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The Dazzling Dozen
The female experts shining much-needed light on all things food systems
This week started in a horrible manner. A 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck southern Türkiye at 4.17am, devastating communities there and in north-west Syria.
The quake’s timing - when most people were fast asleep - and the subsequent sub-zero temperatures have contributed to a rising death toll: 21,000 people at the last count. The latest humanitarian updates are here and background reading is here.
I’m hoping the toll won’t climb higher and that both the rescuers and quake-hit communities will be safe and get all the support they need.
The Food Experts
Over the past few days, I received requests from some of you as well as non-subscribers asking me how and where they can learn more about food systems. Preparing for my interview with Al-Jazeera also reminded me that things I take as universally-known are in fact little-known in the wider world.
So this week, I’m sharing a list of 12 amazing female experts whose work I admire. Yes, there are male experts I respect too and I hope to write about them in the future.
These female researchers, academics, scientists and activists highlight the problems with our current food systems, the solutions we already have and the things we need in order to change them.
Of course, I don’t always agree with everything they say, but their work often expands my horizon and make me see things in a different light. Also, this isn’t an exhaustive list - I hope you’ll find many more on your own.
In the interest of fairness, the list is in alphabetical order.
Carin has a great overview of food systems issues including what we’re doing wrong and what we need to make it right, some of which she spoke about in a previous issue of Thin Ink (see below).
Born and raised in South Africa, Carin last year co-founded the Shamba Centre for Food and Climate with two other female experts. Before that, she was with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).
Corinna is a world-renowned expert on food systems, having led the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London, for the past seven years. I came across her work while she was co-charing the Global Nutrition Report from 2015 to 2018.
She’s leaving academia to join the FAO, the UN food and agri agency, as Director, Division of Food Systems and Food Safety, and I’m keen to see her become a key resource for member countries.
I’m not sure if she will continue her blog, The Better Food Journey, but you can still read previous entries.
Esther’s full name is Ma. Estrella “Esther” Penunia, but pretty much everyone calls her “Esther”. She’s the secretary-general of the Asian Farmers’ Association for Sustainable Rural Development (AFA), a regional organisation for 22 national farmers’ groups from 16 Asian countries.
Esther is a fixture at all the big global food and agriculture conferences, where she often provides a much-needed dose of reality on the daily life of small-scale farmers.
“In a backyard in the Bronx in the mid-1980s, a vine laden with sweet-smelling tomatoes came as a revelation to urban gardening guru Karen Washington,” I wrote about this living legend in a 2020 longread.
Since then, Karen has been fighting to end “food apartheid” in the U.S., the long-standing dietary inequity that has led communities of colour to suffer from a multitude of health problems. She is also the founder of Rise & Root Farm.
Dubbed the "Queen of Urban Farming”, Karen has been a leader in the food justice movement that has since given birth to other inspiring female leaders like Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm and Erika Allen of Urban Growers Collective. The 2020 story feature them too so go have a read!
5. Hilal Elver
A lawyer by training, Hilal was the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food from 2014-2020 and was also part of Türkiye’s official delegation to the UN climate change negotiations for many years.
She’s a big proponent of taking a human rights-based approach to food system challenges and is always reminding us that we all have the right to “regular, unrestricted access to safe, nutritious and culturally appropriate food”.
Hilal has angered many governments with her assessments during her time as a Special Rapporteur. She also wrote thematic reports on many issues including the SDGs and right to food, effect of pesticides, and gender perspectives. You can also read her opinions and editorials here.
Jennifer is a much-decorated expert on the global governance of food systems. She has written extensively on corporate concentration in the agrifood chains and consequences of the failures to properly regulate global agricultural trade.
She is Professor and Canada Research Chair in Global Food Security and Sustainability at the University of Waterloo.
Jennifer is a prolific writer and a very generous teacher - her knowledge was indispensable for our Hunger Profiteers investigation last year. Her book “Speculative Harvests” and the 2012 report “Cereal Secrets”, were also integral to my understanding of food systems issues. You can find her latest publications here.
I first met Jess at the launch of The Global Nutrition Report 2018, which she co-chaired with Corinna. I interviewed her for a story and was just struck not only by her expertise but also her ability to synthesise complicated, technical issues in a way we can easily understand and act on.
We’ve since kept in touch and she has become one of the experts I often turn to for advice and insight.
Jess is the Bloomberg Distinguished Professor of Global Food Policy and Ethics at Johns Hopkins University, Director of Hopkins’ Global Food Policy and Ethics Program, and author of “Can Fixing Dinner Fix the Planet?”. She also runs her own blog, The Food Archive. If you’d rather listen/watch, here’s a lecture she gave in December 2021.
I first met Namukolo at the beginning of 2019 when she was a senior research coordinator in Ethiopia for the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI). She gave me more than an hour of her time, explaining the challenges and intricacies of malnutrition in her host country and her home country (Zambia). At the end of it, I felt like I had come out of an excellent one-on-one lecture!
She has since moved onwards and upwards and is now the representative in Ethiopia for the Director General of International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) and was appointed in September as CGIAR Regional Director for East and Southern Africa.
CGIAR stands for a global group of non-profit agricultural research centres dotted around the world. Both ILRI and IFPRI are part of it, and so is World Fish (see entry 10). You can read some of Namukolo’s papers here.
9. Nitya Rao
If you are looking for an expert who can talk passionately and eloquently about the intersection of women’s rights, gender justice, food and nutrition, Nitya is your lady. I once had the privilege of moderating a discussion with her and she is the kind of speaker moderators love - punchy, concise, and charming.
“Gender analysis underpins all my research, be it in relation to understanding changes in land and agrarian relations, migration, livelihoods, food and nutrition security, growth and well-being, equity issues in education policies and provisioning, or indeed processes of policy change,” she has written.
If fish is your thing, look no further than Shakuntala, who leads the nutrition and public health at Malaysia-based World Fish, another CGIAR centre. She has dedicated most of her working life to reducing poverty and hunger through fish.
For years, Shakuntala has researched on and advocated the crucial role that small fish play in boosting the nutrition levels of poor communities, especially women and children, in low- and middle-income countries.
We tend to focus on terrestrial animals whenever we talk about food systems, but Shakuntala’s work, for which she received the World Food Prize in 2021, is a key reminder of the importance of aquatic foods.
11. Shalmali Guttal
Shalmali, executive director of Bangkok-based think tank Focus on the Global South, is one of those leaders who doesn’t mince her words and for which we should all be thankful.
A social scientist by training, her work extends beyond food sovereignty and agrarian reform and includes power and democracy, corporate accountability, and human rights.
These are all particularly fraught topics in a region - my home region, I might add - that often feels like it’s becoming more and more authoritarian.
12. Sofia Monsalve
Born in Colombia and now based in Germany, Sofia is the Secretary General of FIAN International, a human rights organisation fighting for the right to adequate food and nutrition.
She has worked at the intersection of land, natural resources, human rights abuses and food insecurity for decades, conducting fact-finding missions and working closely with farmers.
In Search of an Impact Producer
Essentially, we want to move the important work identifying cracks in our broken food systems beyond the confines of traditional news media and expand it to chefs, influencers and pretty much everybody for whom food is more than just fuel.
So if you’re interested or know anyone who might be, please check out the details here and apply. Also, just to be upfront - I don’t make the hiring decision. I’m just a messenger. What I can assure you is that these are very good folks.
Thin Ink at Reykjavik University
If you happen to be in Reykjavik on Valentine’s Day and have an hour to spare, there are few better ways to spend it than listening to me drone on about the need to reboot our food systems. Alternatively, you can join us online - the event will be webcast.
Three Good Reads
The Mediterranean Diet is a Whitewashed Fantasy - Antiracist Dietitian
This is a fascinating piece from Anjali Prasertong that looks at the origin and myth around the Mediterranean Diet as a gold standard.
Lobbies, Food Tech & Neophobia: In Conversation with George Monbiot About How To Feed The World Without Devouring The Planet - Green Queen
I find George Monbiot’s latest obsession with alternative proteins to be myopic and privileged, but I enjoyed reading this interview from Sonalie Figueiras, founder of Green Queen.
Opinion: Big corps controlling seeds will never solve food insecurity - Devex
This sobering op-ed from Ruth Segal, policy lead for food systems at Catholic Agency for Overseas Development, touches on an issue we should all care about.