Ep. 5: How to Support Food Security with Agricultural Trade

In our fifth episode, we interview Dr Jonathan Brooks, Head of the Agro-Food Trade and Markets Division at The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

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Ep. 3: How to Change the Global Economy by Redistributing Value Along the Supply Chain

In our third episode, we talk to the Founder and CEO of a startup created to redistribute profit along the agricultural supply chain by debunking false assumptions about poor people and using technologies like blockchain.

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A Sustainable Food Future 2017: Technology, resource use and resilience – Chatham House

It’s that time of the year again! Next week I will be attending the 2017 A Sustainable Food Future conference organised by one of the world’s top think tanks: Chatham House.

In this post I will explore the 2017 A Sustainable Food Future agenda because I want to find out what this year’s main focus is, in order to help you better prepare for the conference or give you context if you’ll be following the event on Twitter with the hashtag #CHFood.

So this year’s three main themes are technology, resource use and resilience and they’ll be discussed in six sessions. All themes are to some degree interwoven into each session but from reading the agenda it seems that each session will focus more on a specific theme.

The first session is ‘Food and geopolitics’ and it will mainly focus on the resilience aspect by, as an example, analysing tensions between major global food traders and looking at conflict as a source of food insecurity.

‘Producing more with less’, the second session, as the name suggests, is about resource use and looking at land, soil, water and energy constraints.

The third session is ‘Understanding risk and building resilience in the food system’. This session will focus on analysing macro factors that can increase vulnerability in the food system such as climate change and infrastructure.

The fourth session, ‘Changing diets and patterns of food consumption’, addresses my favourite food system question of all times:

  • To what extent can the price of food accurately reflect the externalities of its environmental impact and health costs?

Even though the answer to this question in most cases is a resounding NO! I love trying to understand why? How big is the gap between the current price and real price and what do we need to do so food prices do reflect the full costs of externalities.

I’m an avid participator but expect me to be raising my hand a bit more during this fourth session.

During ‘Innovation and technology in food production’, the fifth session, we’ll focus on technology and how can it help increase resilience using the resources that we already have. This is critical given that today, countries like Switzerland use resources equivalent to three Switzerlands. Something needs to change.

The final session ‘Changing trade agendas and food security’ we’ll look at the global trade trends: are we opening up or closing up and how will this impact food security?

That’s it for now! See you in exactly one week at Chatham House.

Many thanks to Chatham House’s Kamil Hussain, Head of Conferences, and Louisa Troughton, Conference Organiser.


Should there be more agricultural scientists and less food marketers?

#CHFoodFuture warmup – session 3

Burning questions on global food security will be addressed next week at the conference A Sustainable Future: production supply and consumption at Chatham House, London. The entire event is divided into five sessions and each could be a conference in itself. It’s important to warmup and enter the right mindset before the event begins next Monday 7th December 2015. To help do that, each day this week I will post an entry discussing each session. Click here to read session 2: Sustainable Production and Consumption: who cares and who is going to pay for it anyway?

Session 3 – Food Value Chain and Sustainability and Efficiency

The five questions that the segment tries to answer are:

  • How can vital resources, including water and land, be costed in food production and trade, and what might be the incentives for doing so?
  • What policy or regulatory options are available to governments seeking to promote less resource-intensive production?
  • How can the business case for developing sustainability across the food value chain be strengthened, is sufficient understanding of food security issues within industry and what can be done to ensure food businesses play their role?
  • How can responsible ingredient sourcing be demonstrated by industry and is there a role for collaboration in supporting this?
  • How might businesses reduce food waste along the supply chain, from harvest to consumer, to bring both environmental and cost benefits?


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A food market in Bangkok. Photo credit: Lisa Delgado Castillo, used with permission.

This section is so essential. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend Food Matters Live. Before I continue, I have to acknowledge that this is commercial event primarily that attempts to integrate academics, government and NGOs; this is extremely valuable, however, the nature of the event must not be forgotten. I had the opportunity to attend talks with promising speakers, nonetheless, I was disappointed about the lack of preoccupation with the source of our food. It seemed that few cared about where crops come from. Dear food businesses and retailers, where does the raw material for those gluten-free snacks come from? Where does the chocolate for your premium bars come from? There were themes focused on packaging, social media marketing, health and safety, the free-from trend, and even know there was some focus on sustainable food businesses, it lacked the rigour and preoccupation with the actual production of food. Throughout the event, with few exceptions, there was a general neglect towards acknowledging where raw materials are sourced from, the implications and the current issues in the context of climate change. The last session I attended, coincidentally, included a speaker that will also be present in session 3 of the A Sustainable Future event. His name is Dan Crossley, Executive Director of the Food Ethics Council. During his session at Food Matters Live, I made a question directed to one of the speakers that was concerned with the creation of more food outlets that supplied plant-based foods. My issue was not with her focus on calling for more plant-based businesses, restaurants and markets, but with the apparent neglect towards mentioning anything regarding to crop production: where are these plants sourced from? Is it sustainable? I am deeply concerned with the omission of actual food production.

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Photo credit: Lisa Delgado Castillo, used with permission.

This is why this session is perhaps my favourite: who holds the responsibility for guaranteeing global food production? Shouldn’t businesses pay a tax to go to research, scientists, academics, who are expanding knowledge around fertilisers, crop resistance, improved techniques for cultivation in the context of climate change? Who pays for this development?

Based on Food Matters Live, it seems to me that the answer to question three: is there sufficient understanding of food security issues within industry? is no.

There isn’t (with some exceptions). Not enough preoccupation exists on crop growth, with improving agricultural production, with the actual job of being the field managing fertilisers, understanding irrigation and minimising post-harvest loss. And yes, what can be done to ensure food businesses played a role? How can we create a pool of funds that food businesses contribute to that will be dedicated to research, development and communication of knowledge that advances and benefits the entire industry. Some agricultural knowledge is a public good provided by organisations like FAO. There is also private knowledge developed and not shared. What is fair? Can farmers who use only public knowledge compete with the private sector? Is it ethical for businesses to fund public research? Will it be skewed? And yes, what can be done to ensure food businesses played a role? How can we create a pool of funds that food businesses contribute to that will be dedicated to research, development and communication of knowledge that advances and benefits the entire industry? Some agricultural knowledge is a public provided by organisations like FAO. There is also private knowledge developed and not shared. What is fair? Can farmers who only use public knowledge compete with the private sector? Is it ethical for businesses to fund public research? Will it be skewed?

I expect the fourth question to address these concerns: how can responsible ingredient sourcing be demonstrated by industry and is there a role for collaboration in supporting this?

Industry should indeed substantiate ingredient sourcing – responsible ingredient sourcing. Consumers in developed countries usually pay a premium but they remain blind to what it actually took to the deliver that superfood-paleo-beautifully-packaged cereal bar at Waitrose. This must change if sustainable global food systems are to be established.


Expo 2015 Milano – Part 1: “You queued 2 hours to go to Japan?”

Yes, I queued two hours to go to Japan. I mean, the Japan pavilion at Expo 2015 Milano and it was worth it!

If you’re confused, and for all the friends who have asked what in the world Expo 2015 Milano is and what was I up to in Milan, this post will shortly answer that. But! Better yet, I will share my thoughts as a member of the general audience on the first of four goals of an Expo: educating the public.


Can you see where the corridor ends? This picture was taken from the terrace of the U.S. pavilion.

What is an Expo?

An “Expo” is an international exhibition approved by the intergovernmental organisation, International Exhibitions Bureau (BIE). Exhibitions must last more than three weeks and claim to be of non-commercial nature. So, after bidding to host the 2015 Expo, the city of Milan won. It then chose: “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life” as the theme for the exhibition.

I hope that’s enough context to continue reading, but if you would like to learn more about what an Expo is, click here.

Keen to learn more about food security and agriculture, I decided to go to Expo 2015 Milano. My mother joined for three days in a row – I’m grateful to her for being such good company and discussing several points included in this post.

According to the Expo 2015 Milano website, over 140 countries participated. The event was held in an area in the outskirts of Milan and after getting there, the first thing we had to do each day was… queue. Lots and lots of curious minds. I talk a bit more on educating the general public in part 2 but for now, according to the Expo 2015 Milano website, over 20 million visitors like us were expected during the opening months (May 1st to October 31st ). It’s encouraging to see so many people eager to learn about food security.

How to organise 140 countries, companies, and NGOs in the same space and under one theme?

I was very curious about this point. How to create a cohesive experience that represents the two central themes, food security and renewable energy, but that allows each country enough separateness for the visitor to assimilate differences.

Each day, after we presented our tickets, we walked and walked to get to the proper entrance and when we did, we looked down a very long corridor with huge buildings to both sides (a.k.a. pavilions). We quickly realised, as a friend of a friend said, it’s like “Epcot on steroids”. Unless you have lots of stamina and many days to allot to the Expo (locals), it is difficult to cover absolutely everything.

So back to the question, how to organise so many different themes in one space?

The Expo created 9 clusters: Rice, Cocoa and Chocolate, Coffee, Fruits and Legumes, Spices, Bio-Mediterraneum, Islands, Sea and Food, Cereals and Tubers and Arid Zones. Clusters grouped several countries which focused on explaining that specific crop, good or commodity (or in map lingo: ‘genius loci or food chain’). Each cluster was signalled by a big installation showcasing the beginning of the section. Click on the pictures to see the detail of these market-like installations.


On the first day we visited the Fruit and Legumes and Coffee clusters. We weren’t particularly impressed by the former. Granted, each country had a limited display room but beyond seeing jars and bags of soya, lentils and beans, we didn’t actually learn anything. Most of these countries had other types of goods on display to sell (i.e. bracelets, wooden sculptures), the message wasn’t clear and although we understand that by September people working in the expo are tired, some expositors were completely disengaged from visitors.

My favourite cluster was Cereals and Tubers because it had a very special garden in the centre. There was plenty of vegetation in the Expo, but this garden was different. It was actually a temporary crop area with the most important cereals and tubers on display. Yes, I mean real plants. How cool!


Rice, wheat and maize, make up 60% of the world’s calories. We go to the supermarket to buy oats, bread, tortillas, pasta, noodles and corn flakes all neatly packed in a box. Rarely do we remember the plants that provide the prime ingredient and what they look like. This garden showed each crop and having learnt how important biosecurity protection measures are, especially for a country with agricultural production like Italy, I was able to appreciate seeing real cassava, rice, wheat, maize and even quinoa plants as part of this learning experience at this Expo. This is something to highlight because I can only imagine all the paperwork, procedures and maintenance to make sure all plants on display were there and in good condition. I visited during September (the fifth month of the Expo) and guess what? All the plants were still alive. The rice looked a bit yellowish, but it was alive! I thoroughly enjoyed this bit of the exhibition and would love to set up a similar garden to let kids and adults touch and see the plants that make up the bulk of their daily breakfasts and takeouts.

Click here to read part 2.


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