International Perspectives on Agriculture Food and the Environment

A Directed Study for Discussion with Expert International Practitioners

A Conversation with Charlotte DuFour of FAO

A Conversation with Charlotte DuFour – United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization

As a Nutrition, Food Security, and Livelihoods Officer at FAO, Charlotte DuFour has been working for the last several years to mainstream multi-sectoral approaches to improve nutrition, primarily by strengthening linkages between agriculture and nutrition in both national and international policies and programs. We invited her to speak to us on the topic of nutrition sensitive agriculture, a concept that emerged from the Scaling Up Nutrition movement and was popularized by an article in the 2013 Lancet series on maternal and child nutrition. As authors Ruel and Alderman explain:

“Targeted agricultural programmes and social safety nets can have a large role in mitigation of potentially negative effects of global changes and man-made and environmental shocks, in supporting livelihoods, food security, diet quality, and women’s empowerment, and in achieving scale and high coverage of nutritionally at-risk households and individuals.”

That makes for a great list of positive impacts which, as students of agriculture and nutrition policy, we all care deeply about. But let’s hold up for a moment here to ask, what evidence supports these claims? As Masset and Haddad and others have found, the evidence to support the nutritional benefits of investing in agriculture have so far been scarce. In fact, it’s one of the bread and butter issues here at the Friedman School. In 2014, two of our professors, Eileen Kennedy and Patrick Webb, collaborated on an article addressing the very topic: Impacts of agriculture on nutrition: Nature of the evidence and research gaps. Their review concluded that, although the evidence base is weak, this is mainly due to the lack of comparable, well-powered studies with rigorous experimental design.

But, as they say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. From Charlotte, we were excited to hear first-hand what FAO is doing to put a nutrition sensitive agricultural principles into practice, and what kinds of successes she has seen in scaling up the approach. Her talk was an illuminating two hours we wished we could have turned into four.

Setting the stage

Charlotte’s presentation began with a brief overview of the State of Food Insecurity in the World, with an eye towards how recent trends in FAO measures of undernourishment stack up against global targets. In her coverage of this, she highlighted an important discrepancy between progress reducing the prevalence of undernourishment, as compared to reductions in the absolute number of hungry people in the world. As shown the graph below, the MDG 1 goal of halving the proportion of hungry people in the world between 1990 and 2015 was very nearly accomplished, while the 1996 World Food Summit target of reducing the number of hungry people was woefully short, by about 265 million.


Of course, much of this discrepancy can be explained by population growth, which increased by around 1.9 billion people globally over this time span. However, according to FAO figures, around 780 million people in the world remain hungry. In other words, food insecurity continues to be a major global challenge of our time that will only become more difficult as the world population continues to grow.

As we saw next in Charlotte’s presentation, the challenges of global hunger are compounded by overnutrition (overweight and obesity), as well as micronutrient deficiencies, known as hidden hunger. For many, the resulting “triple burden” of undernutrition, overnutrition, and micronutrient deficiencies – and the overlapping distributions of these phenomena in the world – indicate that rethinking strategies for combating malnutrition is critical if we want to make headway in combating the problems they create in society.

Overlapping burdens

From Charlotte’s perspective, a comprehensive approach to addressing all forms of malnutrition necessitates taking into account the myriad ways that food systems impact nutritional outcomes. Although there are many definitions of food systems out there, Per Pinstrup-Andersen provides a reasonably simple one: “the aggregate of all food-related activities and environments (political, socio-economic, and natural) within which these activities occur.”

As we learned in the talk, a food systems approach compels us to go beyond a narrow view of the role of food security in pathways leading to nutrition. Using the diagram below, Charlotte showed us her take on the UNICEF conceptual framework, which has been used by the nutrition community for over 25 years to depict the multi-level causes of malnutrition.

food systems

As you can see, more than half of the framework is dominated by the right hand and center factors of HEALTH services and CARE practices, suggesting that FOOD plays a relatively smaller role. But as the green boxes show, food systems influence factors of nutrition at every level. A broad multi-sectoral approach runs counter to the persistent idea that nutrition falls strictly under a health paradigm. Charlotte sees the medicalization of the nutrition sector as one reason that these interactions were ignored for so long. By looking at the food system more holistically, there is an opportunity to analyze how any number of broader phenomena, – influences such as climate change, urbanization, or humanitarian crisis – can be tied to poor nutrition outcomes. Charlotte believes we should address these trends through nutrition sensitive programming, and she is not alone.

Applying a Food Systems Perspective

Increasingly, practitioners in the field of food security are adopting a food systems lens, which reflects the growing consensus that, in order to meet nutrition specific objectives, nutrition sensitive objectives must also be ensured. This may sound like a fairly straightforward logic, but putting a food systems perspective into practice is not so simple. As Charlotte explained, one reason for this is that, operationally speaking,  food systems are driven by context. At any given location or scale, they are defined by diverse characteristics like livelihood strategies, natural resource wealth, or market dynamics.

This complexity has made it hard for many traditional actors in the nutrition sector to get on board with the idea of nutrition sensitive programs. She has found that public health practitioners may even look down on agriculture to nutrition programming, even if they do understand the linkages, because the community lacks a set of best practices that can be universally applied to activate explicit impact pathways. As she put it, the medical model benefits from the fact that human physiology is relatively common from place to place. “You can give someone a vitamin A capsule and be relatively certain of the effect it will have.” This is not the case with nutrition sensitive agricultural interventions, and not just because there are so many other variables that can intervene, but also because the outcomes themselves are less certain, and may even compete with one another. In case we were still in the dark, she provided the great example of water management practices, which might just as easily result in increased pollution of water sources as in health improvements.

Flipping the Equation

While part of her job entails trying to convince health practitioners about what agriculture can bring to nutrition Charlotte says she focuses more on convincing agricultural actors why they should care about nutrition outcomes. The beauty of this approach is that it sidesteps the need to disentangle the tortuous pathways through the food system that lead to positive nutrition outcomes. Charlotte believes that practitioners should orient themselves with a perspective of do no harm, asking the question: How can agricultural projects that lead to negative outcomes be prevented? This was the starting place for a set of key recommendations FAO developed for improving nutrition through agriculture and food systems.

These recommendations, also known as “guiding principles” include 10 ways agricultural programs and investments can strengthen impacts on nutrition, as well as 5 ways food and agriculture policies can have a better impact:

10 ways

5 ways

We wrapped up this part of the discussion with a run-down of some of the challenges and opportunities she sees in applying these principles.


  • Incomplete information systems. Although there is good data on nutritional requirements and agricultural production, detailed dietary intake information that can be used to link the two are often missing.
  • Trade promotion policies are tricky because they can both support or hinder improved nutrition. Because of power imbalances, trade often results in an unequal distribution of benefits.
  • Bilateral donor investments in agriculture may pit national and/or multinational private interests against one another, and mix private companies into the public sphere, eroding national sovereignty and agency.


  • Food based social protection programs that offer support in the form of food vouchers, school meals, and cash transfers can be used to stimulate demand for certain foods and incentivize production.
  • Promoting diversity of food staples, including incorporation of land races and wild relatives.
  • New forms of nutrition education and marketing that promote healthy consumption patterns.

Examples from the Field – Ag2Nut in Practice

After a heavy load of theory, it was finally time to look at a couple of examples of how nutrition sensitive agriculture principles have been applied in the field. To demonstrate nutrition sensitive agriculture programming, Charlotte presented an overview of the Land Husbandry, Water Harvesting, and Hillside Irrigation Project in Rwanda, also known by its pithier acronym, LWH. This flagship program of the Rwandan Ministry of Agriculture is funded by the World Bank and was designed with technical support from FAO’s Investment Center. Visiting the project, Charlotte and her colleagues found that a number of the design features provided traction for enhancing impact on nutrition. For example, by building a suite of services – including health insurance – into agricultural cooperative membership, smallholder farmers were better protected against disruptive health crises and had better access to health care. Women’s groups established “keyhole” gardens designed to optimize vegetable production in a small space, and have access to nutrition education provided by the Ministry of Health nutrition community workers. These activities are fully in line with the Ministry of Agriculture’s Nutrition strategy, for which FAO provided technical assistance.

After hearing about this case study, it was easy to look back at the list of principles and see what Charlotte meant about how they reflect an attempt to ensure that food systems are designed in a way that avoids doing harm. However, meeting the standards of the guiding principles does require injecting nutrition goals into the ag sector, or as Charlotte put it, “we have to find a way to convince the ag sector that they own a stake in nutrition.”

This can be really tricky when, in reality, agriculture is largely driven by private sector actors who bear some of the blame in creating many of the nutrition related health burdens faced by people from all strata of societies across the world. Based on her experience, Charlotte believes this challenge is surmountable if good policies can be implemented that build synergies across sectors. In the course of her career, she has built her confidence alongside her capacity to act as a convener and a facilitator. She gave us some good advice in this area, reminding us that where it is not possible to set the agenda, it may be possible to influence it. To do this, she told us, you have to know who the players are, you have to develop some political savvy, and above all else, you have to be legitimate.

In her second example, Charlotte told us about a successful workshop organized by FAO wherein a group of African ministry officials were gathered to discuss nutrition policy as part of AU-NEPADs Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP). The key to the success of the workshop, she said, was using peer-to-peer influence to galvanize interest in nutrition among the Ministries of Agriculture. As part of the workshop, Charlotte asked the CAADP representatives to present their own country success stories in promoting nutrition through agriculture. As she tells it, this approach benefited from the sense of ownership experienced by each country representative who presented. Following a particularly brilliant presentation by the CAADP Rep from Malawi, the excitement quickly became contagious. Each delegation’s presentation stimulated the rest to reflect and discuss how they could achieve similar impacts in their own countries. Eventually many brought those ideas home to put into practice. Slowly, these kinds of efforts are changing the agenda from the inside out.

One of the best parts, she says, was realizing that part of the demand can be built around the idea that improving nutrition matters. It’s a goal we can all relate to, and that people who create agriculture policy can feel good about promoting. And, it doesn’t have to stop with nutrition as an end in itself, rather, nutrition can be a means to achieve even bigger virtues like equity, health, and resilience.

Reflections and Take Aways

Our conversation with Charlotte came at an opportune time in the course of the semester. Each of the four speakers we heard from before her had provided us with valuable critical perspectives on the role of large institutions from the outside, looking in. Many of their critiques suggested that, not only is small-scale, community-driven engagement is an essential  ingredient of sustainable development, but that large bureaucratic entities may actually create challenges for smallholder farmers.

Just as we were beginning to question whether there is a role for large multinational agencies in promoting the values we care about, like social welfare, food justice, and sustainability, Charlotte’s talk reaffirmed the idea that large organizations like FAO can, and do, play an important role in complementing community based development efforts.

Ultimately this came down to three important observations:

  1. UN Agencies like FAO occupy a different operational space than organizational actors working at the community level
  2. Size affords these organizations the ability to convene key policymakers and provides influence that can be used to set the policy agenda
  3. Policy interventions shape the environment in which people, communities, and development organizations interact

In our talk with Charlotte, I don’t think I was alone in my sense of surprise at encountering someone so incredibly real and lucid. It didn’t match up with the anonymous, jargonistic, bureaucrat we might have expected to encounter on the other end of a skype call from the offices of a large UN headquarters. The practicality of her work also gave me pause to stop and recognize the myopia of my grad school experience. It was incredibly reassuring to see that she is not academic researcher, at least not primarily, but nonetheless she gets it. She can talk the talk about data needs and switch between science and policy concepts as though she were trained with the best, right here at Friedman.

Most importantly, she proved to us that she’s out fighting the good fight, and it’s the same one many of us hope to join one day soon. Despite the fact that nutrition sensitive agriculture is a hard concept to capture in a word, let alone a paragraph, I left the conversation convinced that the approach does have a place in that fight. So for those who care about sustainable agriculture, and who care about improving nutrition, which we do, it is great to know there is lots of work to be done. Let’s get hopping!


A Conversation with Jason Sandahl of the USDA’s Foreign Ag Service

A Conversation with Dr. Jason Sandahl of the USDA’s Foreign Ag Service: An Aflatoxin Biocontrol Product for Africa, Maximum Residue Limit International Allies and Candid Professional Advice


On April 4th, 2016, our group had the pleasure of speaking with Dr. Jason Sandahl of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service (USDA-FAS). Jason has worked in the DC Office of Capacity Building and Development for the past 10 years and holds a PhD in toxicology and a BA in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry from Oregon State. Jason came to us by way IAFE founder and former colleague, David Grist who worked in Food Safety and the Programs area at FAS prior to coming to Friedman.

Jason spoke to us regarding FAS’s Aflatoxin program and the international allies program for Maximum Residual Levels as well as toxicological capacity building in the developing world and practical quandaries facing professionals in his field. Not coincidentally, Jason’s past and values are reflected in these programs. Jason (and earlier David) served in the Peace Corps when he was sent to Swaziland. He recalls a defining moment of seeing farmers regularly dumping leftover toxic pesticides into a local river for lack of better option or education. This sort of failing was what motivated him to obtain a PhD in toxicology during which he spent 5 years studying pesticide run-off in agriculture and its effects on the environment and human health. Jason’s yen to serve humanity through technological innovation and science (note that Jason was a science policy fellow thru the American Association for the Advancement of Science[1]) later led him to protect those very farmers. He later taught Toxicology to college students in Swaziland on a Fulbright. At FAS, Jason carries this spirit of service through science.

The FAS Aflasafe Program

In case you didn’t get the memo, humans carry around more foreign cells than human cells[2]. Incredibly, these communities in many cases can be harnessed towards favorable outcomes in the food system. Conversely, they can be lethal.

Aflatoxin is a toxin lethal to humans and produced by a group of fungi known as Aspergillus Flavus which thrive on corn, peanuts and other crops, especially in post-harvest tropical Africa. Dr. Peter Cotty of the University of Arizona (this author’s alma mater) developed a product, Aflasafe, that is a collection of atoxigenic (non-toxin-producing) fungi from the same family that when spread on a farmer’s fields every two years, outcompete the aflatoxin-producing fungi. The process involves analyzing soils to identify atoxigenic strains and using a “growth matrix” such as sorghum to propagate atoxigenic fungi spores and disseminate them. Such methods are consistent with organic production. This green innovation translates into major social welfare gains as it saves lives and enhances commercial value of crops, sometimes for export and sometimes for subsistence. It reflects a more sophisticated understanding of the soil web and a gentle and non-toxic way of increasing yields and controlling pests while reducing death and illness due to aflatoxin ingestion. The product is an example of a biocontrol or the use of living organisms to depress the population of a pest.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 2.01.40 AM

In terms of aflatoxin related deaths, the accurate numbers on related deaths were hard to find. Acute aflatoxicosis is easier to attribute deaths to aflatoxin, but chronic aflatoxin consumption at lower levels leads to cirrhosis and liver cancer, and is suspected to contribute to stunting in children. This summer Friedman’s own and IAFE co-founder Caroline Nathan will be conducting a study commissioned by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) for a USAID-funded program in Malawi called UBALE. The study will be looking at primary caregivers’ knowledge, attitude, and practices regarding mold growth on maize and groundnuts. CRS is also commissioning a study that ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics; part of CGIAR) will be conducting in the same sample of households, where they will be looking at agricultural knowledge and practices of household heads with regard to mold growth. She’ll be following up with that sample of households and interviewing mothers with children under 5. This will be a key contribution to the current data gap that is holding back more effective policy.

There exist thousands of family member strains of fungi and each one produces a different level of aflatoxin according to Jason. In his work, Dr. Cotty isolates the strains that don’t produce substances toxic to humans, he grows them in a vat and puts them on some feed matrix and then applies them to the field. Amazingly the community structure flip-flops! The atoxigenic strains outcompete toxin-producing ones in the fields and on the crops.

Dr. Peter Cotty works for the USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) in thru the U of A. Years ago, he and Dr. Ranajit presented on this product. Jason got wind and loved it. He took the concept to the USDA and was able to get enough people excited where it became a priority for capacity building in Africa. Jason helped launch their efforts in Africa. Now donors from around the globe fund Aflasafe. It’s currently produced in labs in AZ or Nigeria but the goal is to expand the capacity in Africa.

Drs. Cotty and Ranajit

Drs. Cotty and Ranajit (far left and next)

FAS, USAID and other development agencies in trying to scale up this product and practice must consider what is required for business development in these countries. Fortunately, the Partnership for Aflatoxin Control in Africa (PACA) was created to steer the broader efforts in Africa, organizing donors efforts. More than just focusing on scaling up Aflasafe, it is taking holistic approaches to address the impact on food safety and public health by dealing with a variety of topics including regulatory environments, trade, etc.

The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) addresses the lack of awareness around fungi, which is oftentimes invisible and rarely understood. They develop TV and radio commercials and brochures to raise awareness. On average, the best-looking 40% goes for sale with the remainder 60% of the corn produced in Africa auto-consumed. Aflatoxin is more detrimental for mothers and children breastfeeding.

The following chart shows the processes and stages from identifying the threat posed by Aflatoxin by country, then identifying local atoxigenic (does not produce toxins) strains of the same fungi and developing a viable industry around it. Zambia, as you can (hopefully) see, is at the most advanced stage.

Aflasafe PACA

Some of the major concerns for Aflasafe are who pays for it. As you can see, there are many funders. If farmers are to pay for it themselves, how are they expected to pay for it when farmers are unaware of this invisible killer? How do you incentivize them to use it? How expensive is it? Along those lines, ICRISAT’s recent technological breakthrough brought the cost of detection down from $25 to $1 permitting thousands of Malawian farmers to regain lucrative trade with the EU.

Again, just who should flip the bill for this life-saving technology is in important question. Just because it’s a production issue does not mean this cost should fall on the farmer. Government is one funding stream Jason’s team has identified. Some private sector companies could emerge though these efforts. More data on cost effectiveness and lives saved could help policy-makers fund this work. It occurred to me that if the farmer sold corn produced with Aflasafe, that they deserve a premium as opposed to a conventional fungicide. Other incentives should be put in place. Those sourcing from Aflasafe users who care about transparency should invest in efforts to establish a certification scheme around aflatoxin and to reward those producers who use it.

A Brief Mycological Tangent

Enthused by fungi? I sure am. Scared? Me too. Fungi possess great powers. As a brief divergence, I want to mention the work of two really interesting scientists around mycology. Paul Stamuts, mycologist guru in his Ted Talk, presented research findings that speak to mycological solutions for major societal problems including environmental remediation (oils spills and E. Coli in soils and runoff), treating smallpox and flu viruses. They are as he says, “the grand molecular disassemblers of nature”. He holds the prestigious Alexander Graham Bell patent on mycelium extracts capable of steering insects in a direction of choice! Pesticides executives dubbed his discovery the single most disruptive innovation they knew of.

Jae Rhim Lee’s Ted Talk entitled Mushroom Death Suite offers an ecological death alternative to the toxic chemicals (formaldehyde) used in the preservation process for funerals. Her inoculated suit consumes the deceased in fungi as an eco-friendly gift to mother nature.

A Longer Side Bar on The Dual Between Organic and Conventional Ag

Jason’s work straddles conventional and organic production systems and it bears invoking the great debate to place Jason’s efforts in that context before we explore his broader efforts on Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs) and toxicological capacity building.

First, some basics on the main points of divergence. Pesticides – despite the misconceptions of many – are used in conventional and organic agriculture. Organic farming uses an approach to growing crops and raising livestock that avoids synthetic chemicals, hormones, antibiotic agents, genetic engineering, and irradiation. To qualify as organic, crops must be produced on farms that have not used most synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer for 3 years before harvest and have a sufficient buffer zone to decrease contamination from adjacent lands. Soil fertility and nutrient content is managed primarily with cultivation practices, crop rotations, and cover crops supplemented with animal and crop waste fertilizers. Pests, weeds, and diseases are managed primarily by physical, mechanical, and biological controls instead of with synthetic pesticides and herbicides. Exceptions are allowed if substances are on a national approved list. Organic livestock must be reared without the routine use of antibiotic agents or growth hormones and must be provided with access to the outdoors. If an animal is treated for disease with antibiotic agents, it cannot be sold as organic. Preventive health practices include vaccination and vitamin and mineral supplementation.

We’ve long been told that conventional outperforms organic in amount yielded, and while this may be the case in the short-run, at least one serious study conducted by the reputable Rodale Institute over 35 years demonstrated that “after an initial decline in yields during the first few years of transition, the organic system soon rebounded to match or surpass the conventional system”. This was found to be true for yield, adaptation to drought and price commanded. Organic, however, is most often more land-intensive than conventional, requiring more land-intensive inputs such as manure. In an increasingly crowded world this could be an issue though many other avenues exist to solve it like changing our eating habits to less resource-intense sources of protein such as plant-based ones or tackling food waste (40%!) or overweight to name a few.

In terms of nutrition, it depends on who you talk to. The research establishment has done a couple systematic reviews and one from 2012 concluded that: the published literature lacks strong evidence that organic foods are significantly more nutritious than conventional foods. [However]Consumption of organic foods may reduce exposure to pesticide residues and antibiotic-resistant bacteria (which is enough for me if you’ve got the money and that’s an equity issue I don’t have an answer for sadly).

The findings organic does not contain more nutrients is disputed by, guess who? The Organic Center. They question the methodology of some of the reviews. Their own report touts an average of a 30% increase in nutrients in organics, except for nitrates (not desired) and protein. Systematic and Cochrane reviews are meta-analysis of data that can provide great insight into areas where research results across multiple studies are ambiguous. The Organic Center points out the selection-exclusion criteria for studies that neglected studies sufficiently to conclude no difference between organic and conventional. When the Organic center re-did the study with another exclusion criteria, they found the results much more favorable for organic production (which they are also mandated to represent). As such it’s always good to keep an eye out for who funded the systematic review.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) report on organic foods offered a great analysis of the threats to child health posed by pesticides. If it is not good enough for a baby, honestly, I don’t want it. Call me irrational. It should be noted that their resiliency to pesticides is lower than adults. Many of the reports cited that follow were initially found in that report. A large prospective birth cohort study that measured pesticide exposure in pregnant farm workers in California and followed their offspring found lower mental development index scores at 24 months of age[3] and attention problems at 3.5 and 5 years of age[4]. An analysis of cross-sectional data from NHANES has demonstrated that within the range of exposure in the general US population, the odds of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder for 8- to 15-year-old children were increased 55% with a 10-fold increase in urinary concentrations of the organophosphate metabolite dimethyl alkylphosphate (a pesticide).

A small longitudinal cohort of children who regularly consumed conventional produce demonstrated that urinary pesticide residues were reduced to almost non-detectable levels (below 0.3 μg/L for malathion dicarboxylic acid) when they were changed to an organic produce diet for 5 days[5]. Years ago, I looked into whether washing produce removed the pesticide residue and learned that it does not always. For those so inclined, Consumer Reports has a great report on Pesticides here and produced this great short video guide that explains when its best to buy organic. Interestingly, they mention avoiding conventional green beans in particular. Jason addresses this problem as we’ll see with his solution to the minor use problem for specialty crops whereby, he is pressing to develop pesticides that are more targeted and safer, where little incentives exist because of lower margins to manufacturers.

According to the AAP article, although chronic pesticide exposure and measurable pesticide metabolite concentrations seem undesirable and potentially unhealthy, no studies to date have experimentally examined the causal relationship between exposure to pesticides directly from conventionally grown foods and adverse neurodevelopmental health outcomes. Most of the research implicating pesticides in these adverse health outcomes is from case-control or cross-sectional studies. These studies are limited by a number of factors, including difficulties measuring past exposures and the lack of a positive temporal relationship between exposure and outcome. It is difficult to directly extrapolate from these studies and draw conclusions about potential toxicity at the levels of pesticide exposure documented from dietary in-take of conventional produce. Data derived from large prospective cohort studies may address some of these shortcomings. In short, we need more funding and data for pesticide research.

Despite popular belief, environmentally, organic is surprisingly not always more beneficial. Many studies have documented the increased land mass required for organic production. A really fun book, The Rational Optimist, initially draw this to my attention. A research study by a soon-to-be Tufts PhD student showed that, according to a Life Cycle Analysis, the ecological footprint of grass-fed beef was higher than conventional mainly due to its land-intensive nature and inferior efficiency. Also, and perhaps more importantly, organic ag cannot take advantage of the astonishing space-saving potential and no-tillage benefit (not to mention so many others that are in the pipeline) of GMOs. Take it from the horse’s mouth, this 30-part series on GMOs by dispels a ton of myths about GMOs and calls attention to the real threats (more socially constructed).

Determining environmental impact is complex – simply consuming organic isn’t a seal that means you’re doing the right thing. You may need to recalibrate your heuristics. Consider this study of food miles: compared to lamb imported from New Zealand (the study was conducted in the UK), locally produced lamb had a higher ecological footprint given inputs and out of season storage and refrigeration cost.

Many amongst us have been pondering just whether we can feed the world without pesticides. While for many it is a forgone conclusion that they prop up humanity’s 7 billion, there is undeniably an interplay between those 7 billion and the pesticide use that underpins the population explosion. The Haber-Bosch dyad was identified by Nature magazine as the single most influential person in the 20th century and yet so few could identify their invention, the synthetic creation of ammonia from thin air the has enabled massive increases in yields.

What does this all have to do with Jason Sandahl? In Aflasafe, he provides an alternative to the externalities discussed above that are associated with conventional agriculture (which deeply and truly has its pros and cons) all while empowering impoverished farmers and boosting foreign markets. Environmentally, he’s reducing the need for pesticides. Nutritionally, he’s reducing mal-absorptive illnesses that can reduce human capacity to benefit from the (increasingly scarce?[6],[7]) nutrients in harvests. Less money spent on ill-health means more spent improving production.

Consumer reports absolutely enlightening look at pesticides in produce encapsulated the trade-off nicely when asking ‘Should I skip conventionally grown produce?’ They answered: No. The risks of pesticides are real, but the myriad health benefits of fruits and vegetables are, too.

In the end, I (think I?) hope for a world free from pesticides. For now, I’ll embrace F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous quote as a mantra: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Either side of the debate you fall on you can appreciate this quote for reconciling the contradictory-nature of information in today’s polarized world. Food systems is a field full of complexity and oftentimes contradictions. Even “evidence-based” has major flaws through regulatory capture, industry laws, and industry-funded research. Thanks for your encouragement F. Scott…

Jason’s 2nd program – Pesticide Residues in Agricultural Trade

Jason was part of a group that led a presentation at a conference at the FAO HQ in Rome in 2012 talking about getting new chemicals and safer products registered around world. He spoke about some new biological control products such as Aflasafe, which were usually much safer for human health than chemical pesticides. African governments were (and still are) having a difficult time registering newer types of products because they lack the technical know-how to understand them. Conventional pesticides get registered by government officials with stacks of papers, Jason lamented. They’re overloaded with risk assessments on how chemicals behave in the lab with wildlife such as fish and rabbits. Risk assessments include residue data, data on how pesticides behave in the environment, how they break down, what the molecules disintegrate into, and how long that process takes. It includes info on worker safety exposure. Lots of info goes into the registration packet so an official can make an evidence-based decision on whether it will be safe to use. Efficacy data is included as well, helping answer the question of whether the pesticide will be effective.

Some person sitting at a desk has to make this decision. In the US we have the Office of Pesticide Program (OPP) at the EPA comprised of ~800 people spread around country. In developing countries you have a person or max 5 in offices or a committee and they have to make the same decision we allocate 800 people to do… On top of this they don’t have higher education in risk assessment. Therein lies a problem.

In Africa, for example, they are dealing with lots of chemicals that they’ve never heard of – many are not in the US or European databases yet. What do you do as that official? You have to make a serious decision with very limited info. Understandably they are hesitant about registering something they don’t understand. The implications of a wrong decision could be devastating. These challenges and constraints were conveyed at the FAO in Rome during the same conference Jason presented at. Remember Jason’s background and abilities? Well here is where they kicked in for what we’ll call the creating of shared value.

Jason obtained funding from USAID and USDA to put on a series of workshops where he gathered registration officials from developing countries to provide capacity building. They talked about what a biopesticide is, biocontrol products and more. How one can have confidence in their decisions to register new pesticides. At the workshops were Dr. Peter Cotty and Dr. Ranajit of IITA in Nigeria, together working on Aflasafe (which actually arose and was developed as a product 20 years ago for cotton growers in the US). One of the technical experts was from IR-4 based out of Rutgers – Michael Braverman who’s worked to provide safe and effective pest management solutions for specialty crop growers. He conducted research for registering minor-use (specialty crops) pesticides. These efforts made a big difference in the lives of pesticide regulators, the farmers applying them, communities who saw an infusion of revenue and consumers who could consume produce within appropriate bounds. Empowered regulators free up time and resources for other public expenditures as well.

The Minor Use Problem…Solved

A lot of chemical companies have little financial interest in specialty crops that only constitute a few acres per farm. If sufficient demand doesn’t exist, companies won’t develop pesticides – it’s simply not profitable. Chemical companies not registering small-acreage crop pesticides is part of the minor use problem. Because specialty crops are produced on smaller plots and overall constitute smaller acreage specialty crops like mangos, passion fruit, dragon fruit, lychees and papaya (protein enzymes!) don’t command sufficient attention for pesticides that are expensive to research and develop. There simply is not enough sale of the product to recoup the cost. As there is almost no incentive for manufacturers, it is a huge problem in all developing countries where a bulk of the cheap manufacturing of chemicals thus comes from chemical companies in China, and Eastern Europe filling that void with older chemicals being used in volume which are worse for the environment, wildlife, workers, consumers.

So FAS funded the IR-4 project[8]. Based out of Rutgers University where they do research and get registration for new products for specialty crops. Other countries do not have this system. The IR-4 program gets growers access to newer safer chemicals because the US government is paying for it. So Jason re-phrased minor use crops to USDA as a low acreage but high value crops with current low pesticide use constituting a burden of $37m to American farmers. FAS’ collaboration with Rutgers aims to close the gap left behind by corporations who have little incentive by themselves to develop specialty-crop specific pesticides. It certainly seems to be an appropriate role of government to incentivize development of specialty crop pesticides where it is not profitable for companies alone. Jason says there’s no other way to get safer pesticides into those countries.

International Collaboration around Maximum Residue Limits (MRLs)

It seemed key that Jason strives to have other countries partner with us so that they can shoulder cost burden and MRLs can be more robust for all. The US will never submit data for those products, as we don’t have the growing conditions. However, acceptance for the American standards for MRLs is a rather geopolitical issue it seems. Thus USDA-FAS with Jason started up a project to train third world regulators on methods and collaborating with them on real projects where they establish MRLs for passion fruit, mangos, lychees, etc. Field trials are currently taking place around the world. They are accompanied by the necessary laboratory trainings. They learn how to package the data and submit it to Codex[9]. It cannot be done in isolation according to Jason. He takes somewhat of a value chain approach. FAS helps build a network of countries and experts to tackle the problem.

US farmers benefit from an the enhanced institutional, technical and intellectual capacity in foreign countries which are better equipped to handle the science of risk assessments for proposed US pesticides for entry into their countries as well as US exports with those very residues. This establishes foreign markets for American growers thru the acceptance of US, evidence-based MRLs. The project overcomes the limitations of economies of small scale through government intervention. Foreign growers obtain better yields and can better commercialize their products under the assurance of Codex MRLs. This stimulates economic growth. American consumers benefit from less wide spectrum pesticides of Chinese and Eastern European origin.

Any initiative must fall within the mandate of FAS. The foreign policy and geopolitical element of these programs appears to be to steer Africa towards the science-based risk approach (versus the EU hazard-based approach). This was fleshed out for us around the MRL allies’ program and collaboration projects tackling the minor use problem by building capacity and a network for 3rd world users of pesticides. Allies for the US-based approach seem to receive a carrot from the FAS capacity building and biocontrol products and US pesticides developed by Dr. Braverman as alternatives to the cheap, relatively more dangerous, broad spectrum and poor quality pesticides produced in China. According to Jason, modern American pesticides are more targeted (think cancer research) at pests that hinder yields of specialty crops.

In the US we get chemicals from Dow, Syngenta, DuPont, Bayer. They are extremely regulated according to Jason. They have so many hoops and hurdles and have everyone looking over their shoulders. But they also have a relatively low bar compared to Europe’s stricter stance towards hazards/harm. In this environment in the US it is hard to mislabel or exaggerate a claim. One false claim and you are sued immediately and might go bankrupt. 

As mentioned, the risk assessment approach in US differs from the European Union approach. The USDA is trying to win people over to our approach because it opens up markets to American producers and exporters. Europeans when evaluating a risk use a hazard based approach – if a chemical has a hazardous risk then it receives a red flag and it becomes hard to register. In the US we say, so you have a hazard, but if there is little to no exposure then we should be able to use it, and it’s not going to be a problem in the end – it’ll be safe.

As Jason explained about the various levels of toxicity and danger expressed in the labels of pesticides, my mind wander to the trade-offs: longer lives thru more food access (though the problem is also one of distribution, access and equity issue) and yet we’re surrounded by Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs) such as cancers which seem to be on the rise[10]. I refocused just in time to hear him tell us that several of the chemicals once sprayed by his father on their farm are now considered rather dangerous …Jason (and earlier David) explained to me that pesticide regulation had really improved in the US over the years and in terms of what we allowed to be exported. I recalled my case studies looking at the unspeakable Bhopal incident and was thankful. I wonder if farmer’s knew their true/real cost, whether they would chose to use pesticides with as much frequency and how this would change if we really approached biocontrol alternatives with the same vigor as some other things.

IAFE’s cofounder Julie Kurtz questioned the unjust low prices paid to developing world producers and objected to the volatility (and undercutting) of changing US agricultural policy every 5 years that the 3rd world is subjected to. In a subsequent class with Tim Wise we learned of some of the most basic needs of farmers and how they can be helped:

  • Secure access to land and water
  • Technical assistance
  • Low-input technological improvements
  • Affordable credit and crop insurance
  • Stable and fair prices for their goods
  • Access to markets for their surpluses

In response to Julie’s query regarding skimming off value along the supply chain, Jason responded that he’d been in touch with Dole and Del Monte and Supermarkets that drive imports to see if they’ll be partners on his projects. He was in the process of visiting chemical companies, grower associations, Del Monte and Dole and talking about everybody taking a piece of responsibility – a networked and collaborative effort.

Jason’s Thought Starters – Real Life Professional Questions faced by Technical Experts

Prior to his seminar, Jason conveyed to our group a set of questions to marinade and ponder. Each of these questions dealt with real-world practical quandaries he felt professionals face and he either explicitly or implicitly drew out each quandary in his own work.

Jason really obliged us by invoking these themes as we were explicit in requesting that IAFE guest lecturers address practical, real-world work considerations in the international food systems space. The first I would like to focus on is how to handle a potential gap between your personal and institutional mission, vision or mandate. FAS’ mission statement reads:

Linking U.S. agriculture to the world to enhance export opportunities and global food security” thru the following programs: market development, international trade agreements and negotiations, and the collection of statistics and market information. It also administers the USDA’s export credit guarantee and food aid programs and helps increase income and food availability in developing nations by mobilizing expertise for agriculturally led economic growth.

As mentioned, Jason also has a major focus on global food security. In my opinion this is consistent with FAS’ mandate. Jason feels positive that he is also able to work on Aflasafe and helping people in Kenya and across Africa have better lives, better nutrition and safer food supply but admits that not everyone in the agency has the same perspective on his interpretation of FAS’s mandate.

Jason was open about a common critique (that he also engages in) of whether the international work FAS does in agricultural development and building regulatory and technical capacity in other countries actually hurts opportunities for US farmers. One justification is that his office’s work helps other economies to establish new markets and thus facilitates trade. Jason’s Office of Capacity Building and Development also builds support for US standards around pesticides residue limits, which enhances US farmer’s ability to export.

David argued that this divergence and many other conundrums of Jason’s work, could be addressed by a robust M&E program, an area which David is building expertise with Friedman’s Jennie Coates. Another professional quandary whose personal opinions Jason solicited from us was, when to admit you’ve thrown money down a hole and cut your losses. It felt eerily cryptic almost and sadly was never really addressed due to time constraints after his lecture.

Interestingly, and as a rebuttal to the concern over institutional vision, Jason clued us in to the commonplace occurrence that over-arching agendas are often the result of the initiative of a few creative and well-positioned people working at desks in their corners. It’s often not the case that a systematic broader vision and road map is put in place by discerning and representative leadership. According to Jason, “larger programs with more attention and players are more susceptible to being diluted, taken down other paths, and hijacked.” The low profile nature of Dr. Sandahl’s project has allowed him to perhaps achieve more, paradoxically. What if the large pesticide companies knew about aflatoxin?

Other thought-starters included: What role should the US government play in building regulatory or technical capacity in other countries? Does supporting agricultural development in other countries actually hurt opportunities for American farmers (increased competition)? With limited resources, how to prioritize needs? There is just way too much to do. Different offices within an institution often have different objectives and goals: Is it better to have a unified vision/position, or is it better to have multiple perspectives and approaches to a problem?

Jason explained that because his funding sources were not coordinated, his team was applying to different donors which each had different goals, but whose goals needed to overlap with FAS’ mandate. Each source has a different mission. Also, some of the money has to be spent in within specific time frames (oftentimes 6 months) imposing the need for reports and results. This resonates with Aaron Ebner’s lament-critique in an earlier IAFE lecture with AASD. Jason explained “sometimes these organizations just need to get money off their books, to check off a box”. Something to watch out for.

Professional Etiquette, Morals, and Values

Jason obliged our request for practical professional advice in this area of expertise and thusly shared with us some words of wisdom from the chief of Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department in a grad school class on being an effective professional.

Be respectful. As someone trying to implement policy changes, respect both sides of argument. For the seminar he always had divergent viewpoints, Jason explain, especially diverging from his, but he always gave them space to speak and engaged them respectfully. Be honest. Whenever he gave us his position, he talked about his biases. I have this angle because this is the perspective I bring. This is my passion. Consider other opinions. Don’t bullshit about what you don’t know. Be acceptable. Answer messages. Answer phone. Contact people back. Be sincere. Be passionate about what you do. Be creative. People who are the most effective think outside the box. Strive to understand things from different perspectives for problem-solving. Communication. If you want to influence people you need to talk like people. Don’t try to be clever. Be an effective communicator.

So, what? The Future from 30, 000 feet

A couple years ago while working on organic farms in the Southern Cone and Peru, I was given and read Teaming With Microbes, an entire book on the soil food web. Armed with the remnants of that understanding, this led me to ask Jason about other biocontrol applications for pests. I’d learned about compost tea first hand on a massive organic blueberry farm in Chile and dabbled myself on Paz Peru’s farm I helped build. So I thought Jason might have some insight into just how many other crops could benefit from biocontrols.

Though I may not have phrased it clearly for him, screening of beneficial varieties was too labor intensive at this point to be cost-competitive with other initiatives according to Jason (reminiscent of wind or geothermal – not there yet). So, rather unfortunately, it remained unclear for us the potential application of biocontrol products beyond the mycological kingdom to the bacterial kingdom. Fortunately, there’s plenty of information on the Internet on biocontrols. A quick search turned up the International organisation for Biological Control (IOBC), which promotes environmentally safe methods of pest and disease control. It is a voluntary organisation of biological-control workers.

This type of innovation we felt could render obsolete so many pesticides and associated suffering while maintaining production levels. It seems a more enlightened reflection of a savvier technological understanding and harnessing of the soil food web.

While we may dream of a world where we exercise sufficient control over microbes, climate control and beneficial bugs so as to render our food production systems free from toxic pesticides, such a reality is beyond our current reach. Could we ever attain such a society?

The author retains all responsibility for views and errors expressed in this blog.

Dylan Anderson-Berens


[1] The fellowships aim is to get more science involved in the policy of government. Tangentially, this author has long felt pulled to the advantages of a technocracy in which educated government officials (not mere politicians) determine government policy more directly. Technicians if you will. Come to think of it, this smacks of China where — at least in theory — the academic elite are funneled up the education system to positions of leadership in the government (suspend other conceptions of the Chinese you may harbor).


[3] Eskenazi B, Marks AR, Bradman A, et al. Organophosphate pesticide exposure and neurodevelopment in young Mexican-American children. Environ Health Persp

[4] Marks AR, Harley K, Bradman A, et al. Organophosphate pesticide exposure and attention in young Mexican-American children: the CHAMACOS study. Environ Health Perspect. 2010;118(12):1768–1774

[5] Lu C, Toepel K, Irish R, Fenske RA, Barr DB, Bravo R. Organic diets significantly lower children’s dietary exposure to organophosphorus pesticides. Environ Health Perspect. 2006;114(2):260–263



[8] Jason explained IR-4 was making better avocados and pesticides through innovation but that there was a need to get Codex MRLs established for them. If not, American farmers can’t export.

[9] A striking 25% of standards developed by Codex came from US data and the US has funded 25% of cost burden for member/signatory countries.

[10] Many argue the point that cancer rates have actually been on the decline and that measurement has been enhanced.

Making a Living and Making it Meaningful; A Conversation with Katelyn Morris

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 2.53.16 PMWhen talking about international agriculture, it’s inevitable that a great deal of the conversation will center around development or more specifically the buzzword subject of ‘sustainable development.’ Sustainability, in my personal opinion, is an overused word. In today’s language, it can mean so many things that without further elaboration it hardly means anything at all.

Today we were privileged to have guest lecturer Katelyn Morris lead the discussion. Katelyn is a research associate at the University of Vermont, and her focus is on climate change, agriculture, and food security. She began class with one of the best definitions of sustainable development I have heard yet. Quoting Lao Tzu, he says

“Go to the people, live with them, learn from them, love them, start with what they know, build with what they have, but of the best leaders, when the job is done, the task accomplished, the people should say “We have done it ourselves.”

That those you are trying to better can say “we have done it ourselves,” lies at the heart of successful development. This is a concept that seems so obvious and yet was neglected in the early years of development work. Over the years, the dialogue has shifted to incorporate more of this emphasis. Development needs be more holistic; reducing vulnerability means improving resilience; food security must be coupled with a livelihoods framework. And that transition in language reflected more than a change in wording, but it marked the beginning of new approaches to development as a whole. But as simple as it is to say enable the people to help themselves, this is a complex concept to actually implement.

Katelyn focused her lecture on 3 case studies, one of which focused on renewable energy in rural Mexico. Through solar panels providing electricity to villages, these projects aimed to reduce poverty through in environmentally sustainable ways. The first part of this project donated solar panels to a community, but it was ultimately a flop. Because there was no community buy-in, they were not invested in maintaining the solar panels. Without proper training, as soon as one broke, they sold it for parts.


The remarkable thing about this case study is the progression of changes and the ability to respond to mistakes. The next time around, solar panels were always coupled with technical assistance and training, and they operated in communities that already had specific productive uses for electricity, for example using solar panels to operate well-pumps for irrigation. Operating within already present community goals, providing training and a direct economic benefit as incentive transformed the projects into viable, successes. Those communities truly are able to say, “We have done it ourselves.”

But operating at such a local scale is not without its challenges. In another case study, we looked at a program called COMSERBO which translates into the Incentive Program for Forest Conservation, Integrated Management, and Services. This reforestation pilot project was implemented in  Pando, Bolivia and the agenda aligns with the sustainable framework mentioned above. Working at a very the community level, COMSERBO placed the responsibility on those who actually live in the forested areas, incentivizing those communities to continue current beneficial practices rather than attempting to change community behavior. With a flexible design, the incentive was less financial and more technical assistance and capacity building to foster a viable long-term reforestation plan.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 2.52.47 PMOperating on this small-scale, the pilot project provides another positive example of community-focused conservation that targeted specific needs. Like all things development, however, it is not without its faults. Although successful on the small scale, the challenges facing the both renewable energy goals in Mexico and the COMSERBO project brings up valid questions. These approaches start at a local level and grow from the people, but how can they be scaled up to operate on a national level? It would require coordination from actors on a national, departmental, municipal, and community level that is very difficult to achieve. Even more challenging, with COMSERBO in particular, it was very difficult to evaluate success when the project has such flexible long-term goals. What are feasible indicators for  environmental and social gain and can they actually be monitored?

To add to these questions, we looked at one final case study. This study took place in El Salvador, shifting to specifically focusing on a small coffee cooperative of 29 farms. The approaches from the first two studies carry through using a sustainable livelihoods framework, but this research goes a step further and utilized the Participatory Research Approach. PRA is designed to better identify the needs in a community through open dialogue. Rather than entering with a specific problem and solution in mind, PRA facilitates less prescriptive discussion to hear what community members identify as the needs and potential solutions for the community.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 2.54.45 PMIn this case, the focus groups that came form the PR approach brought out unexpected needs. From conservations with the farmers, Katelyn began economic assessments of production for both coffee and corn, and gained a better insight into their current system of production. In this community, they were growing organic coffee but also growing corn for subsistence and paradoxically using fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, and sometimes even fungicides for the corn. With a focus on vulnerability, adaptive capacity, and resilience it seems logical from my Western environmentally minded viewpoint to target more sustainable methods of corn production, but that that was not the goal of the community. The community simply wanted to learn how to reduce costs, to monitor finances, etc.

And that brings me to the final challenge in community development. It’s clear from all three of these studies that certain concepts are key to success. Development must remain less prescriptive and more flexible. It must emphasize resilience and long-term solutions, and most importantly, it must center around community choice and engagement.  But, there are still overarching global goals that sometimes conflict with these local-approach methods.

How do you accommodate what is a practical, sustainable solution within the framework of what a local community actually wants to change for themselves? How do you reconcile global imperatives that are so far beyond the scope of a single village? And with a livelihood focus, how do you even define development success?

These are the problems that remain unanswered when it comes to community development. Perhaps this reflects the influence from the more bureaucratic top-down method of development that is so ingrained in my way of thinking. I feel a need to define community development in a prescriptive and tangible way, but when I reflect on these case studies and the lessons learned here, it seems like that is where the problems arise.  Community development may need to be less defined in it’s complexities. To quote Katelyn Morris, it should simply be enabling local communities to “make a living, and make it meaningful.”

A Conversation with Carla Martin of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute

On February 22, 2016 our group had the pleasure of meeting Carla Martin, Executive Director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI) and lecturer at Harvard University in the Department of African and African American Studies. We were lucky enough to have Carla come speak to us in person, since she is local to the area. At 9:30 in the morning, we happily snacked on fine dark chocolate while she began her discussion about the complex historical context within which chocolate has become one of the largest industries in the world.

Chocolate is massive. Carla pointed out that the chocolate industry amasses about $100 billion per year, with an industry value that is larger than the GDPs of 130 countries. She also referenced that in 2015, Americans ate 12 pounds of chocolate per person on average. As an avid (perhaps slightly addicted) chocolate consumer myself, I would not be surprised if my annual chocolate consumption were three times that amount.

Despite the joy it brings to many of its consumers, chocolate represents vast inequalities beginning with its historical origins. The history of cacao production is inextricably linked to the tradition of forced and exploitative labor systems in the Atlantic region. Brutal forced labor systems like the economienda system in the Americas and the chattel slavery system in Africa, as well as the Transatlantic slave trade were instrumental to the success of cacao as a commodity crop. Even after slavery was abolished, there still remained a tradition of exploitative labor within the cacao farming industry for many, many decades.

The inequality inherent in chocolate goes beyond the history of slavery and exploitative labor. Carla explained to us that Europe and North America currently consume around 75% of the world’s chocolate, whereas Africa consumes only 4% but produces 75% of the world’s cacao. Tens of millions of people around the world rely on cacao for their livelihoods, since the majority of cacao is produced on smallholder farms. Given the incredible profits the chocolate industry generates, you might expect cacao farmers to make a decent living. Unfortunately, this is far from the case. The image below (click to make larger), shared by Carla during her presentation, shows the typical distribution of profits from chocolate.


[Source: Carla Martin, presentation to Tufts]

The industrialization and consolidation of the chocolate value chain by the “Big Five,” (Cadbury, Mars, Nestle, Hershey’s, and Ferrero) has vastly widened the disconnect between cacao farmers and consumers, making it nearly impossible to track cacao origins in chocolate products or know the price that farmers receive for their cacao. Carla spoke about the anonymization of chocolate production and cacao sourcing, which has become the norm as a result of a few somewhat deliberate actions from large chocolate companies, namely standardization of recipes, which serves to obscure the origins of cacao. Because of its historical origins, the chocolate system is designed to work at scale, making it difficult for smaller chocolate companies to source directly from farmers. Even transparency reports from smaller, more “ethically sourced” chocolate companies often are unable to know the farm-gate price, since exporters obscure the price and there are many middlemen between farmer and buyer.


[Source: Philips and Tallontire 2007]

One of the most interesting aspects of Carla’s presentation was her discussion of the present-day labor conditions for West African cacao farmers, and the subtle difference between forced and unfree labor. Smallholder cacao farmers in West Africa face many challenges, including a complicated system of land ownership and landlessness, as well as labor challenges, since harvesting cacao is very labor intensive and largely done by hand. Cacao farming is particularly dangerous for child laborers, many of whom are using sharp machetes, carrying heavy loads, and spraying chemicals that can be damaging to their health.

Chocolate consumers have been shocked in the past by high profile expositions of child slavery in the chocolate industry. Carla points out, however, that the vast majority of child cacao laborers in West Africa are not slaves or trafficked, but are “unfree” laborers in the sense that they are pressured to become part of the family labor pool as a result of social and family dynamics. This more complex labor problem is one that Carla fears most Americans don’t understand.

One of the most important takeaways from Carla’s discussion is that although it is clear that the chocolate industry as it currently operates perpetuates a system of unfree labor for cacao producers, there has to be a viable alternative to the current system in order for things to change. Industry responds to consumer demand for change. There has already been a boom in fine and craft chocolate retailers who source small quantities of high quality cacao as directly as possible from farmers. Carla and the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute aim to increase consumer education and awareness of fine chocolate and the complex labor issues surrounding it, so that consumers can make choices that push value down the supply chain and generate demand for a different system. Change to the chocolate industry will require a grassroots approach beginning with consumers and advocates, rather than a top-down approach from industry.

Concerned about my own chocolate consumption (and regretting the bar of chocolate I had just eaten during her presentation), I asked Carla how, going forward, I can make sure that I am being a responsible consumer of cacao products. Her advice to me and to other chocolate consumers centers on increased education and comprehension of the complex historical and present-day labor inequality in cacao farming regions. Improved education means an end to denial of the problem. As consumers, we can help galvanize change by putting our money where our values are. If we pay more for cacao, we push value down the supply chain. If we pay for fine chocolate that prioritizes labor issues, we show our demand for companies that pay attention to these issues.

One issue with this approach is the fact that there are so many labels on chocolate products touting “free trade” and “ethical sourcing,” but understanding the details of what each of these labels means is often very difficult for consumers. Students at Friedman know better than most that voluntary labels on food products can be misleading and confusing, so it is up to the committed consumer to do the research. I’m curious about the impact of consumer demand on such a consolidated industry, but as we’ve seen before it can bring about significant change. The key challenge for organizations like FCCI will be to unravel the complexity of the chocolate trade and to help consumers understand exactly what type of chocolate they should be purchasing, because right now the fine chocolate market is difficult to navigate.

A Conversation With Tawanda Muzhingi of the International Potato Center: Biofortification

A couple weeks ago, we were lucky enough to set up a Skype call with Tawanda Muzhingi, of the International Potato Center (IPC) in Kenya. Despite the time difference and a couple “quirks” of international video calls, we had a fruitful discussion around Tawanda’s work in the fascinating field of biofortification, centered around the nutrient-rich orange-flesh sweet potatoes that he’s been working to distribute among farmers across Sub-Saharan Africa.

What’s more, Tawanda got his PhD in Biochemical and Molecular Nutrition and his MS in Nutrition Science from our very own Tufts University – it was all at once impressive, reassuring, and totally expected to find out that Friedman grads go on to do exciting work like his.

The idea behind biofortification is simple: improve food crops by upping their nutritional value. But biofortification in general is a pretty broad domain – Tawanda was quick to explain that although the term can indicate both conventional plant breeding and genetic modification, his work deals exclusively with conventional breeding, at least for now. The most notorious examples of nutritionally-guided GM crops are probably the most well-know examples of biofortification as a whole – think of golden rice – but there are many more examples of traditional breeding programs for nutritional improvement.

The GM approach is a hot topic that has been beaten to death in the mainstream media, and certainly has both benefits and detriments, but the orange-flesh sweet potato initiative manages to sidestep any such pitfalls by providing extra vitamin A (in the form of ß-carotene) as part of a culturally-incumbent diet. Although here in the United States, we’re used to our sweet potatoes bright orange interior, Sub Saharan Africans and many Asians have tended to prefer white-fleshed sweet potatoes. Tawanda’s project aims to convince farmers to switch to the IPC’s hybrid sweet potato, which combines the vitamin A-rich orange trait from North Carolina sweet potatoes with climactically- and regionally-appropriate varietals from various regions in Africa. By doing so, you end up with a best-of-both-worlds scenario: nutritional benefits without the sensitivity surrounding trying to get GM crops in to use.

The approach of the IPC recognizes the need for a new crop to fit in with the existing system. To that end, Tawanda stressed the need for any biofortified crop to also be a cash crop. Essentially, for a cultural adoption of something like the orange flesh sweet potato to be sustainable, farmers must be able to both eat the crop and make money from it. After all, these farmers still need to send their kids to school, and you can’t pay for school with vitamin A.

Tawanda mentioned a great advantage of biofortification of crops is that they are “pro-poor.” The foods targeted to carry additional key nutrients are staples – potatoes, maize, rice, etc. – crops that the poorest communities eat every day. In comparison with other nutritional strategies, like supplementation via capsules, encouraging the adoption of biofortified crops has much larger coverage and much more robust sustainability. Because the farmers have incentive to sell the crops, they act as their own distribution network. Many governments in Sub Saharan Africa don’t have the money to hold up supplementation programs, so fitting the delivery of nutrition within the existing community network is far more effective.

Additionally, the sweet potato is a versatile staple crop that finds its way on to the plate in many forms. In parts of Africa, a puree made from the tuber is prized by bakers as a wheat substitute in bread and cookies (naturally, we asked Tawanda to send a recipe after his presentation), and other producers are making chips out of the biofortified potatoes. In fact, a number of those chips end up sold in Europe. By substituting sweet potato puree for wheat flour, bakers can make products that have a lower glycemic index and less sugar, so the improvements on nutrition aren’t just from the additional micronutrients. Furthermore, use of sweet potato puree has reduced wheat imports by 45% in some countries, proving that these crops can fortify both nutrition and economies.

This entire value chain – from education and dissemination to the poorest farmers to local markets to internationally traded value-added products – is the raison d’être for the orange-flesh sweet potato. Because it is used in so many ways, both culinarily and economically, it has a pretty strong foothold in terms of sustainability.

In fact, as we asked more about the uses of sweet potato, Tawanda revealed that the greens of the plant are also consumed. Although not the target of biofortification, the greens are another food source. Different groups of people tend to prize different traits in the leaves – some prefer a short, thick leaf, while others find the thinnest leaves tasty. Since the program serves a huge swath of Africa, it is important for breeders to consider these aspects of desirability in both the creation and the distribution of the new varietals. While the climactic needs of different growing regions are obvious – Tawanda pointed out that areas with high rainfall tend to pose a threat to the vines from mold – the societal needs are just as critical if you want a plant to really take root.

Despite all the research, trials, and planning that goes in to getting the new crop ready for distribution, biofortification isn’t a panacea. First of all, although the IPC’s team has achieved the same yield from their new sweet potatoes under experimental conditions, those high yields are not necessarily achieved in the field. Sweet potatoes are particularly susceptible to weevils, and although some groups are using transgenic Bt varietals to address pest problems in other crops, research of this option for sweet potatoes is still nascent. Even among those farms that flourish with the new potato, the vitamin A provided by a normal daily consumption of sweet potato is not enough to meet the total requirements. Tawanda was careful to note that they promote this new source of vitamin A as part of an otherwise healthy diet.

What I gathered from all of this was that biofortification is a varied approach, among many other equally varied approached to improving nutrition. Even disregarding the sticky issue of using genetic modification to improve nutrition, biofortified crops have some drawbacks. However, what impresses me most about this program’s approach is that they seem to have a great understanding of the way that orange flesh sweet potatoes can fit in to the system-wide value chain. It strikes me not quite as a bottom-up approach, but certainly a far cry from the top-down approaches to improving nutrition that have come from governments and other groups.

While I imagine that biofortificaiton has a lot of space to expand in terms of improving nutrition the world over, I wonder what its limitations will prove to be? Tawanda already told us that a single improved crop isn’t expected to cure an entire nutrient deficiency, but could a combination of such crops ever stamp out vitamin A deficiency? Are there other approaches that must also come in to play in order to create a sustainable, independent food system in these areas? If so, what are they, and where will they come from? So far, many governmental and NGO attempts to solve nutritional problems have petered out in to failure, at least in terms of sustainability. As Tawanda asked us, what can a research organization do to convince the government to do what is necessary?

A Conversation with Rebecca Hollender of The New School: Alternatives to Development

On February 12th 2016 Rebecca Hollender spoke to our International AFE class about Alternatives to Development. Ms. Hollender is a PhD Candidate at The New School’s Milano School of International Relations and Public Affairs. She has over a decade of international experience, including six years in Bolivia working at grassroots and political levels. She was chosen to represent the Bolivian Delegation at the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 17), Durban, South Africa (Nov-Dec 2011) and U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). She facilitated a working group of 50 Bolivian NGOs engaged in climate change, and has authored numerous academic and popular publications on climate change, environmental politics, and extractivism in Bolivia.

As Friedman students, we are used to sinking our teeth into concrete international development research and methods. Thus it invigorated us to consider the more ideological aspects of development. Typically so enmeshed in how best to implement development, we seldom step back to consider whether we should do it at all. Ms. Hollender shared a number of counter models to development that are emerging from (for lack of a more appropriate term) “the developing world.” The various Alternatives to Development models range in scope, but share a number of critiques of modern development. They consider development practically and conceptually flawed in the following ways:
1) Development is clothed in a concept of modernity as defined by Western civilization: a modernity that aspires toward wealth, economic growth, industrialization. Modernity is not equal to well-being, especially not for all sectors of society.
2) Development is top down. In many instances the goals of funders undermine the goals of the communities they purport to serve.
3) Development is a tool used by certain systems of domination, namely colonialism and capitalism. Development’s colonial remnants re-traumatize societies and inhibit their self-actualization. It is impossible to separate capitalism from its history of exploiting people and resources. Furthermore the boundaries of our planet cannot survive capitalism; inherent to capitalism is more and more consumption, often of finite resources.
4) Development is contradictory to its own goals. It causes many of the problems it purports to remedy. It exacerbates co-dependence, both poorer nations dependent on foreign capital in place on their own interior resources, and wealthy nations dependent on low-cost commodities and labor supplied by developing countries.

For our internationally-minded IAFE group, those were disquieting critiques, yet not completely foreign to us. Many of our IAFE class members have experienced the bitter side effects of development, having lived in communities whose well-being and goals were neither understood nor effectively supported by distant funders. Obviously quality of life and economic growth often go hand in hand. But because economic growth so often occurs at the cost of exploiting people or natural resources, Alternatives to Development questions its primacy, invoking other definitions of well-being. Based on each distinct culture or community, a definition may or may not include: leisure time, time spent working side by side with family, material goods, time outdoors, land ownership, communal spiritual health, sleeping well, sitting down for meals, access to travel, access to technology, access to education, economic wealth, among others. Development leans toward a more narrow set of priorities defined by external agendas, instead of self-determined by the “served” community.

So if not development, then what? Ms. Hollender exposed us to some alternatives, of which I’ll name only two:
1) The Buen Vivir alternative comes from Andean Kichwa, Quechua and Aymara populations. This indigenous model has found its way into progressive social agendas, even political discourse and legislation in some Latin American countries. In contrast to modern development, Buen Vivir seeks to change the market’s role in defining how humans relate to one another economically. Buen Vivir emphasizes human well-being, the fullness of life, spiritual health, and honoring the intrinsic value of nature by living within its physical limits.
2) The Post-Extractivism model decouples a society from the most dangerous or unethical extractive industries, while incorporating social-cultural measures to moderate materialism and consumption. Extraction and export of primary materials maintains subordination to industrialized countries and transnational corporations. Many material commodities are subject to price volatility, further weakening the export country’s economic independence. Recognizing that extractive industry dependence fails to address underlying causes of poverty as well as the climate crisis, Post-Extractivism reforms larger economic systems through a progressive elimination timeline.

Similarly to many development agendas, these models aim to improve peoples’ quality of life. However, the alternatives seek to do so outside of the presumption of economic growth, always discerning why, how and where growth needs to occur. They emphasize the distinction between success economically and success culturally, spiritually and ecologically.

Proponents of Alternatives to Development stress that they are not out to merely reform development, nor create a one-size-fits-all proposal to replace an antiquated system. Alternatives to Development allow for the possibility of multiple solutions. In many cases they are not solutions-oriented; they are open ended with no clear end-goal in sight. This rubbed our IAFE class a funny way. Rooted in our Americanism, we have been trained well to assert clear goals and strategies. Yet this cultural clash was perhaps the most important realization of our lecture. It unveiled the cultural limits of our understanding. How easy it would be for us well-intentioned outsiders to set goals for a foreign community – goals that were of no interest to them.

It seems like a distant utopia to imagine an international development scene independent of large funders tethered to their agendas and those of foreign governments or corporations. Current development structure and global markets make it difficult to break the co-dependence of developed and developing nations. But we learned from today’s lecture and readings that small-scale alternatives are making headway and pushing their way onto the international scene. Regional partnerships are enabling communities in developing nations to set agendas more appropriate to their local populations, without the interference of foreign manipulation. Even though reform of the present development system is not the goal of Alternatives to Development, their bottom-up influence has resulted in reforms: many development methods now utilize more balanced measurement tools (such as the Genuine Progress Indicator) for calculating true quality of life improvements. Finally, more and more organizations are emboldened to reshape the system. We saw this in our discussion last week with Aaron Ebner, who has challenged development funders by redefining “scaling up” to mean building long-term viability instead of short-term expansion. His organization, Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development, has rejected the traditional development (and its funding), which proved detrimental to the sustainability of their local work.

Alternatives to Development are emerging as viable options in a world where endless economic growth is no longer sustainable. Since many developing countries face intense pressure for growth from development agencies and investors, less quantifiable cultural, spiritual and ecological values are a challenge to safeguard. As outsiders we lack the sense of belonging to fully understand and defend those values. But today’s lecture was a glimpse into the myriad of possibilities beyond our imagination. Going forward, I think our entire class will be more apt to slow our pace when assessing the needs of a community. We will be more conscious of the cultural backbone that exists between the lines of economic progress. We will allow ourselves to think with our hearts in attempt to understand the communities we aspire to serve. For those of us who enter into development work we will more astutely consider whether our funders’ goals align with the communities’. Hopefully we will seek the help to understand those community values lest, blinded by our well-intentioned goals, we miss them altogether.

A Conversation with Aaron Ebner of the Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development

Unpacking “development” from on high: Aaron Ebner in the Peruvian Andes

Armed with Skype, cell phones, and our virtual meeting tool, WebEx, Aaron Ebner’s voice finally came in loud and clear, and we began our first seminar in “International Perspectives on Agriculture, Food and Environment.” Seven students from the Tufts Friedman School for Nutritional Science and Policy sat around a computer, listening to Aaron tell the story of his work with sustainable agriculture, climate change, and community-led development in the Peruvian Andes.

Aaron works at the Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development (AASD), a small non-profit with seven full-time staff and a mission “to harness the collective intelligence of the indigenous communities in the highlands of Peru to support community-led development projects.” At the heart of AASD’s approach is a rejection of a one-size fits all approach.  The organization addresses the unique needs of each community it works with, searching for innovative solutions to a variety of problems. This perspective is incredibly important in the context of the Andes, where small changes in geography and altitude play can make significant differences in communities’ ways of life and needs.

The “flagship” program of AASD is their school and family greenhouse project aimed at reducing malnutrition.  High altitude farmers in the Andes are often restricted to growing a small number of grain and root crops, but building greenhouses makes vegetable cultivation possible where it has not been before. This is a particularly salient issue as climate change is impacting the region. Temperature changes affect the ranges in which people can grow particular crops, and changes with pests and water availability are also of concern.

The greenhouse projects at AASD grew out of previous work Aaron had done where he realized that a lack of training and follow-up in school garden projects eventually led them to failure. In our discussion, Aaron talked about his struggle with “traditional development,” which is frequently constrained by project cycles and milestones that suit donors rather than communities. Funding timelines rarely allow for the meaningful relationship building that ultimately leads to sustainable projects. Similarly, monitoring and evaluation standards frequently mean sacrificing accountability to the communities an organization serves in order to remain accountable to funders.

This perspective hit home with our group, where there seems to be a collective confusion about the best way to engage in “development” without undermining the knowledge, abilities, and sovereignty of the people projects and organizations aim to “help.”

Aaron touched on this idea of helping as well, pushing back against the patriarchal, “savior” attitudes often expressed (perhaps unwittingly) in the development field.  A big part of AASD’s work, and funding stream, involves working with students, and Aaron makes sure to underscore a narrative that is not centered on the idea of help or aid. Rather, groups are there to learn from the communities of the Andes, and collaborate with partners to design impactful solutions (see their immersive education model below).

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(“Experiential Learning,” Andean Alliance for Sustainable Development)

Initially, I was struck by Aaron’s criticism of service learning projects, which he presented as paternalistic. Throughout high school and college, I felt as though I benefited immensely from these so-called service-learning trips, and immediately felt defensive of these initiatives.

But Aaron framed it perfectly to demonstrate how much we have to learn from communities like those he works with in the Andes. He talked about instances of positive deviance, which is a theory based on “the observation that in every community there are certain individuals or groups whose uncommon behaviors and strategies enable them to find better solutions to problems than their peers, while having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges.” [1]

Positive deviance: Nesario’s turkeys

This example that Aaron shared with us, of Nesario and his turkeys, showed how a community member found a low-cost, low-tech solution to a local problem. Aaron challenged us to think about how a Western organization might try to solve this problem- and the potential vulnerabilities that solutions could introduce (i.e. caging in chickens would require costly feed, increased labor, etc.).

There is much to learn from the people of the Andes, who have lived sustainably off the land for generations. Their resourceful nature and traditional knowledge has allowed them to survive in a remarkably harsh climate. Solutions for food storage, and other innovations, are what we should focus on- the strengths of communities, rather than their weaknesses. Aaron posed this in sharp contrast to the ideas that are commonly presented about agricultural communities in the Global South. These portrayals often harp on weaknesses and poverty, without recognizing alternative value systems and priorities, or exploring their strengths.

Ultimately, Aaron highlighted three challenges in “sustainable development” that stood out for me:

  1. Relationships. Of primary importance to AASD’s work are the relationships that the organization builds with communities and outside partners. Aaron emphasized that “traditional” development funders tend to require proof of impact within a particular time frame, one that is often too short to build the relationships necessary to achieve valuable outcomes. Aaron talked about how these timelines tend to neglect community rhythms and processes. AASD values community-led methodologies above all, and has made a pointed effort to become involved in the right amount of projects so as not to overextend themselves. 
  2. Research. AASD engages in research to understand communities needs, and to develop deliverables that are impactful. This is done partially in collaboration with graduate students, using mixed methods that uncover issues of importance to communities. While academically rigorous outputs are produced by these students, Aaron talked to us about the need for materials and knowledge that are useful to the communities, such as presentations in Quechua, for example, or the  “Garden in the Clouds” Story Map which has been useful to government ministries. Often times, research is focused on needs of researcher rather than the intended beneficiaries; the information leaves without ever being presented or made useful to the communities.
  3. Scale versus “scaling-up.” One weakness of many development paradigms is the explicit emphasis on “scaling up,” often at the detriment of projects’ long term viability. The idea is to have a greater impact by reaching a larger number of people, or addressing a larger number of indicators. Unfortunately, this often leads to the opposite- failed projects and communities left without the necessary tools to sustain outcomes. For me, AASD’s final principle says it all: “We value people over projects, and impact over quantity.”

Aaron offered great insight into the struggle many of us who aspire to do development work are working through. Do you work for, or know of, organizations or projects that you believe have struck a good balance?

Perhaps most importantly for me is the question of how to reconcile paternalistic attitudes about “helping” with the strong desire to be a part of global solutions.

Personally, I’ve preferred to think of development as an effort towards a common goal. There is so much I have to learn from others, and I like to think I can bring something to the table- in my view, there is no need for one-way interactions. Especially with issues as multi-faceted as climate change and food insecurity, a global effort and fruitful exchanges are needed. The question for introspection, at least for me, is how to achieve these exchanges in a way that is equitable and respects sovereignty?