Quito puts food on the agenda

Quito puts food on the agenda

Melissa Vanderheyden
Melissa Vanderheyden
Eos Tracé

Undulating little streets, beautiful colonial buildings and lavishly decorated churches where the gold leaf and the kitsch almost hurt the eyes: that is the historic centre of Quito, Ecuador's capital. If you zoom out, as if on Google Earth, you see the city is draped between high volcanoes with snowy peaks. They follow the Andes' mountain range in a pendulum that traverses Ecuador from north to south and dots the country with 84 volcanoes. It is a fairy-tale location, but one that contains the seeds of a nightmare.

Should one of Quito's volcanoes erupt, it would affect the entire city. The dangers of ashes, mudslides and even catapulted pieces of glacier would just be the beginning. An eruption would also disrupt food supply. The people of Quito get 62 percent of their food from the southern areas.

The road that transports that food from field to city passes just sixteen kilometres from the crater of the Cotopaxi, a volcano that was last active in 2016. If a landslide or lava flow would destroy the road, it would take mere days for the city to be without food.

A supply chain that does not take into account the threat posed by the surrounding volcanoes is just one example of the many pressure points in Quito's food system. This is apparent from an analysis conducted by the city of Quito and RUAF in 2016. The report's verdict was harsh: hardly more than a third of the agricultural land is used optimally, the yield of edible crops is low to very low and the use of pesticides amply exceeds internationally accepted limits.

The city is also highly dependent on imports from other regions, because Quito itself produces just five percent of all the food its population needs. If you include cultivation in the rest of the province, you still end up with a paltry twelve percent. Healthy food doesn’t find its way to people's plates easily.

While six out of ten residents between the ages of 25 and 59 are overweight, 29 percent of children suffer from malnutrition. In vulnerable neighbourhoods that number even rises to 46 percent. At the end of the chain, a pile of unprocessed waste remains, more than half of which consists of compostable material.

New perspectives

The ideal is a robust, less wasteful food system that provides every consumer with a healthy meal and each farmer with a fair income. But dreams are separated from reality by ignorance, conflicting interests and a lack of policy.

To address these issues, Rikolto worked with RUAF, the Centre for Rural Development in Latin America (RIMISP) and various departments of Quito’s municipal administration. The purpose of that collaboration? Getting the various actors involved in the food system to sit at the table together and work on what would later become the Quito Food Charter.

Alexandra Rodriguez, the head of Quito’s Conquito’s urban agriculture programme AGRUPAR, was part of the process from the very beginning when the platform was established. The Platform was later named Pacto Agroalimentario de Quito (Quito Agri Food Pact), or PAQ for short.

After the analysis of the food system... The question was: how do we convert the knowledge gathered into practical measures? That's why we invited everyone who could play a role to truly make use of that information... Everyone was represented. I was quite impressed by the presence of all the different actors. Everyone understood that the existing problems required action, and, for the first time, we saw the challenges from each other's perspective.

Alexandra Rodríguez Head of Conquito's urban agriculture programme AGRUPAR

But negotiations did not always go smoothly. The ultimate goal was to prepare a text that would serve as the basis for a resolution at the municipal level – which would later hopefully become a law. Barrionuevo from RIMISP was responsible for drafting the text, which eventually became the Quito Food Charter. During the process, he drafted no fewer than 21 versions of the charter.

Alexandra Rodríguez also still vividly remembers those meetings. "A single word, such as ‘food sovereignty’, could provoke intense discussions.” recalls Rodríguez. Food sovereignty stands for the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food, produced in a sustainable, ecologically responsible way, and the right to shape the food and agricultural system. Since 2008, food sovereignty has been part of the Ecuadorian constitution, which, incidentally, is the only constitution in the world to grant rights to nature.

Not everyone agreed on what the term 'food system' did or did not include…Some felt only organic farming was sustainable, while others also considered the methods such as "good agricultural practices" (GAP as defined by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, ed.) as sustainable, as long as they reduced the use of pesticides. There was clearly a lack of a culture of dialogue, many actors weren't used to discussing their views with the other side.

Ney Barrionuevo RIMISP

For the time being there is still a gap between paper and practice. “For the consumer representatives, food sovereignty was an essential part of the Food Charter. The industry, on the other hand, said ‘We don't believe in food sovereignty and won’t sign if it's in the charter.’ Every word was considered and weighed. The final charter is the result of compromises and the search for - sometimes scarce - agreements. Those instances of common ground are the soul of the charter. The document does not solely serve the interests of the industry or of the consumer. It's for everyone”, says Rodríguez. Ney Barrinuevo too is satisfied with the final result. “I have the impression that everyone supports the charter and feels represented. This experience shows that it is possible to bring two opposing parties together and develop a policy together. This way, applying it will also be easier in the end. The dialogue between the public sector, the private sector and the governing bodies at both the provincial and national level is really a step forward, given the Ecuadorian context.”

Power of the spoon

Yet change does not only come from policymakers and producers; consumers' choices and preferences also play an important role. Julio de la Calle agrees. He is director of projects, innovation and regulation at the National Association of Food and Beverage Producers (ANFAB), an association that is also part of the PAQ.

Organic production sounds great, but locally there is hardly any market for sustainable food. We have to adjust our production to the demands of the consumers. If companies invest in more sustainable production, there has to be a demand for it, otherwise they won't get anything in return for their effort.

Julio de la Calle Director of projects, innovation and regulation at the National Association of Food and Beverage Producers (ANFAB)

We need a large consumer movement. Something's already stirring, but consumer demand isn't high enough yet.

Paola Ramón Head of Quito's Secretariat for Productivity and Competitiveness

No one believes more in the power of the consumer than radiomakers Marcelo Aizaga and Eliana Estrella. In the PAQ, they represent everyone who experiences the consequences of food policy with knife and fork each day. If consumers are so important to the industry, it should also inform them, they say. For ten years already, they have served their listeners solid information about healthy and sustainable food, through the radio and the internet.

A recent survey shows loyal listeners really do follow the advice of Aizaga and Estrella and are inspired to develop healthier, more sustainable eating habits. An example of this is the purchase of agroecological products. Agroecology refers to cultivation without chemical pesticides, with multiple crops mixed together. The farmer mimics a natural ecosystem, in which crops reinforce each other's growth or keep certain pests at bay. There are currently more than seventy agroecological stores: a veritable explosion.

Our radio programme ‘Power of the spoon’ is more popular than sports or comedy. This shows we're filling an information gap. Just look at the TV and radio spots and the advertisements about food. In nine out of ten cases, they're pure marketing. There's nothing informative about them. How do you expect consumers to know what responsible food is?

Marcelo Aizaga Minga por la Pachamama

According to Estrella, this is the result of increased consumer demand. You no longer need to scour organic markets to get a sustainable meal in Quito – you can also go to conventional shops and restaurants. Also promising are the emergence of new consumer organisations and the increasing popularity of community farming. The latter is a collaboration between farmers and consumers. Well before harvest time, the consumer contributes to the production costs of the farmer, who sets aside a portion of his harvest in return. This way, they share the risks inherent in agriculture, such as bad weather or voracious insects.

A menu determined by price and knowledge

“In 2008, Rikolto conducted a study into consumer trends. It showed that many are interested in organic, possibly agroecological food, but that the term 'agroecology' is still unknown to many,” says Estrella. The fact that the market for agroecological food is small does not automatically mean there is no interest in it. Many people simply do not have sufficient knowledge.

For most residents of Quito, price is the main driver of what is put on the menu. But with good policy, healthy and varied food can be available to more than those who pay a lot of money for it or who are well-informed. That is why Aizaga and Estrella look forward to continuing to defend consumer rights in the future as part of the PAQ. They hope, for example, that marketing targeted to children will eventually be banned.

“The meetings of the PAQ are a great way of keeping the various stakeholders involved. Everyone reports on what they are doing," says Marcelo. By informing the consumer, the PAQ can create a self-reinforcing effect of conscious consumers who drive change from the bottom up.



What will we eat tomorrow?

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Between March and August 2019, three journalists from the magazine Eos Tracé visited partner cities of Rikolto's Food Smart Cities programme. During these visits, they interviewed more than 130 people and discovered initiatives that make safer, healthier and sustainable food more accessible to citizens. This book tells their stories from 9 cities in Vietnam, Belgium, Tanzania, Indonesia, Ecuador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

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