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!!

The Days Are Long But The Years Are Short

Sometimes, life spins so fast that it’s difficult to keep up. Or at least that’s how I felt this fall. To be honest, my life is not that exciting, but somehow, there is so much happening all the time. These past six months have been filled with travels, a new academic program, and new challenges at work. And then in middle of everything, I was in a small accident, which made everything in life ridiculously much more complicated! With all this, I constantly felt like I was one step behind, just barely keeping up with deadlines. So this year – in spite of my preference for new year’s goals instead of resolutions, as per easier posts here – I made one promise to myself: to be more on top of things in 2018!

With that, I bought a planner. I gave up paper planners a few years ago, with the phone planner app, but I see on blogs that planners seem to be coming back. There is just something special about seeing all the days of the month in front of you on a paper, with deadlines and plans clearly marked up. Hopefully, this will mean more time for fun writing between travels and seminars, instead of desperately trying to meet deadlines. Or at least that’s my aspiration…

Planner 2018

The quote in the heading is old, but I got it from Gretchen Ruben!

Summer Vacay 2017!

I can’t remember last time I was looking forward to vacation as much as this year! Before going to Cuba earlier this month, I had only taken three days off the entire year (in April, when I was in Stockholm), and between October and April, I worked at least 4-6 h every weekend. Combined with a move, changing positions within my organization, and several work-related trips in the fall/winter (one covering three countries in a month), it has added up and I’ve been quite tired these past few months. Hopefully, the fatigue will be replaced with energy during the coming three weeks of (hopefully) sunny days, beaches and salty water, good food, and in the company of good friends! My itinerary? Very Euro-centric with stops in Portugal, France, Latvia, and Sweden!

beach bento

Beach Bento from Algarve, Portugal: A pen, a notebook, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a scarf. Not much more needed here!

Back to the Farm

Back to the Farm – literarily! Saturday, I joined a couple friends and volunteered at the Bread for the City farm lot a few kilometers outside of DC. Bread in the City support low-income families in DC with food and strive to create food justice by increasing access to fresh produce in food desert neighborhoods. We were about 35 people there, helping out with weeding, pruning, and picking berries. My friends and I ended up in a group that arranged corn-based cover plastic to avoid the spread of weed and the decrease evapotranspiration. Compared to the farmers that I work with in Malawi and elsewhere, this was very light work and on,y for a few hours, but lots of fun. And incidentally, Bread for the City grow on UDC’s land, in the same place as their research plots and greenhouses with hydroponics and aquaponics are located. So I already spent several Saturdays there when I took my Certificate in Urban Agriculture at UDC  last year. A good start of the weekend!

UDC Farm

UDC Farm

UDC Farm

UDC Farm

Farmers for the day: Diana, Jake and I!

I Love Sunday Mornings!

Sunday mornings is one of my favorite time of the week! I’m often more rested than Saturday, without anything that I need to get to, and with a whole day in front of me. Sometimes, like this morning, I make scones or no-sugar breakfast muffins to have with my morning tea, which an hour or so later is later replaced with a coffee. I then take some time to go over what I got done over the past week, next week’s to-do list, and creative projects, while listening to my favorite CNN programs on TuneIn: Fareed Zakaria’s GPS and Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources. It’s two of the few programs on CNN when they actually do analytical interviews and have discussions with non-politician.

Otherwise, non-local tv news here are quite sad – there is little real information, and instead news programs mainly consist of politicians  coming on for a couple of minutes for a few questions that they rarely answers and instead take airtime to get their message through, without any nuances and often not fact based. (The last part being extra depressing for me since I am always advocating for evidenced-based policy making in my work…) And with massive amounts of commercials. I noticed when I was watching CNN in Addis Ababa last week that some of the programs that I listen to in the U.S. broke for a proper news update together with a few adds, while here in the U.S., the same break is just one long commercial break. It’s of course good news for quality printing media, since we are all subscribing – subscriptions to papers like The New York Times have gone up since the election.

I truly hope that poor-quality news programs are not a trend among tv news around the world – democracy and progress need reliable news and tv can have a lot of positive development impacts – but that the U.S. will instead see higher quality in their news over time. It seems like the election was kind of the bottom mark here, and that there are some attempts by media executives to turn this around. In the meantime, I’m enjoying the Sunday morning shows, and get the rest of my news from diverse sources from around the world.

Sunday breakfast

My plans for today? Work. More specifically, detangling how agricultural risks impact public expenditures for – yep – evidence based policy making!

Up in the Air: When a 14 h Flight Seems Like a Bliss!

It’s early morning and I’m in Doha, about to get on my second flight. I can’t wait for 14 more hours up in the air! No e-mails, no-one interrupting, no social media, and with hours and hours to truly disconnect and be able to work for hours consecutively, with the only interruption being meals and a movie or two! These days, my phone (including data streaming) is free in some 170 countries or so, so I am rarely disconnected. I know I am not the only one at work who is not overly enthusiastic about flights with internet, although it seems like many travelers are eagerly waiting for free wifi up in the air. But it’s just so nice to for once be completely unreachable, if only for a few hours. I know it’s today’s first world problem; yet, at the same time, it is so bizarre to long for a 14 hour flight just to be able to focus on – that’s right – work!

Godiva coffee break

On-flight office…

A Bientôt Ethiopia!

I’m saying goodbye to Ethiopia for this time, but it seems like I will be back soon again, and probably many times over the next couple of years. It’s been a good stay: work has gone well, I’ve seen a little bit of Addis’ surrounding as I went on a day trip to Adama, some 100 km south-east of Addis (although I didn’t meet any farmers this time), had Ethiopian food for lunch and dinner several days, and had lots and lots of fantastic coffee. I also managed to see a few more places around Addis, including a little art gallery with some intriguing paintings.

A funny thing is that everyone I meet here knows about Sweden and shine up when I tell them that’s where I’m from. Ah – Sweden! Good country! I guess the around 1 percent of GDP a year that Sweden provides in development assistance has paid off in at least one way!

Finally, I am very happy that I met the taxi driver that took me around this time – he spoke English fluently and told me so many interesting things about Ethiopian culture and history! If it hadn’t been for him, I wouldn’t have learned as much about Ethiopia as I did during my eight days long stay there!

Ethiopian landscape

Ethiopian livestock

Adama horse cart

Church Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa art gallery

Tomoca Coffee Ethiopia

More pics on Instagram @asagiertz

In Ethiopia for the First Time

I’m in Ethiopia for the first time! Or I’ve probably been at the airport at least 30 times these past three years, but I’ve never actually stepped outside until now. As always when in Africa, I’m here for work. This time to support two of projects on nutrition-sensitive agriculture and since I have a lot to get done during the eight days that I’m here, so I doubt that I will be able to see much. Nevertheless, the city has already made a few impressions on me:

Addis Ababa, or Addis, is situated 2,355 meter above sea level, and is thereby one of the highest elevated capitals in the world; fifth after La Paz, Quito, Thimphu, and Bogota. It’s actually noticeable. I get dehydrated really easily and probably drink about three times as much water as normally. And I run out of breath easily wen taking the stairs. My colleague said that some people have difficulties adjusting, which says something about how high up it is.

Addis also gives an air of change and things seems to be moving rapidly. For a development worker like myself, it’s a bit of a nightmare getting on top of things because there is so much going on, but this is of course a good thing. Construction of new buildings are taking place all over the city and roads are being expanded and paved, much of it through Chinese investments I’m told. It’s very inspiring!

Otherwise, the daily joy here is the coffee. Even if I drink it espresso-style, it is the best coffee I’ve ever had anywhere! (And I can compare with 50 other countries!) Fantastic coffee and perfectly foamed milk in a delightful combination whether a cafe latte or macchiato! I believe that regardless of high we set our goals and what we want to accomplish, it’s enjoying the little things along the way that make us happy!

Addis View

Addis View

Addis Construction Works

Tomoka Coffee Addis

Tomoka Coffee Addis

New Year’s Resolutions for 2017

I normally set up goals for the new year rather than make resolutions. Resolutions sound like something that are bound to be broken. Or something that we are trying to force ourselves to do. Goals are more about development and things that move us forward and make us grow. However, given last year’s ugly environment in the U.S. and around the world, and the realization that business as usual is not an option if we don’t want to end up in Voldemort’s utopia, I actually set up a few resolutions for 2017:

  • To be a lot nicer to people in my surrounding
  • To volunteer for our natural environment
  • To mentor a kid or a teen
  • To be more considerate of our limited natural resources, especially as it concerns food and disposables
  • To finish my book, about which a pre-editor said that possibly the best part of the story was that my protagonist Tora was unusually likable –  I think teens could use a heroine like here in times like this! (A sample to be posted soon.)
  • To work on another small book project that I have had in mind for over years and that seems more relevant than ever. More to come…

Other than that – and more like the goals I usually set – I hope to contribute to positive development in this world through my work, and maybe to give a more nuanced image of the countries that I visit through this blog and Instagram, than what is often portrayed in the media. You can follow me on IG and Twitter on @asagiertz

Did the current climate inspire any of your new year’s resolutions for 2017?

Heart Painted