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:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

How capitalism made a "socialist" ideal come true

In the supermarkets we find a large supply of fully prepared meals, including ready meals of all types and take away food for consumption at home. There are also partly prepared meals consisting of several meal components, such as wet and dry sauces. In one week, 45% of Europeans and Americans prepared such meals[i]. The British seem to be world leaders in convenience food. Between 1994 and 2004 the sector grew by 70% and in 2006, the sales were almost as big as the sales in the whole of the rest of Europe[ii]. As younger customers buy more ready-made meals compared to older, the trend is likely to continue[iii]. And it is spreading rapidly to emerging economies where consumption of convenience foods is increasing due to among others an increasing urbanization rate. For example, retail sales of ready meals in India and China grew 26.9% and 11.8% respectively from 2003 to 2008[iv].

The increased industrialization of food, i.e. that we let corporations do a lot more of the job for us, can’t really be explained by that we don’t have time. The time spent in front of the television, in front of the computer, the game console or in the gym are all habits that have expanded enormously parallel to the commercialization of eating. Many people clearly have chosen not to cook. Anya von Bremzen tells us about how her grandmother – a carrier woman in the Soviet Union – says “Why should I bake, when I can be reading a book?” preferring a dinner made from frozen dumplings[v]. Interestingly, parallel to that less time is spent on cooking and real meals, people actually spend more time eating, albeit mostly as a multitask; eating while driving, eating while watching TV, talking on the phone or walking to work. A study shows that Americans spend almost eighty minutes per day on “secondary eating[vi]”.

Food preparation has undergone big changes both in palaces, restaurants and homes. The fast-food trend, eating out of home, the ready-made meals for home consumption and the industrialization of home cooking are strongly related and mutually supportive even if they also compete for our preferences. Interestingly, the difference in food from the various sources is often small. Instead of benefitting from the increased opportunities offered by eating out or buying ready made food or cooking some semi-processed components, many seem to prefer the same food in all cases, for instance a pizza or a salad. The trend is more easily understood if seen also in the context of changed living and work place conditions and not only as a result of aggressive expansion of capitalist companies. Urbanization, overcrowding in cities and many single person households also contributes to this trend of “eating out”.

Fast food and convenience food are, as expressed by sociologist Georg Ritzer in his book The McDonaldization of Society, efficient in the sense that it is the fastest way to get from being hungry to being full. The food is also highly predictable, standardized and controlled, basically built around the same logic as other industries[vii]. Food away from home and fast food and the snacks at home has enabled a much higher degree of individualism in what we eat. Before, even if there certainly were parents (mainly mothers) trying to accommodate a wider selection within the family, today food is selected individually. An increase of food allergies and intolerance, real, perceived or just a result of more choice, also makes the notion of “sharing a meal” has got a new meaning, or no meaning, as the meal itself rarely is shared. The microwave oven represents in a way one of the most groundbreaking inventions in food preparations after boiling in water. It has largely facilitated and driven the spread of ready made convenience foods, and it has made the individualization of “cooking” possible. In this way it also eliminates the essentially social aspect of eating; the bonds created by more than hundred thousand of years of time spent around the campfire. “It reverses the cooking revolution, which made eating sociable, and returns us, in this respect to a pre-social phase of evolution” in the words of historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto [viii].

The individualization and commodification has also been a bonanza for, and perhaps the result of, the food industry. Commercial actors can now earn money from activities that earlier were out of reach of the market (as they were done within the household), including cooking, preparation, processing of food, feeding infants and brewing. The vision of socialist utopians such as Edward Bellamy[ix], and the Soviet Union and Israeli kibbutz was that we would not cook at home. Either we would get ready made foods from factories or eat in collective kitchens. In some Israeli kibbutz not even individual tea kettles were allowed[x]. 

This vision is now materialized as the capitalist food industry take over of food.

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

[i] Consumer Trend Report —Convenience, Market Analysis Report , Government of Canada 2010.
[ii] Hungry City, Carolyn Steel, Chatto & Windus 2008
[iii] Who feeds Bristol, Joy Carey, Bristol City Council
[iv] IMAP, Food and Beverage Industry Global report 2010
[v] Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, Anya von Bremzen, Crown publishers 2013
[vi] Cooked, a natural history of transformation, Michael Pollan, Allen Lane, 2013
[vii] Ritzer, George (2009). The McDonaldization of Society. Los Angeles: Pine Forge Press
[viii] Food, a History, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Macmillan 2001
[ix] Food, a History, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Macmillan 2001
[x] Food, a History, Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Macmillan 2001

Friday, April 4, 2014

The making of food into commodities

"Land, water, seeds livestock, labor, cheese, wine and bread are all treated as exchangeable commodities with monetary values assigned by the omnipresent and omnipotent market. It converts land, nature, humans, animals and food to real estate, ecosystem services, labor, McBurgers and calories."

(from the upcoming book Global Eating Disorder)