Virtual Exchange: Food Governance
Global Food Outlook hosts Virtual Exchange on Food Governance
On July 30, 2013, IFTF and Food Tank partnered to host a virtual exchange on the Future of Food Governance.
The conversation covered topics from the politics of nutritional requirements, to regulations that disproportionately affect small farmers and how a demand for transparency, combined with an impending obesity crisis may drive changes in food governance. Join the conversation about the future of food governance and other topics in the virtual exchange series at #Food4Future. You can watch the full conversation and read a summary below.
Please note that there were some issues with the audio during the first few minutes. We apologize if it is unclear at the start, but the quality improves for the duration.
- Miriam Lueck Avery (@myravery), Co-Director of IFTF's Global Food Outlook and Health Horizons programs
- Ellen Gustafson (@EllenGustafson), Co-Founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank (@Food_Tank)
- Christopher Gardner, Associate Professor at Stanford School of Medicine and Founder of the Stanford Interdisciplinary Food Summit
- Blake Ratner, Visiting Senior Research Fellow and Program Leader with the International Food Policy Research Institute (@ifpri) and World Fish Center (@WorldFishCenter)
- John-Mark Hack (@grogoodfoodbiz), Farmer and Executive Director of the Local Food Association
Blake Ratner: giving voice to the vulnerable
Blake began by laying out the broader landscape of food governance—health, equity, environmental effects of production and trade—and described who has the power to change these rules and influence the marketplace depends increasingly on international interdependencies. To illustrate this shift Blake shared his experience working with coffee growers in rural Guatemala who were exporting internationally. Twenty-five years ago, there were many problems over land and water conflict, which were mostly being addressed through local activism. Twelve years later, fair trade and organic had entered the scene, and these created new issues that relied on a different scale of governance. The systems of fair trade and organic certification required new institutions, and relied on consumers in wealthier countries to create demand. Blake’s current work focuses on making sure those who are the most vulnerable in this complex system have a voice in the dialogue about food governance.
John-Mark Hack: advocating for the smaller scales
John-Mark brought the perspective of a small producer working within a US food governance system designed for industrial scales. This creates barriers to entry and obstacles for sustainable profitability for small businesses. There is also a “sterility standard” imposed when foods are regulated the same way as drugs, and many consumers are not aware just how much these regulations effects their food habits. “The American public is disconnected in a very profound way from the structures that exercise relatively total dominance over our food choices,” he said. John-Mark is advocating for a move away from a one-size-fits-all system. The industrial system is not inherently flawed, and in certain situations it is very necessary, but he thinks the future of food governance should consider “alternative structures that are more scale appropriate.”
Christopher Gardner: revealing conflicts of interest
Christopher could speak to this “sterility standard” of food research from his experience running nutrition research trials over the past 15 years. He called it an “isolationist, reductionist model borrowed from drug trials” that usually adds to the confusion about what we should eat. He is seeing a shift toward considering other research models as people recognize the limitations of the medical model.
Christopher outlined the conflicts within the institutions that make and enforce food recommendations in the United States. “The USDA, which represents all of agriculture is responsible for the dietary guidelines of America. The conflict of interest is mind numbing!” To represent its constituents, the USDA cannot say “eat less” of something. This is particularly problematic for our current public health problems, such as obesity and heart disease, where eating less is often the solution. However, this punitive approach of telling people what not to eat has not worked to change behaviors. One positive signal of change Christopher sees is a recent set of health and sustainability guidelines from the CDC. If large procurement offices at universities, public school systems, and federal institutions actually sourced and served the food that the government says we should be eating, this would create demand and possibly drive a bigger shift in the food system.
Blake, John-Mark and Christopher all discussed the need for multi-tiered governance structures that acknowledge the economic and health benefits of eating locally, but still allow for sensible regulation at an international scale. For example, John-Mark readily accepts the need to test for salmonella in poultry. But with the current one-size-fits-all approach, a small 10,000 sq. ft. processing plant is required to do the same amount of testing as Tyson does at its 300,000 sq. ft. plants. He is advocating for a governance structure that is informed by the point of production and consumption. John-Mark’s Local Food Association defines “local” as: “food that is sustainably produced, processed, distributed, and consumed within regionally defined areas.” The size of that area will vary depending on the location, and regulations should be flexible to that.
Efficiency vs. Resilience
John-Mark and Blake both described how an increase in private capital investment has shaped the food system over the past 50 years. Aid from institutions like the World Bank has decreased (proportionally) in relation to private investment. The real power to influence food markets rests with a small number of people who sit on the board of publically traded food corporations. Their decisions have broad impacts on everything from environmental well-being to the health of consumers and the well-being of farm laborers.
All three panelists identified the quarterly reports these publicly traded corporations are bound to as a barrier to forward thinking food governance. “If you’re thinking on the basis of quarterly returns then you’re going to think about very short-term risks,” Blake said. This mandate to report quarterly profits has made efficiency the priority, often at the expense of resilience. Monocropping increases efficiency —for example, when all the corn is the same height it is much easier to harvest it at large scales —however, the hybrid corn that dominates the market comes at the cost of regional uniqueness and resilience.
John-Mark suggested that until we start to impose a “true-cost accounting,” —which includes the land and water consumption, the health of biodiversity, energy consumption, and human health effects—we aren’t going to have a clear idea of what resilience means. Coming to a better understanding of these true costs will empower us to act in different ways. He cited another contentious example of short-term thinking: The Farm Bill. It is supposed to be renewed every 5 years, but John-Mark agrees with Wendell Barry’s push for a 50-year farm bill, which could bring proper consideration to land and water use over the long-term.
Consumption Habits & Public Health
Globally, we are experiencing extremes between obesity and starvation, which is understood to be a problem of unequal distribution. Ellen pointed out these two conditions often appear in the same person—those dependent on food banks often also present as obese or diabetic. As American eating habits are exported globally, the health problems spread with them. Christopher is “sadly hopeful” that as meat consumption and convenience foods are on the rise in places like India and China, that the financial impacts of diabetes are going to be so devastating there will be no choice but to respond differently than we have in the United States.
Christopher noted a signal of change from the Culinary Institute of America’s Menus of Change project as a paradigm shift in the way that they train chefs. In the past chefs cooked almost solely for celebratory occasions, so it was ok if the food wasn’t “healthy.” Now, 50% of what people eat is “chef derived” from pre-packaged meals to fast food to fine dining. The CIA is acknowledging that chefs play a different role, and should be trained to prepare food that is local, sustainable, healthy, and delicious.
As we continue better understand what creates behavior change, appeals to personal health are proving not to be enough. When a 2-liter of soda is available with food stamps but raw milk is illegal, it is clear that national food policy creates structural barriers to making healthy choices. However, “the overwhelming power that is exercised by the food industry through their marketing budgets and their lobbying influence on Capitol Hill present some pretty significant obstacles,” John-Mark said.
Food Sovereignty & Transparency
Issues such as access to raw cow’s milk are igniting interests in the food sovereignty movement and bringing transparency to “tyrannical governance” that has resulted from cooperation between the dairy industry and the federal government. Blake noted that food sovereignty has its roots in citizen activism, and is related to traditional development questions of food security and self-sufficiency. Food sovereignty is about “what say do we have as consumers and producers in these decision-making structures?” He is hopeful that the future will bring a stronger awareness of the connection between individual consumption choices and the kinds of regulations that are made into laws.
Over the next ten years, transparency about where food comes from will be tremendously impactful for the average consumer. This is especially true amongst Millennials, who are used to instant access to information through technology. However, until this market segment is able to organize and have real political influence, John-Mark thinks we can expect to see a ramped up reaction from the industrial food manufacturers to make food production less transparent. The facilities that do not want to be photographed or provide the ability to track ground beef back to a specific cow are the same ones with “virtually total control over governance structures.”
Governance & Technology
Looking to the future, each panelist spoke of the potential for new social technologies to change the way individuals interact with and influence the many food regulations and laws that impact them daily. Christopher sees potential in new platforms that make it easy to start and sign petitions, contact government representatives, or raise funds. Despite John-Mark’s work focusing on local activism and raising awareness, he sees inadequate food governance structures as a symptom of larger problems with governance in general. “Until we stop treating corporations as people and money as speech were going to have a difficult time mobilizing through social media or anything else to change our food governance structure and reclaim the very nature of our democracy,” he said.
To balance this with a global perspective, Blake reminded us that despite some obvious flaws, there are remarkable freedoms in the United States. Elsewhere, raising concerns about land consolidation or water usage can result in jailing or violence. He encouraged us to remember that we have opportunities to get engaged and influence food governance that are relatively low-effort. “The main risk is about the time and effort involved,” he said. “But the benefits can be really important for individual health, for the broader society and for the next generations.”
Food Governance Resources
These resources from our experts provide an introduction to the biggest issues facing food governance--from the need for structures that encourage equitable decision making to corporate governance’s impact on the food system.
- Strengthening Governance across Scales in Aquatic Agriculture Systems (pdf) by Blake Ratner and others at the WorldFish Center
- Critical Challenges for Governance in Cambodia: IFPRI Discussion Paper 01149 (pdf) by Blake Ratner
- Environmental Rights as a Matter of Survival by Blake Ratner
- Christopher Gardner’s thoughts on conflicting nutrition advice, by IFTF Reworking Health conference speaker Nathanael Johnson
- Who’s Being Milked? Open letter puts focus on dairy farmers’ plight by John-Mark Hack, which reveals the impact of corporate governance structures on American dairy farmers
- How Food Scientists are Reinventing Meat--and how it can benefit everyone from the Gates Foundation
- Food Revolution, Christopher Gardner for The Stanford Food Summit
- Building resilient fisheries in Cambodia from WorldFish Center
- Feeding the world’s poor through efficient markets: The future of US food aid policy, a relevant piece about the governance of international and local systems and food aid from the American Enterprise Institute