In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center senior fellows to catch up on food systems, innovation, and what makes a good meal.
Read on for an interview with Alexander Müller, Former State Secretary of the German Federal Ministry of Consumer Protection, Food and Agriculture.
How did you get interested in food systems issues?
I came from the environmentalist movement and the movement against nuclear arms and nuclear power plants. When we started to work on alternatives to nuclear power plants, energy came into focus. Then if you’re interested in sustainable energy, sooner or later you’ll get interested in agriculture. It was not a direct way to food systems, but it was a very consequent way because we are only going to achieve a sustainable world if we change our energy systems and food systems. In my opinion, these two systems are the two most important components toward sustainability.
What has changed in food systems over your career?
I have observed two trends that are somehow like counter movements. On one hand, we see a strong concentration of power in our food system where only a few companies are supplying products to all supermarkets across the world. We also see globalization in food that is strongly supported and driven by subsidies. It’s not a level playing field. Petrochemicals are also driving the food system so in the end, one could say we are eating oil in conventional food.
The counter movement is the strong organic movement. When I was a student, the organic industry was very small. Over time, it has become very clear that we need an alternative to the predominant conventional high input system. Organic is the alternative, and it’s more or less the gold standard for sustainability in my opinion. With the need to reduce emissions, protect biodiversity, and reduce the ecological footprint of food production, the conventional food system will have to learn from the organic food system. Organic is not perfect, but it is the best alternative we have to the highly concentrated industrialized food system.
Our current food system is highly efficient if you measure input and output, but it has enormous externalities and therefore there is a need to change it. Sixty percent of all biodiversity that is being destroyed is related to food production.¹ Agriculture is the biggest user of freshwater resources globally.² If food waste was a country, it would be the third biggest emitter of CO2 after China and the US.³ The biggest challenge is to not allow conventional food producers to greenwash their products. Therefore, we have to clearly define what sustainability means, what needs to change, and what food systems transformation means.
What’s an innovation or development in the food systems world that you’re excited about?
I’m very excited about true cost accounting (TCA). It is changing the philosophy of how we measure the success of food production by taking into account all the positive and negative externalities. It is changing the economics of food systems. It goes beyond the simple efficiency targets by looking at the interaction of food systems with all capitals: natural capital, social capital, human capital, and produce capital. Then we can see what is truly an efficient system, but in a very different way of measuring it. TCA really benefits the organic movement because it has always been criticized as too expensive. Now we can prove that conventional food production is much more expensive when you take into account all the negative externalities such as water pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and so on. In the end, cheap food is very expensive.
If there was something a new graduate of a food systems program should know, what would it be?
It would be that food systems go far beyond food. Farmers are the managers of our natural resources which is our life support system. We must create conditions so that they can manage our life support system in a way that is good for everyone. In the end, we are talking not only about calories, but also about nutrients. When we talk about food systems, we must realize that it goes far beyond food, and we must place emphasis on the systems component. We must look at the different interactions between food systems and the rest of the world.
What is the best meal you’ve ever had?
I absolutely love to eat and I’ve had many excellent meals, often paired with good wine. The meal I remember the most was a very simple one when I had the pleasure visiting the Potato Park in the Andes. The Potato Park is a reserve of more than 15,000 hectares and it is the largest potato biodiversity hotspot in the world. The farmers there were producing a huge variety of potatoes and they cooked them in two big pots. They also made many different types of sauces. These farmers are the only ones maintaining the genetic diversity of potatoes. Not all of them were tasty, but they were all very special.