Back to School: Doing A Program in Sustainable Food Systems

Sometime in September last year, I went back to school. Again. I hadn’t exactly planned for it this time, but by now, I have completed a third of an Executive Education Program in Sustainable Food Systems at the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York. It all started with me looking for a course in environmental economics. I had for a long time been trying to find something that suited me as I wanted to get better insights into the tools available to estimate the real cost of food. I think we are getting to a point where we need to assess the real cost of food (environment and health) when considering agricultural investments or when pricing food, since we otherwise will continue to produce and consume food in a way that is not sustainable. My first M.Sc. was in economics, but my major was in macro and development economics, plus environmental economics was at the time a relatively new topic so we didn’t spend a lot of time on it. Anyway, the course that I found was part of a program in Sustainable Food Systems, with a lot of focus on natural sciences and ecology, complementing my current background in social sciences, and because the environmental economics course was so inspiring, I decided to complete the full program.

This isn’t the first time I go back to school since I started working on agriculture and food sector development more than a decade ago; I’ve done both an M.Sc. in Food and Nutrition Policy and a Certificate in Urban Agriculture. The reason is that this topic continues to evolve:  When I first started working in the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) in the mid-2000s, there was a growing awareness of the significant impacts that agricultural growth could have on poverty reduction, and an emerging global agenda around resource constraints. However, climate change impacts were still being discussed as a future abstract, agriculture’s contribution to environmental degradation was still predominately viewed as a high-income country concern, there was little acknowledgement of the sectors’ contribution to greenhouse gases, and food security was mainly viewed as having enough access to energy/kcal. I think even someone who is not working in this field realizes that a lot has happened since. Climate change adaptation and mitigation are today part of any discussion on agricultural development. Scarcity of natural resources and externalities from the agricultural sector are factored into environmental impact assessments for public investments in the sector. Increasingly, nutrition and the importance of a diverse food system to achieve all dimensions of food security are being acknowledged by governments and agricultural development practitioners, and it is widely recognized that overweight, obesity, and related diseases are no longer just a “high-income country problem”.

So in order to provide the best possible advice to those that I work with, I need to stay on top of all these developments, to gain insights into new technologies and evidence behind new discourses. So I revert back to the classroom every few years, trying to be as knowledgable as I possibly can in the field that I work in. That the program gives me an excuse to go up to New York on a regular basis is of course an added bonus!

Columbia University

This is how inspiring a visit to the campus can look like. A little less academia-romantic is setting the alarm clock for 1 am in the morning to log on to a 2-hour webinar while on work trips in different corners of Africa. But well worth it!!

Stop No 1: Johannesburg

I may have written about this earlier but my business trips are normally quite far from the general perception of business travels. Yes, I do stay in comfy hotels when in capitals – never the in fanciest ones but at least in those where internet is supposed to work. (It often doesn’t, of course!) But my business travels often also include trips into the rural areas with overnight stays at small guesthouses that normally attend to local tourists or backpackers, and most importantly, these trips include meetings with farmers, researchers at branch institutes, and public servants in local offices. In addition, my trips often mean spending hours and hours with colleagues from the country I’m in, a driver, and/or an interpreter, which in turn means ample of time for conversation. So I normally go a lot more “off the beaten track” and talk a lot more with locals when I travel for work than when I am on vacation. Which I think is the opposite of what many people picture when they hear the term business travels. But this time in Johannesburg, my trips was really the typical business trip. I didn’t stay at an airport hotel, but not far from it: at the Radisson Blu Gautrain, which is located just across from the Sandton train station where the airport train stops. And I barely got out of the hotel in the six days that I was there.

I came with a team to hold a training for African policy practitioners on how to conduct agricultural risk assessments (more info here). We had a great group of participants (many of them in countries where we work) and I delivered the training together with my closest colleagues, which was nice for a change as we normally lead our own tasks and work with specialized consultants. So I enjoyed this work tremendously! And the last evening, before the rest of my team headed back to Washington and I on to Malawi, we had dinner at The Butcher Shop and Grill, where I had the best meat ever (aged steak!) So just like last time, my stay in Johannesburg was great – it’s such a pleasant place and people are so nice – and I hope I will get to go back in not too long and also at some point see more of South Africa! 

Nelson Mandela Square Sandton


Gautrain Hotel Breakfast Waffles

Fruit sticks

Half-sized doughnuts


I have to say something more about the food in this post, because it wasn’t just the meat at the restaurant that last evening that was good; I actually don’t think I’ve ever been other than excited about the food I’ve had in Johannesburg. The cuisine reflects South Africa’s mixed culture and everything is freshly made and with good quality ingredients. Portions are in nice (read healthy) sizes, and even at our training event, the snacks in the breaks included lots of fruits, small sandwiches, etc (see pics). Even bar food and café food have been very good, and the breakfasts have been divine at the two hotels where I’ve stayed! And in addition to this fantastic cuisine, there is of course the local wine that goes with! So just the culinary experience makes Johannesburg worth a visit! 

A Presentation on Agricultural Risk Management

One of the thing that happened during hectic December was that I was invited to hold a presentation at the Renewable Natural Resources Foundation’s congress on Adapting Food Production to. a Changing Climate. My presentation was on managing the increasingly volatile food and agricultural markets and that (video and ppt) along with those of the other speakers are now posted on their website for anyone interested. I can also recommend listening to some of the other presentations there on climate change and agriculture – it’s a topic everyone will have to care more about over the next decades!   


It was also posted on the FARMD website a week or so later.

Food, Agriculture and a Teen Adventure

My writing reached a milestone last week when I reached 30,000 words on my teen mystery novel. Or it felt like a milestone somehow because all the advice that I’ve read here in the U.S. on how to write a novel has set 50,000 words as the first target for the end, after which the write should focus on polishing of the text and making the story fuller, etc. So 30,000 words meant that I had written more than half. And now, at 35,000 words, it feels like the story is just moving forward by itself. It’s so fun to write! What the novel is about? Well, not sure how much I should reveal here, but food, agricultural policy, international development, and corporate conspiracy are all ingredients. What else when I’m the author? And my teen heroine has travelled a lot more than I had at the age of 16!

To be continued…


Another Photo Class

As I wrote some time back, one of my goals this year was to learn to take better pictures. It’s not because I necessarily want to be a good photographer, but because I see so much when I travel and meet so many interesting people on my trips, and I want to capture my experiences in a way that makes them justice. So earlier this year, I signed up for an introductory photography class, and this evening, I’m doing the next level of the course: Flash Photography. Hopefully, little by little, the photos on this blog are of higher quality!

Canon G15

Confessions of a Bookaholic

When it comes to books, I have a bit of a problem: I can’t go into a bookstore without coming out with a book or ten. The other day, I passed by Barnes & Noble on my way home from work, and came out with no less than six books. I told myself that it was in preparation for summer. I’m planning a week-long vacation to South Beach, Miami, with a friend, and a pile of books belong to the most basic packing. Since I’m writing on a mystery novel for teens (with a food theme, of course!), I also came up with the excuse that the mystery novels in my book bag was really research material. But it might be time for me to admit that I probably have a problem…


Rwandan Souvenirs

I didn’t have much time for shopping in Rwanda but I got a few treats, namely coffee, tea, and books. For me, books and especially novels are the best way to get to know a country except for by living with local families or having really close local friends. All three books were recommended by my Rwandan colleagues: Un dimanche a la piscine a Kigali by Gil Courtemanche; Nous avons le plaisir de vous informer que, demain, nous serons tues avec nos familles by Philip Gourevitch, and; The Strategy of Antelopes: Rwanda after the Genocide, by Jean Hatzfeld. The mix of literature in English in French reflects the languages used in Rwanda today. Kinyarwanda is the local language which is spoken by almost everyone except for a small minority. Despite this, French used to be taught in schools and used in public offices etc. But a few years ago, Rwanda decided to switch to English instead, so most of my meetings there were in English. I did, however, have a few meetings in French in the rural areas and our drivers only spoke French. As for the university educated, younger professionals that I worked with, they were fluent in both French and English, and constantly switched between all three languages. So I thought I should hold myself to the same standard. I will try to read all three books before I to Rwanda again.



Packing Problems for a Bookaholic

I bought way too many books on my European tour, plus I got some for my birthday. I’ve got to stop doing this, it always stresses me out before checking in my luggage! And I know, I should start buying e-books, but I am just not there yet. Maybe in a few years… My best buy this trip was probably Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History, which I bought at the Kew Gardens. It’s super interesting for an agro-food enthusiast like myself. Otherwise, I just started reading Becoming Queen about Queen Victoria, which I bought when I was with I at the Kensington Palace, and I have to say that it’s really funny. Not because it’s comically written, but because King George III ‘s family was completely insane! Sometimes reality really is more absurd than fiction!



In Cap and Gown

Except for L’s baptism, I also went to Europe for my graduation at City University in London. Graduating from university in Sweden isn’t what it is in for example the U.S. and a highly informal survey among my friends showed that only one of my friends in Sweden actually attended the graduation ceremony at the end of her studies. But with E and J in London, I had a good reason to go there and I thought it could be a fun to have worn the cap and gown now that I had the chance. And in the end, it was a really nice experience, also to see what a diverse school City University is and how it attracts students from all over the world. As I attended the ceremony, I realized that City University’s motto is To Serve Mankind, and I don’t think there is any school with a more perfect motto for me!

IMG_3281My degree was an MSc in Food and Nutrition Policy. I can highly recommend the program, which is led by truly inspiring Professor Tim Lang at City University’s Centre for Food Policy