Saturday, December 27, 2014

"We can no longer afford cheap food"

“Global Eating Disorder is one of the most comprehensive and practical analyses of what will soon become dysfunctional in our global industrialized food system given the challenges ahead of us---end of cheap energy, depleting natural resources and impacts of climate change. This is a must read for anyone interested in getting a head start preparing for the changes ahead.”
–Frederick Kirschenmann, author of Cultivating an Ecological Conscience: Essays From a Farmer Philosopher.

Order Global Eating Disorder  for a 20% discount at: using the code: C9RD3464

“The food in your fridge is just the tip of the iceberg. Gunnar Rundgren takes you behind the scene of global food production and shows you who pulls the strings in the agricultural system. He doesn’t mince his words but offers crystal clear argumentation why things are going wrong in the food chain.  After reading this book you will think twice how to fill your shopping basket. A must read for all who want to catch a glimpse of the future of our food!”
–Franz Fischler, President of the European Forum Alpbach and former EU Commissioner for Agriculture and Fisheries.

You can also buy the book from Amazon, and as an ebook from Kindle. More channels will follow.

"Rundgren's book has global reach and vision, and deserves a global audience."
–Frederick Kaufman, food journalist and author of Bet the Farm.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Animals - much more than meat

Young boys attending cattle (instead of going to school), Karamoja 2013
The role of animals in the life of humans and in our self-appointed job of taking care of the planet extend far beyond supplying us with meat and milk, wool and skins. Livestock is providing us and other species with a number of valuable "ecosystem services". But the industrial model of animal production is only concerned with the production of commodities, which is why it disregards animal welfare, why it destroys the environment, why it pose risk to human health and don't produce any of the much needed values that traditional livestock systems did.

This and many more interesting things can be gleaned from the report ECOSYSTEM SERVICES PROVIDED BY LIVESTOCK SPECIES AND BREEDS, WITH SPECIAL CONSIDERATION TO THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF SMALL-SCALE LIVESTOCK KEEPERS AND PASTORALISTS by Irene Hoffmann, Tatiana From and David Boerma  written for the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. The report gives several interesting perspectives on livestock production and a much more nuanced picture than the dominating "cows are climate hooligans", "meat consumption is bad for health" or "eating meat destroys the rainforest" discourses.

The report is built around the concept of ecosystem services, a terminology which I have some issues with (see for instance here) but still use now and then (and will use here when discussing the report). Ecosystem services can be divided into those that can be converted into and marketed as private goods (e.g. provisioning services such as food) and those that are of a non-market public good nature (e.g. regulating, supporting and most cultural services).

Livestock provide approximately 26 percent of human global protein consumption and 13 percent of total calories. Foods of animal origin, such as meat, eggs, milk and dairy products, supply essential,  nutrients, such as protein, iron, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and zinc. They provide a critical supplement and diversity to staple plant-based diets, and are particularly appropriate for combating malnutrition and a range of nutritional deficiencies. Livestock products, such as milk, can be very useful for children.

Important other "provisioning services" include draught power, manure and urine for fertilizer, manure for methane and energy, skins, hides, fiber, as a genetic resource itself, including for biotechnical and/or medicinal purposes.

Less well understood is the tremendous importance of livestock, and in particular of the grazing ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats etc.) for the many other critical ecosystem services such as:

  • waste recycling and weed control; 
  • biological control and animal/human disease regulation; 
  • maintenance of soil structure and fertility (nutrient cycling and distribution, organic matter, etc.);
  • prevention of land degradation and erosion; 
  • climate regulation; 
  • regulation of water flow and quality;
    moderation of extreme events (shrub control and maintenance of fuel breaks, prevention of landslides
    and avalanches); 
  • pollination and seed dispersal; 
In a wider sense livestock are land stewards and landscape managers facilitating the life cycles of animals and plants, preventing the succession to less valuable ecological states through encroachment of bush and/or invasive species, and the conserving wild-life and protected areas.  There is a close overlap of livestock grazing with nature conservation areas.

Many discuss "nature" and "agriculture" as if they are separate and even opposites. This has probably never been true, as agriculture developed within nature. And it is certainly not true today. The natural environment has co-evolved with agriculture practices. And in grassland management this is most apparent. Considering that grasslands cover up to a third of the terrestrial area, it is apparent that management of grasslands is a key for how we humans manage the planet at large. And tame livestock are the dominating managers of grasslands today.

There is a huge difference in resilience between traditional livestock systems and the industrial ones. The high productivity in modern systems is not only based on neglect or destruction of ecosystem services it is also a result of a meticulous management of inputs to reach the highest efficiency. But this efficiency makes the systems more and more vulnerable, and the modern breeds developed are dependent on this industrial model for their life and production. This is in stark contrast to the traditional systems, where maintaining the ecosystem and regenerating resources were part and parcel of the system. This is also reflected in the breeds, the report concludes:
Generally, the more complex, diverse and risk-prone peasant livelihood systems are, the more they will need animal genetic resources that are flexible, resistant and diverse in order to perform the required functions.
The report also make very clear that the discussion of feed versus food is far too simplistic and that there is a big difference between traditional livestock systems and the industrial model. The industrial model uses huge amounts of human edible crops as feed for livestock and therefore it consumes much more human edible protein than it provides. But traditional livestock systems have not been like that. Grazing ruminants provide much more human edible protein than they consume, and therefore such production don't compete with humans for food. On the contrary, if we also take into account the use of such animals for manure, fuel, draught power and transport it is apparent that it is a very efficient way of using resources. The same goes for animals that largely live on waste products.

Globally, however, industrial livestock systems are on the rise. And what many don't seem to understand is that this is also a main driver  for why traditional livestock systems are disappearing. The industrial model simply produce many more kgs for lower costs. This is assisted by low prices of grain and soybeans, produced with massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides. Pastoralist using traditional methods have more or less the same production costs today as they had hundred years ago. But the relative price of meat is much, much lower today. This means that with all things equal, they have become poorer. Governments also lend a hand to agri-business with (perhaps well intended) regulations on compulsory slaughterhouses, meat inspection, traceability and prohibition of using food waste as animal feed.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Healthy diets comes from socially and environmentally sustainable food systems

"The effect of individual nutrients was increasingly proving to be an inadequate explanation of the relationship between diet and health. Several studies show, for example, that protection against heart disease and certain types of cancer gained by consumption of substantial amounts of fruits or vegetables is not repeated with interventions based on medicines or supplements that contain such individual nutrients found in those foods. These studies indicate that the beneficial effects are from the food itself, and from the combinations of nutrients and other chemical compounds that are part of the food’s matrix, more so than from individual nutrients."
This can be read in Brazil's new Dietary Guidelines (in English and in Portuguese) . The guidelines are a big rebuttal of the nutritionism that to a large extent is dominating discussions about food and diets. The Guidelines state that healthy diets comes from socially and environmentally sustainable food systems. The contain the following ten key recommendations.
The guidelines include ten steps to healthy diets: 
  1. Make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet
  2. Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts when seasoning and cooking natural or minimally processed foods and to create culinary preparations
  3. Limit consumption of processed foods
  4. Avoid consumption of ultra-processed products
  5. Eat regularly and carefully in appropriate environments and, whenever possible, in company
  6. Shop in places that offer a variety of natural or minimally processed foods
  7. Develop, exercise and share culinary skills
  8. Plan your time to make food and eating important in your life
  9. Out of home, prefer places that serve freshly made meals
  10. Be wary of food advertising and marketing
 In Global Eating Disorder I write
"The nutritional needs of the body can already be reduced to chemi­cally known substances that can be synthesized or extracted from natural products”, wrote Nevin S. Scrimshaw, a leading food scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was awarded the prestigious World Food Prize 1991. An important effect of the role that science and politics played in nutrition was that common people could no longer be entrusted to decide for themselves what they should eat. False needs expressed ignorance and should be cured by proper instructions from scientists. We have since been raised not to rely on taste or pleasure to determine what to eat, but to defer our selection of food to experts. I believe this view is mistaken.
and further:
Nutritionism has suited the food industry well. After all, the strength of the food industry is to mix standard components and create a constant flow of new products. ‘Now with omega-3’ or ‘more iron/antioxidants’, or whatever is temporarily in fashion are good marketing pitches. Vitamins, fiber, minerals and lately special proteins for body builders are all ingredients that can be mixed in never-ending combinations and marketed with nutritional arguments – and be marked up a notch compared to the same product without these extras. Dieting and nutritionism create their own industry, so the same companies that first earned money from making people fat, can earn even more from making them slim again. Americans spend between US$40 billion and US$100 billion on dieting. ‘Meal replacement’ shakes and protein bars are sold to those who have ingested too much Coke and too many French fries. In 2008 alone, Nestlé made changes to more than 6,000 products to cater for nutritional issues, real or per­ceived.
Brazil shows the way ahead. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Using development aid to support multinational fertilizer companies.

The African Fertiliser and Agribusiness Partnership (AFAP), under the guise of empowering smallholder farmers in Africa, is subsidising multinational fertiliser and financial corporations on African soil. AFAP, established in 2012, with a grant of US $25 million from the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA).

According to a new report from the African Centre for Biosafety, AFAP's main focus is the provision of credit guarantees to importers and distributors of fertilisers in Ghana, Mozambique and Tanzania.
In essence, AFAP is using development funds, as well as money from the Ethiopian government-one of the least developed countries in the world-to subsidise multinational fertiliser companies such as Yara, which dominates the fertiliser trade in Africa. ...Far from enabling African smallholder farmers to grow food and profits, this scam will trap small- scale farmers into a never ending cycle of debt and increasing poverty," said Gareth Jones, a researcher with the ACB.

Recent ACB fieldwork in Malawi found that small-scale farmers are using extremely high levels of fertiliser, on soils that are technically infertile, at great additional expense, but with very little material benefits. ACB's research report shows that the adoption of Green Revolution inputs by small scale-farmers has resulted in net transfers away from farming families to multinational agribusiness. Read more;  Running to stand still: Small-scale farmers and the Green Revolution in Malawi.

The findings concur with my own findings from Zambia and Tanzania recounted for instance in:
Millennium Villages: the Great Experiment
Markets don't distribute food to those without money

I have also summarized other reports about Malawi: The Malawi Fertilizer Myth?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Rethinking food and farming as a commons

Even the most convinced proponents of a free market realize that there are things that cannot be left to the market to sort out. Human rights, law and order, security, and basic social security have, in almost all societies, been regulated by non-market institutions, often by the state. And even for those things that are regulated by markets there are many governmental rules, some stupid and others very much needed. The more central an issue is to our society, the more regulations there are. For example, all countries have labor regulations. They are there because we realize that the workers are a weaker party in the suppos­edly ‘free’ labor market: they need some kind of protection. It is also apparent that Nature needs protection: far more than we give her today.

Food production and consumption are also subject to myriads of regulations in most countries. Throughout history, the food supply has been subject to political intervention. The Romans tried to regulate prices, although they failed, like most other subsequent efforts – the record of government interventions in food markets is rather poor. The fact that we have major famine in several places in the world while lots of food is wasted in other parts of the world is also an indication that markets in food don’t work very well in safeguarding the survival of fellow humans. We cannot deal with food mainly as a marketable commodity – very few societies ever have. If things get rough, governments, civil society and groups of people will step in and regulate, distribute and produce outside of the market system. The market system also has very few levers that guide it to supply food that is nutritious.

The market in food is totally dysfunctional for shaping the farming system in the best way for its role of planetary stewardship, a role that is increasingly important as agriculture occupies more and more of the surface of the planet and natural resources are under immense pres­sure. There are almost no market mechanisms in place for undertaking this important task, and there is a limited potential for them to emerge. Even if they did they will never reach the extent required, considering that the value of agricultural ecosystem services might well be as high as the total value of agricultural production. At present the market is still driving farmers the other way; into more and more specialization and monocultures and less stewardship of nature resources. Already today massive government interventions are directed to compensating for market failure. We need to look in other directions if we wish to sustainably manage the agriculture landscape.

‘Agriculture and food systems, with their associated nature and landscapes, are a common heritage and thus, also a form of common property’ according to Professor Jules Pretty[i] at the University of Essex. Stepping away from market imperatives frees our minds and thinking about food and farm production. This of course has implica­tions for land and other resources needed for farming and food production. The more food is viewed as a public good, the less appropri­ate it is that the productive factors needed to produce foods, seeds, land, water etc, are provided by the market. When food is a right, and the production and distribution of food takes place in the commons instead of in the market and new ways of addressing the unfair distribution of food can emerge.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 already defines food as a human right: “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control” (Article 25). The right to food has been re-asserted ever since, for example at the 2009 World Summit on Food Security in Rome. There, world leaders agreed on ‘the right of everyone to have access to safe, sufficient and nutritious food’.[ii] The new constitution of Kenya, approved by a popular referendum in 2010, states the right of every person “to be free from hunger and to have adequate food of acceptable quality” and imposes a duty on the State to respect, protect, promote and fulfill that right. A study in 2011 identified twenty-four countries in which the right to food was explic­itly recognized, many of them in Latin America. Of course, it is one thing to proclaim a right and another one to enact it. Rights need a guarantor, duties and obligations, and an enforcer of some kind. Increasingly courts are using the constitutions or international treaties as a basis to safeguard people’s right to food.[iii] The Special Rappor­teur on the Right to Food for the United Nations, Olivier De Schutter, writes in the report to the General Assembly in August 2013: ‘The right to food has come to the fore as Governments realize that their efforts to combat food insecurity and hunger have been failing and realize the urgent need to strengthen national legal, institutional and policy frameworks’.[iv]

Brazil has been successful in the fight against hunger and in pro­moting the right to food. The Fome Zero (zero hunger) program was initiated during Lula’s presidency. Its most important component is Bolsa Família, whereby poor families get a basic income tied to condi­tions such that the children go to school and are vaccinated. The cost of the whole program is just 0.5% of Brazilian GDP but it reaches 44 million people, more than a fifth of the population. Malnutrition in Brazil decreased from 13% to below 2% between 1994 and 2006. The program also includes the purchasing of local food, often organic, to schools and other support measures to small farmers.[v]

Rethinking food as a right, farming as a management system of the planet and the food system as a commons necessitates the building of new institutions fit for these purposes; Jose Luis Vivero Pol, a food governance researcher describes these as “a third force of governance and resource management by the people as a compliment to the market and the state”.[vi] This will require experimentation at the personal, local, national and international levels. This doesn’t rule out markets as one of several mechanisms for food distribu­tion, but does it reject market hegemony over our food supplies, and rejects the view that market forces are the best way of allocating food producing resources, such as land, water, knowledge and seeds.

[i]            Pretty, J. 2002 Agri-culture: Reconnecting people, land and nature Earthscan.
[ii]           United Nations General Assembly 2013 The Right to Food, Interim report of the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, 7 August 2013, A/68/288
[iii]           Ibid.
[iv]          Ibid.
[v]           Sanchez-Montero, M. and N. S. Ubach 2010 ‘Undernutrition, What Works?’ ACF International Network.
[vi]          Vivero Pol, J.L. 2013 Food as a Commons: Reframing the narrative of the food system 23 April 2013 Centre for Philosophy of Law, Université Catholique de Louvain.

(Extract from Global Eating Disorder) 

Monday, October 6, 2014

Why did local go global?

When discussing the food system, I find that there is too little effort made to understand why the system is like it is. Some discuss the system in a way where it sounds like Big, Bad and Ugly corporations made the system into what it is today, and all we have to do is to decide that we want a local food system instead. But that view is underestimating the drivers of the economy. My own experiences in food processing and farming has made me understand that the workings of competition ("the market") is the main factor influencing how and where production takes place.

Some thirty years ago, our farm wanted to pursue the value addition of local resources and we started making jam out of local berries. First we picked lingonberries - a North European berry similar to cranberries - ourselves in the forest. But quite soon we reverted to buy up from pickers. But the buckets were full of bad berries, leaves, twigs and droppings from roe deer so we had to spend a lot of time cleaning them. We converted an old grain cleaning machine, but when the berries were really ripe and soft, they were mashed inside the machine, and it was impossible to clean it. In addition, one of us got an involuntary exotic haircut, when leaning too close to the fan of the cleaner. Next solution was to buy from a local berry trader who had a purposely built lingonberry cleaner. But also with this one we had quality problems and ended up having to pick many leaves by ourselves. In addition, as most berry pickers know, the berries don’t grow equally well every year, there is frost in the florescence, it is too dry, too rainy or there is a pest, so we could not rely on the local berries alone. And neither could the local berry cleaning operation, so it closed down. 

Then we were left buying from one of the two big companies controlling the market. They have wonderful machines where each berry is individually quick frozen. Each berry rolls in dedicated tubes where size, color etc. is detected and anything that is not according to specs is blown away. The end product is amazingly clean and comes in 25 kg bags with free flowing berries.  Of course, this means that the berries now are transported all across the country, as such machines existed only in two places in the country. The local business is now part of a global production system whether it likes it or not. And the same companies also trade in berries from China, Chile, Serbia, Ukraine and Russia. We could still get berries from specified areas – for a premium prices. The organic sugar in the jam was imported from Paraguay and the people picking the berries in the Swedish forest were flying in from Thailand. While we made no “local” claim on the label, many of our customers seemed to expect that the berries were local; some even thought we picked them ourselves. 

The story does give a rather good insight is why “local” disappeared. In this particular case, when it comes to physical product quality, the “globalized” standard IQF frozen berry is superior anything we could get locally, unless you think some moss and rotten berries should be part of the recipe. At the same time this kind of development has disconnected us, most of us, from the landscape and natural process that is the basis for human existence. In the end it has also changed what we eat, how we eat, where we eat, with whom we eat – even why we eat. 

(The text above is a "killed darling" from my - very soon forthcoming - book Global Eating Disorder. )

Friday, August 15, 2014

How new brewing methods gave us white bread

Our daily foods don't only give us energy and nutrients. They also embody a lot of societies developments. White bread is not only a product of personal choice. The article  below is from my forthcoming book, Global Eating Disorder. 

The earliest cultivated forms of wheat were einkorn and emmer wheats, first cultivated some 10,000 years ago in the south-eastern part of Turkey. Bread wheat developed some one thousand years later. Two very important properties of the wheat plant had to be manipulated to adapt it to farming. First it was necessary to stop the shattering of the ear (also called head or spike) at maturity, which resulted in seed loss at harvesting. Second there was a need to change from hulled forms to forms where the chaff (casing) didn’t stick to the grain in order to allow the processing of the wheat into porridge or bread. Wheat spread via Iran into central Asia, reaching China by about 5,000 years ago and to Africa, initially via Egypt. And it reached most parts of Europe some 5,000 years ago. It was introduced by the Spaniards to Mexico in 1529 and by the British to Australia in 1788. Most wheat grown worldwide is bread wheat, and most of the remaining 5% is durum wheat, which is better adapted to the dry Mediterranean climate than bread wheat and is often called pasta wheat to reflect its major end-use (it is also used for regional foods such as couscous and bulgur). In the 10,000 years it has existed, more than 25,000 types and varieties of wheat have adapted the crop to a wide range of environments. If there is sufficient water and mineral nutrients available and pests and pathogens are controlled, yields can exceed 10 tonnes per ha. But the global average yield stands at less than 3 tonnes per ha.[i]

Wheat can be stored for many years without losing much of its nutritional value,[ii] even if the often repeated story of 3,000 old wheat seeds from a Pharaonic grave germinating is a just a smart marketing myth. Another blessing of wheat, compared to other grains, is that doughs formed from wheat flour allow us to make a wide range of breads and other baked products (including cakes and biscuits), pasta and noodles, and other processed foods. A ship biscuit from 1852, purportedly the oldest existing in the world, is displayed prominently at the maritime museum in Kronborg castle, Elsinore, Denmark,[iii] and still looks edible. Hard tack, pilot bread, ship’s biscuit are all versions of a simple type of cracker or biscuit, made from wheat flour, water, and sometimes salt. Inexpensive and long-lasting, these were used for sustenance in the absence of perishable foods, commonly during long sea voyages and military campaigns. They were also one of the first industrialized food products after sugar. Already by the 18th century they were produced in assembly lines in dockyards and by 1833, the British Royal Navy introduced steam-powered machinery to roll the dough and later a Jonathan Dickson of Carlisle invented a mechanical biscuit stamp, an early example of branding.[iv]

Until the 19th century, bakers obtained their yeast from beer brewers, continuing the symbiosis between beer and bread established more than five thousand years earlier. However, beer brewers slowly switched from top-fermenting to bottom-fermenting yeast and this created a shortage of yeast for making bread.[v] This process got a real boost by invention of artificial refrigeration which made it easier to make lager (lager means storage in German) beer. In response, the Association of Viennese Bakers offered a prize in 1845 for the production of a good yeast that was not dependent on brewers. Ironically, it was a brewer, Adolf Ignaz Mautner, who won the prize for the production of press-yeast in 1850. Meanwhile there was a rapid development in milling technology. The marvelous mills of Budapest had steel rollers with a capacity to mill 1 billion pounds of wheat per year. Roller mills allowed the production of white wheat flour, which wasn’t really possible with stone mills. The yeast and the new mills changed the baking-industry throughout the Austrian empire, and at the Paris Exposition in 1867 the Viennese bakery was recognized as the best in the world. The development was so sensational that the United States government printed the Report on Vienna Bread by Eben Norton Horsford in 1875 in which he stated that the purity, whiteness, yield and keeping qualities of the wheat flour of Austria were unequaled in any other country. But this was to change, as everyone followed in the footsteps of Austria.

This industrial development had many effects, reaching far outside the factory gates. White wheat bread in all forms is easy and quick to eat, has not too much taste in itself and can be complemented with various forms of spreads or covers. With industrial yeast it was also quick to produce. It is more voluminous, more porous, and easier to chew. In this sense the bread became something of a pioneer fast food. Another, possibly bigger, effect was that with earlier stone-milling technology the oils of the wheat germ was set free in the flour and caused it to go rancid and have a foul smell if stored for a longer term. Wheat flour was thus a fresh product, milled daily and households bought small quantities from local mills to have fresh flour. The white wheat flour didn’t contain the germ and could be stored for a long time, which meant that traders could buy and store bigger quantities and transport it from where it was cheap to where it was dear. This was the start of a rapid consolidation of mills, aided by the railroads and canal networks, which enabled big mills to both source grain and sell flour over a dramatically bigger area than before. In a few decades small mills closed down and in a later stage the same forces led to the concentration of baking into huge factories. Industrial bread was born.

The industrialization of milling created new opportunities, but also its own set of problems. Whole wheat flour is more nutritious than refined white flour and contains more fiber, protein, calcium, iron, selenium, folic acid, vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids.[vi] Quite soon after the large-scale introduction of white flour a number of diseases emerged. These were often referred to as “western diseases” as they seemed to follow in the footsteps of the spread of a diet of white bread and sugar. This explains why the British working classes, for whom bread was the main source of sustenance, were more malnourished in 1900 than at any time since Tudor times (the period between 1485 and 1603) according to an article in the British Medical Bulletin.[vii] There was an early counter-reaction with strong arguments being made in favor of whole grain bread and the emergence of breakfast cereals and muesli. In 1880, May Yates founded the Bread Reform League in London to promote a return to wholemeal bread, particularly to improve the nutrition of the children of the poor.[viii] It was evident that some of the problems were a result of the victory of white flour, and industry and government responded with a counter-measure in line with the new industrial process, thinking and profits: fortification. [ix]

Flour treatment agents or additives, euphemistically called ‘flour improvers’ alter the appearance and properties of flours in order ‘to better suit their intended purpose’. For example, inspired by a fashion that arose in the 19th century for whiter-than-white bread, bleaching agents such as chlorine are used to whiten flour (unbleached flour has a pale cream color). Oxidizing agents, such as phosphates and ascorbic acid, are used to develop gluten in flour, making it better for baking bread. Potassium bromate, is widely used in United States as an oxidizing agent but has been found to be carcinogenic and is banned in Europe.[x] The German company Mühlenchemie lists no more than sixty-two flour ‘improvers’ on their web site[1]. Many of the additives are composed of several active ingredients, so the total number is even much higher.[xi]

As with many other shifts in technology, the new milling method had repercussions not only on the processing and the final product but also on the raw material. This is often the forgotten part of the story of our food industry. The new milling technology needed harder wheat that could more easily be worked by the new high-speed machinery. Soft wheats, good for stone milling, were replaced by hard wheats. The hard Turkey Red wheat brought to America by Russian immigrants became a major export commodity, largely as a result of the new milling technology, and wheat production in United States tripled in fifty years.[xii] Similarly, the new industrial baking processes needed wheat with certain qualities in order to work well. Only much later did anybody question if these improved technical properties were detrimental to the nutritional quality of wheat.

White flour is not the only reason for our bread having a lower mineral content, cultivation methods and seed breeding that values higher yields ahead of nutritional value have also contributed. Wheat protein is well suited for human nutrition except for a low lysine content. The lysine content is comparatively lower in white than in whole grain flour and lower in heavily fertilized wheat. One variety of wild emmer wheat in Israel has a protein content that reaches forty percent,[xiii] more than three times higher than in normal wheats. The long-term experiments at Rothamstead[2] – which required vision and commitment to establish and maintain - show that the introduction in 1968 of the new ‘Green Revolution’ varieties of wheat was accompanied by a considerably lower content of zinc, iron, copper and magnesium in the flour.[xiv]

There is also a close interdependence between the new varieties and the new cultivation methods. Semi dwarf varieties of wheat were introduced because they had shorter straw and less roots, which meant that more of the biological production went into the seed (the kernel). But this only worked if the plant got more ‘support’ from the farmer, in the form of artificial fertilizers, pest and weed control. Higher yields also often have a dilution effect, with the protein and mineral content going down and the carbohydrate content going up. The highest wheat yields are recorded in West and North West Europe where farmers use a lot of chemical fertilizers to keep the protein level high enough for industrial breadmaking. For example, United Kingdom farmers currently apply 250–300 kg N per ha in order to achieve the 13% protein content required for the breadmaking process that is most common in the United Kingdom. The quantity of fertilizers used is well above what the plants actually take up. The rest is washed away into the waterways as nitrates or goes up into the atmosphere, some of it as the potent climate gas, nitrous oxide (laughing gas).[xv]

In this way, white wheat flour embodies most of the characteristics of the industrialization of food: stripping it to its basic components, giving a longer shelf life, making further preparation easier, enabling large-scale processing, storage and handling, requiring food additives but giving a lower nutritional value. All this is also combined with an increase in environmental damage. This industrialized food system industry drives, and is driven by, changes in marketing and distribution that together determine what and how we eat and how we interact with each other. The genes of the wheat, the yeast and all the processes involved in making our daily bread are all shaped by industrial and marketing imperatives.

[1] This include 3 different fungal α-amylase products; 9 products of the ;amylase-hemicellulase complexes’; beta-amylase, amyloglucosidase, esterase, lipase, ferulic acid esterase, 4 products of hemicellulases, pentosanases and xylanases; 3 products of glucose oxidase, sulphhydryl oxidase, 2 proteases, 5 bromate substitutes, 6 ascorbic acid preparations, 3 bromate products, 3 azodicarbonamide, calcium peroxide, 2 benzoyl peroxide preparations, 3 lecithin products, 3 malt flours, enzyme-active products, 3 cysteine preparations, inactivated yeast, enzyme-mineral complex, and 2 acid and mineral complexes with a buffering effect.

[2] Rothamstead is an English agricultural research station.

[i] Shewry P. R. 2009 ‘Wheat’ Journal of Experimental Botany 60 (6) pp. 1537–1553.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Wikimedia ‘Oldest_ship_biscuit-Kronborg-DK.JPG’ Oldest_ship_biscuit-Kronborg-DK.JPG

[iv] Fernández-Armesto, F. 2001 Food, a History Macmillan.

[v] Wikipedia ‘Baker’s yeast’’s_yeast.

[vi] Pollan, M. 2008 In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto Penguin.

[vii] Welch, R.W. and P.C. Mitchel 2000 ‘Food processing: a century of change’ British Medical Bulletin 2000, 56 (No 1) 1-17

[viii] Shewry P. R. 2009 ‘Wheat’ Journal of Experimental Botany 60 (6) pp 1537–1553.

[ix] FFI Global Update 2008 ‘Flour Fortification Initiative 2008’. URL?

[x] Wilkinson, P.A. et al. 2012 ‘CerealsDB 2.0: an integrated resource for plant breeders and scientists’ BMC Bioinformatics 13 219

[xi] Mülenchemie ‘Products for flour improvement’ 13 December 2013.

[xii] Wikipedia ‘Wheat production in the United States’

[xiii] Shewry P. R. 2009 ‘Wheat’ Journal of Experimental Botany 60 (6) pp 1537–1553.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Redefining productivity

We are truly productive if there is more forest next year than today, if there is more fish and if the soil is more fertile by the years instead of exhausted and eroded. 

It is a bit puzzling why most agronomists and institutions to such large extent focus on yield of crops per hectare as the main measure of agriculture productivity, when in reality that is not a driving force for farmers who look more into productivity per labor unit, or if they are modern agri-business operations, productivity of capital invested. If we compare farms globally the farms with the highest yield per hectare are rarely the most competitive. European farmers have mostly much higher yields per hectare of wheat than their Argentinean, American or Australian colleagues, still they can’t compete and are dependent on support programs of the European Union, because their general cost level is higher. Similarly in the dairy sector, the world market is dominated by a country with low milk yield per cow. The dairy industry in New Zealand is still primarily built on grazing cows and the production per cow is low in an international perspective. The average production per cow in Israel was 12,500 kg in 2007, while it was less than 4,000 kg in New Zealand , but New Zealanders produce milk a lot cheaper than Israelis.

If we compare efficiency in various systems, e.g. in farming or food processing, it will in most cases show that the bigger and more technological advanced system is more competitive. But are they more efficient and productive? Often, small farms have higher yield per hectare than large farms, still large farms gradually squeeze smaller farms out of the market because of market access, possibilities for rational specialization, economies of scale, better access to credits or simply governmental policy distortions . Larger crop farms perform better financially, on average, than smaller farms. The larger farms don’t have higher revenue or yields per area unit, but they have lower costs. As expressed by the report Farm Size and the Organization of U.S. Crop Farming from USDA: “larger farms appear to be able to realize more production per unit of labor and capital. These financial advantages have persisted over time, which suggests that shifts of production to larger crop farms will likely continue in the future.” Their yield per hectare is mostly the same as on smaller farms but the research shows that farms with more than 2,000 acres spend 2.7 hours of work per acre of corn and have cost for equipment of $432, while a farmer with 100-249 acres will spend more than four times as much labor and double the amount for equipment per acre. In that limited sense the larger farms are more “efficient” or “productive”.

There are many different ways to look at farm productivity and, depending on what we measure and how we measure, we may draw different conclusions. In principle, it is the factor of which there is a shortage that will, and should, determine which factor is the most important. Farms in high-income countries are shaped by high input of energy and low input of human labor (energy). In high-income countries, there is no shortage of labor but it has been costly and therefore productivity per work-hour has been the strongest driver of change. Close to cities, or in very densely populated areas, land is scarce and farms are shaped differently by high land prices. At a certain land price, grain farming is no longer possible and farming will orient itself to higher value crops, or will become playground for the rich, golf courses or paddocks for race horses.

Economists today talk about “total factor productivity” a rather opaque measure which has a scientific air. It does sound like a good idea to combine all the factors of production in one measure. But as this is measured in monetary terms it will just value things by their market value. So if labor is 200 times more expensive in one country than in another you have to produce 200 times more per hour for the same productivity. And if water is for free, the water productivity will not be reflected at all. In this way, productivity comes to mean more or less the same as profitability and is like a circular reasoning and of little value in a big picture discussion, even if it reflects quite well what guides a modern commercial farmer.

We need to redefine productivity. But it is not enough the redefine productivity in our minds, we also need to redesign the economic system which has created this distorted view of what is productive and what is not.  Today, productivity is measured by how many trees one person can cut down with her chainsaw or how much fish a fisherman can scoop up from the sea. But as nature resources dwindle, the real productivity is how these resources re-generate. We are productive if there is more forest next year than today, if there is more fish and if the soil is more fertile by the years instead of exhausted and eroded. 

(extract from Global Eating Disorder, forthcoming)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Listening to the genius of Sunnansjö Gård

A semi personal update from Gunnar.


Tomorrow I will move to Sunnansjö Gård, 30 km west of Uppsala. I bought the farm together with Ann-Helen Meyer von Bremen and she will follow suit, together with her son. 

It is a nice farmstead at a small lake with a lot of wetlands, and I fear quite a vibrant community of mosquitoes. It has some 40 hectares of forest, most of it more than 100 years old, 10 hectares of farmland, most of it poorly drained, 10 hectares of wetland/swamps and peatbogs and part of the lake. The pictures are from the farm.

We will find out what to do on the farm after  "consulting the genius of the place" as Wendell Berry says. But I am sure there will be some fruit trees planted, and certainly vegetables for ourselves and family. I will continue with my writing and some consultancy.

As I am also in the process of finalizing the book Global Eating Disorder, I will not be very active on this blog for a while.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Screwed economics: how reducing emmissions becomes a cost

The two most disturbing ideological concept of our current time are the notion of "progress", the belief that humanity moves in a linear direction towards an ever "better" world, and the view that the economy (or the market) in some way is an independent system. Taken together those two views are expressed in the faith that economic and technological growth are the main avenues for future human progress, and that this must be based on the imperatives of the competitive market economy - competition and profit-making. This view makes society and nature to subsystems of the economy instead of the other way round. This can be noticed in the current political discourse where the role of public policy mainly is about strengthening the competitiveness of a country in the international markets. 

As an example of the distorted perspective, the current political discussion about climate change is about how we can afford to mitigate it, while the real question should be how we can afford driving those cars that cause the emissions in the first place. To reduce emissions is no more a cost than it is a cost to eat less.  

As cutting emissions will reduce competitiveness and profits (and it will do that) that is not seen as an option. Instead it is by new technologies we will reduce emissions, which indeed will incur costs. But those costs will rapidly be turned into new ways to make money by the private sector. Which is why it is preferred.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The invisible hand at work - gives and takes

At the onset of World War I, Britain imported 60% of its food and roughly 80% of its grain for bread (basically wheat), as a result of its laissez-faire trade policies and the enclosures. Initially, the government thought the market could ensure food supplies, but quite soon it had to step in, even more so when Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare commenced in January 1917. The government increasingly regulated both price and supply of bread, “whatever else was in short supply, the supply of breadstuffs had to be maintained”. It took over importation and in April 1917 it took also control over the mills from the private sector. In 1918 all staple foods were regulated in price and many were rationed. People were encouraged to produce their own food; herds of cattle and sheep were reduced.

The policies worked so well that it is estimated that during the war the average provision of food was 3,500 calories, compared to 3,400 calories the years preceding the war (the quality of food didn’t necessarily improve, for instance fruit and vegetable consumption plummeted).

Even more interesting is that the difference between the diets of rich and poor decreased in war time. This was a result of that the government intervened in the food distribution and access as the market is simply not geared towards equitable distribution. It is inherent, almost a definition, in an unregulated market that the distribution is inequitable as it is based on economic purchasing power and not needs. So this observation is not saying that the market doesn’t work. It does work as a market should, but that doesn’t equal that it produces a result society wants. The invisible hand doesn’t always do the right thing.

(extract from Global Eating Disorder-the cost of cheap food)

Monday, May 19, 2014

Garden Earth in Thai

My book Garden Earth is now translated to Thai and will be  launched at the World Environment Day 2014, sponsored by the Ministry of Natural Resources, during the FAO International Year of Family Farming. The event will be held at Royal Paragon Hall, Siam Discovery Department Store, Bangkok on the 4th of June.

I find it amusing that the book launch will be held in one of Bangkok's many shopping malls. It is like holding an atheist speech in the church. Shopping malls are the churches of the new religion of shopping, consumption and eternal progress (and Bangkok is certainly one of the centers of the cult). My book comes with a very different message.

The publishers present the book in these words: 
Gunnar Rundgren’s analysis of the present ‘state of the Earth’ goes back to the agricultural revolution following the era that you and I lived as hunters and gatherers: the dawn of humanity. Such broad and deep perspective is needed to start drafting the ideas needed for shaping our sustainable future. This is a last minute’s effort but there is no other way than what Gunnar Rundgren tells us quietly: analyzing our own lives.
I am very impressed by the fact that the Ministry of Natural Resources of Thailand has pre-ordered 2000 copies of the book.

The book is published by Suan Nguen Mee Ma Publishers.
For more information about the launch, please visit,

The book is also about the be published in Japan by Doyosha

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The acronyms that bring us our daily bread

"Give us this day our daily bread"  says the (Christian) the Lord's prayer. But these days we seem to be more at the mercy of the RDCs to get our daily bread.

There is an impressive number of acronyms each representing small itemized tasks in the flow of goods from producers to consumers in the food chain. Almost all supplies to British supermarkets go through the RDCs (Regional Distribution Centers). 3PL (Third-party logistic) specialists deal with the shipping and there are just a few companies dominating this market. Each time you buy something an automatic order goes to the RDC to replace the purchased item. In many cases the RDC are further linked to the suppliers so that also they know that I have bought my liter of organic milk. This is ensured by CPFR (Collaborative Planning, Forecasting and Replenishment).

In January 2005, Wal-Mart required its top 100 suppliers to apply RFID (Radio-frequency identification) labels with unique EPCs (Electronic Product Codes) to all shipments. In the future, RFID chips embedded in the packaging will allow supermarket to trace food all the way to your home, when finally we will get those intelligent refrigerators they have been talking about – those that will make your shopping list, or why not even make the order to the shop which can let 3PL specialists deliver it to your doorstep. And the QR (Quick Response) codes – those are the funny squares which look like labyrinths—will give the consumer information to read in the smartphone or in the fridge display.

Perhaps the RFID, your fridge and the QR code can cooperate in activating streaming of cows moo-ing when you open the yoghurt package. You might even hear the farmer producing the milk telling you something about the life on the farm, which is how the food system tries to respond to the increasing disconnect between consumers and producers and increasing distrust in the system.

Alternatively you might want to grow food yourself, together with others or perhaps become a member of a Community Supported Agriculture initiative. If you are tired of acronyms.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The beef grown on soy and maize

“Fifty-five square feet of rainforest is destroyed for every quarter pound hamburger that comes from a cleared rainforest cattle farm.” This and similar statements express the hamburger connection, that meat eaters in Europe and United States contributes to deforestation, encouraged by agribusiness. The origin of the notion that the hamburger threatens the rainforest was a rapid expansion of cattle grazing, mainly for exports in several Central American countries, often established on earlier forested land. In Honduras forests shrank with 33,000 hectares while crop land also decreased as a result of more cattle grazing[i]. Overall, the production of food for the local market shrank as a result of this. And those who earned money from the cattle were not the ones that got less food. This process was repeated, but on a much larger scale, in Mato Grosso and adjacent states in Brazil, so there is a certain truth in the hamburger story. But by and large the expansion of livestock in the last decades is more driven by the expansion of soybeans and maize than by cattle grazing. The rearing of cattle meat is rapidly transforming itself from natural grazing to industrial feeding.

Pampas, the vast grasslands of Argentina, has since long been cattle country, and beef exports made Argentina to one of the ten richest countries of the world in the end of the 19th century. But today, the image of cows grazing idly is becoming more and more a thing of the past. Grain-fed, feedlot cattle are becoming an industry norm. Around a third of all Argentine beef now comes from cattle, which have been reared in grain-fed feedlots. In 2005, Argentina’s ranchers and farmers produced more than 3.1 million tonnes of beef, exporting some 745,000 tonnes to the world market. Argentina was the third-largest beef-exporting country (behind Brazil and Australia) in the world, still allowing its own population to eat the second most beef in the world. In March 2006, Argentina’s government – in an effort to lower the rising price of beef to its people – banned beef exports for 180 days. This was followed by a 15% export tax on fresh beef. The government assumed ranchers and farmers would continue to raise cheap beef. But instead, they cut their herds and converted their pastures to soybean production. To get two crops of soybeans per year instead of raising cattle for three years to be sold on a domestic market with artificially depressed prices, is a no-brainer for Argentinean landowners, who now mostly rent out their land to huge agribusiness operations. As a consequence, soybean acres increased in Argentina from 37.6 million acres in 2005 to more than 48 million acres in 2012. “Land that has been converted to soybean production is not going to go back to pasture,” says Carlos Becco, head of Soybean LAS for Syngenta in Argentina. “That land is worth too much now to be put back into permanent pasture”[ii] [iii].

Jack Erisman with grassfed cattle in Pana, Illinois
“It is like being a comedian, it is all about timing”. Jack Erisman explains how he manages the weeds in his organic fields in Pana, Illinois. He is swimming against the tide in the sea of maize. The Corn Belt has as the name suggests been conquered by corn, or maize as it more properly should be called. A century ago, even fifty years ago, farms in the Corn Belt were a lot more diverse. They all had their own cows and hogs, chicken and horses; there was pasture; and there were many people employed on the land. The land was good for maize and farms produced maize for a very low price. When chemical fertilizer became readily available and cheap after WWII they expanded their maize production. The maize could be bought by large specialized livestock operations; which in the end produced cheaper than the diverse farms leading to that one after one of those farms quit livestock production altogether. This led to a shift into monoculture maize, sometimes in rotation with soybean.

Meanwhile, livestock cattle breeding were divided in two stages. In the rolling hills of Montana you see cattle grazing everywhere. But if you look closer you will see that the only adult animals are the mother cows and the odd bull. Geneticists have still not succeeded in totally alienating cows and calves from the environment which is their natural habitat. This may be on their hit list for the future, but for now it doesn’t work well to lock up cows in pens and feed the calves from birth in feedlots, factory farms, or concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) as they are called in the United States.. But when old enough, calves are sold as “feeder cattle” to these concentration camps where they are ending their lives in confinements, fed on maize for energy and soybean cake for protein. In this way the American beef is produced in three different sites, the Corn Belt, permanent pastures such as in Montana and finally in feed lots. Some feedlots in the United States now have more than 100,000 cattle[iv]. And this model is now successfully exported to Brazil and Argentina. The system is similar in Europe, but population density, zoning, environmental and animal welfare regulations puts limits on the size of factory farms.

In the fields of Jack there is also maize for sure. There are many varieties, blue, red, yellow, white and popcorn maize, all organically grown. He also grows soybeans, ray, wheat, clover, vetch and many more things in a seven year crop rotation. But his two hundred heads of Murray gray cattle, mixed with Angus are “grass-fed” and rarely eats any maize or soy. That he sells the grass-fed cattle meat for a premium price to a special market says a lot about how modern farming has developed, what is—what should be—normal has become an exclusive niche. Grass is still the best feed for cattle. Not only is it better for them, but it is also better for the eater if the beef or the cheese is “made of grass”. Grass-fed milk, meat or eggs contain better fats, such as higher levels of omega 3 and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). And lately, some consumers show their appreciation of this by paying Jack a better price for grass fed beef, while other market forces coerce Argentinean farmers into plowing the Pampas and confining their cattle into feedlots.

[i] Diet and Delocalization: Dietary Changes since 1750, Gretel H. Pelto and Pertti J. Pelto, Journal of interdisciplinary History, vol 14 No 2, 1983 pp. 507-528
[ii] Argentina Independent 2013, Argentina’s Beef Industry: A Fall From Grace, Sabrina Hummel, 30 May 2013. accessed 31 December
[iii] Beef 2013, Argentina Provides A Lesson In How to Ruin a Beef Industry, Sep. 26, 2013, Paul Queck,
[iv] Heinrich Böll Foundation, 2014, Meat Atlas.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

with a little help from my friends

Dear reader,
I am in the finishing stages of my book Global Eating Disorder - the costs of cheap food. In two weeks I will have a new version ready of the manuscript ready for some critical eyes. Hopefully it will be the last version before language editing.

I would like to get your view. At least some of you. 

If you would like to help me to read it and give your general or detailed opinions of the text I would be very grateful. I would also offer you two free copies of the final book and a recognition in the printed book (this is of course assuming that I get some relevant remarks or comments). I am not looking for free editing but rather criticism of facts or my reasoning, redundancy or things which are not well explained in the text or missing links of in chain of thoughts. I will include some more instructions with the manuscript.

A warning before you say yes: It is 168 000 words (some 250 pages) of text. And you will only get four weeks.

Interested?. Drop me a mail and tell me who you are. My email address is found in the bottom of

Results of my little poll

I asked my readers what is wrong with the food system, here is the summary of the 43 responses. Thanks.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

What's wrong

Time for a little poll among my readers. What are the main problems with our food system? (many answers possible)

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Organic agriculture should be adapted to the location - not to EU rules

The recent proposal by the European Union scraps the possibilities to import organic products produced under rules equivalence to the EU rules. Instead, the new rules will insist on total compliance. That is a stupid approach to organic farming, which essentially should be well adapted to the location of the production, rather than to the conditions in the market where it is sold. Below I post a message from IFOAM about it. Read more: The Commission's legislative proposal & the Annexes.

The revision of the import section of the EU organic regulation proposed by the Commission imposes absolute compliance by developing countries and inhibits European consumers’ choice of organic products.

On 24 March 2014, the EU Commission released a proposal for a complete overhaul of the EU organic regulation. Regarding imports, the proposal foresees to replace the approach of equivalence with requirements of absolute compliance with all details of the EU regulation. ‘Equivalence’, under which organic products currently enter the EU, determines that imported products must comply with equally reliable organic standards, but accepts that the details of the standards may vary to account for different local conditions. Absolute compliance does not consider regional specificities, which invites absurd situations affecting imports into the EU: Under proposed rules requiring full farm conversion, an African organic mango farmer who feeds household waste to a pig on his/ her farm or buys a non-organic young goat for milk production may, under the new rules, no longer be able to export his/ her produce to the EU as this would not comply with the foreseen regulation.

European organic agriculture associations represented by IFOAM EU condemn this initiative. Referring to the revision of the regulation, BÖLW, the umbrella organization of producers, processors and traders of organic food in Germany, cautions: “The EU Commission wants to strengthen organic in Europe, yet it creates new hurdles.”

The concern demonstrated previously by the EU Commission in ensuring European consumers’ access to a wide range of organic products, including non-EU products like coffee or cocoa, seems to have been discarded. The Commission had made significant progress in implementing the recommendations of the International Task Force on Harmonization and Equivalence in Organic Agriculture, lead by IFOAM, the United Nations Food (FAO) and Agriculture Organization, and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). The shift towards compliance is a step backwards in the efforts to include developing country producers in value chains. This change goes against the recommendations of the International Task Force and the spirit of the international Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade.

The current proposal exempts but a few highly developed countries from full compliance and is, according to Markus Arbenz, IFOAM Executive Director, “a backward approach, imposing EU rule, even where it makes no sense. And absurd situations will inevitably lead to non-compliance.”
Criticism to the new legislative proposal by the international organic sector and by some Member States went unheeded, and in a surprise move the Commission has now decided to push through the proposal in a more urgent revision to the current organic regulation.

The move from equivalence to compliance will strangle:
  • European consumers’ access to affordable and trustworthy organic products, particularly tropical products;
  • European organic processors’ access to imported organic ingredients;
  • Developing Countries’ ability to grow their organic sector to meet the demand of European consumers.
The compliance approach the Commission is proposing will harm the entire organic sector, from producers to consumers, inside and outside of the EU. Member States are urgently called upon to voice their objections and put a stop to this proposal.

More information about the organic regulation review and the positions of IFOAM EU can be found here. For press inquiries, please contact Joelle Katto-Andrighetto, IFOAM Value Chain Manager: