processing

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

How does climate change affect food security? – Challenge accepted

Usually, when I tell people what I study, I get asked: how does climate change affect food security? Some may expect this: “climate change is increasing food insecurity.” But that’s an irresponsible statement. Food security is the product of many factors, it can’t be summarised into one sentence.
Still, what if the average person wants to find out the impact of climate change on food security? They do have to deal with both climate and food on a day-to-day basis, the curious non-specialist demands an answer and I’m on a mission. How does food security affect climate change? To provide an answer in layman’s terms: challenge accepted.
There’s also an element of predicting future events. Just to be clear: no one and nothing can predict the future with 100% confidence. The future is the future and it remains uncertain. What we do have, however, is the past. Whatever you may have heard about climate change and its future impacts comes from past information used as a guide to project the future.
How does climate change affect food security? is a four-part series that explains how extreme weather events associated to climate change or climate change consequences (i.e. precipitation variability or increased average global temperature), affect each stage in food systems: production, procession, distribution or consumption.
Where is the food security part? Since food security is an outcome of food systems, this series is actually a close look at each of the steps that contribute to food security. In each post we’ll learn with the help of an example or case divided into 4 parts: a) extreme weather event; b) direct and indirect consequences; c) impact on food security; and d) lessons learned.
Is there any specific climate change/food security relationship you would like me to research and write about? Feel free to comment in the section below.
Read more from the series:

How does climate change affect food security? – Food production

How does climate change affect food security? – Food processing




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.