The Environment: my new favourite big word when picking up my son from school

“Wheat and Steak” (1981) from the exhibition MIRALDA MADEINUSA produced by MACBA Barcelona

Have you ever noticed how, in the surroundings of schools, adults always seem much more well behaved and caring than in any other public space? How people hold the door open for you with a smile? We parents have put our trust in the school to help us raise accomplished human beings, and there is a common acceptance that, if nowhere else, this is the place to act responsibly.

In this regard, schools offer the perfect setting for seeding societal transformation, and whoever feels change is needed now should make the best of this civilised space.

Here’s how I decided to give it a try: after biting my lip in self-censorship since my son joined school last September, it was time to express my uneasiness over the food served at the canteen. From meat served every day, to non-seasonal or processed food, I felt that the institution could care a bit more about our childrens’ and planet’s health, but I wanted to be a bit tactful about how to deliver my long list of complaints. The school’s annual theme, chosen by the school’s management served as a prefect pretext: the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), a collection of 17 goals aimed at  promoting prosperity while protecting the planet.

All UN member states have agreed to take action on ending poverty, hunger, offering decent work, clean water and promoting responsible production and consumption by 2030.

Before sending the letter to the school director, I shared it with other parents from my son’s class. Here is an extract :

It is a known fact that food systems and consumers choices have a great impact on issues such as peace, health, biodiversity and climate. While the current globalised agribusiness generates loss in soil quality, loss in biodiversity, water contamination, intensive use of petroleum by-products etc…, food produced by small-scale farmers and sold on local markets help people to get out of malnutrition and poverty. It also contributes to better health, stronger communities and a better environment. 
Our choices when buying food are therefore crucial in achieving the 17 sustainable developments goals (SDGs). It seems that unfortunately schools haven’t evolved much when it comes to embedding new knowledge into food sourcing for canteens, and I actually feel (the school) is falling short on the following points:

- Meat almost every day: Meat and dairy production contributes to 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions (FAO), which is more than the transportation sector! Recent scientific studies (The Lancet) urge reducing by 40% our consumption of meat and diary, and favouring a more plant-based diet if we want to keep the climate below a 1.5 degree increase, as the ultimate limit for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, as recognised by scientists and UN climate bodies.

- On the seasonal aspect: The January menu has tomatoes, aubergines and courgettes, a group of vegetables which season is summer. At this period of the year, these products are grown in greenhouses and come usually from El Elejido (Spain), also known as “the sea of plastic” for the enormous expanse of poly-plastic tunnels covering the area, and where workers, mainly African migrants, are working and living in slave-like conditions.

- Maize on the menu, on this point more transparency is required. 95% of Transgenic (GMO) maize produced in the EU comes from Catalonia, Aragon and some parts of Portugal. The cohabitation between conventional varieties and transgenic ones is almost impossible. The transgenic ones ending contaminating the other. How can we be sure that our kids are not eating transgenic products, when scientific consensus has not been reached on their safety for human health?

- Salmon and farmed fish, sometimes present on the menu, is resource intensive (it takes 5Kg of fish meal – itself  made from wild fish - to produce 1Kg of farmed salmon). Concentration in fish farms causes some problems, including: water pollution (too many nutrients and nitrogen) as well as diseases (parasites, viruses, and bacteria) that require use of antibiotics which will inevitably end up in human bodies. While Omega 3 is an essential nutrient, the benefits of consuming farmed salmon are outweigh by the negative environmental and health consequences of such a production method.

- Sugar and junk food: I hear some parents questioning the need to serve sweetened yogurts at school and whether more generally the school should refrain giving kids products containing added sugars. It’s true that sugar is more and more present in our food and is linked to a series of diseases such as obesity (Spain has among the highest rates of child obesity within the EU) and diabetes. I join their concern and think we all need to re-educate our food habits in relation to sugar. On a more personal note, I refuse my son to eat potentially dangerous substances such as the E171, prohibited in several EU countries. Birthdays are a fantastic occasion for kids to celebrate and connect. Too often though, cakes brought on this occasion have a layer of “Lacasitos” which contain the infamous E171 (also known as Titanium dioxide). I found out accidentally that my son was eating these. I would greatly appreciate if the school could stop “facilitating” my son’s access to these products, and give some more guidance to families when it comes to birthday celebrations.

Food is an endless and fundamental education vector. With this year SDG theme, (the school) has a fantastic opportunity for to further and deepen its progressive educational approach. Maybe even some older students could be taught how to read labels and could investigate food origin for the rest of the school? Some associations, such as “Del Campo al Cole”, “Menjadors Ecologics”, “Ecomenja” are very well versed on these topics and they are doing an amazing job in transforming the world via our canteens. I would be more than happy to connect you with them if you also think food is an important part of our children's education.

Some parents reacted to my letter with a irrevocable “our family is not vegan” and switched off.

Be warned, suggesting the introduction of just two plant-based meals a week can unleash very dramatic reactions.

However,  others were keen to discuss the issue, admitting they had been previously unaware of the facts I had exposed in my letter. But to my surprise, I found some allies, parents who felt that the letter reflected their own concerns and who wanted to co-sign it. That’s how we opened a dialogue about transformation of the food culture at school.

The school was amazingly responsive and some changes have already been implemented – there is now a ban on nasty E-number sweets;  while kids continue celebrating birthdays at school, colourful candy is no longer invited to the party. More importantly, there now an ongoing discussion between the director and the canteen service on how to modify the school menu towards a more sustainable one. I guess that’s how change begins.

Despite having been involved in confrontational environmental campaigns during my career, I had to think twice before exposing my convictions in social situations, especially if it might cause prejudice towards my child. This is the wrong attitude. Nothing could harm my child more than inaction on climate change, air pollution or self-imposed censorship. The students of the Fridays for Future who have been demonstrating in more than 100 countries over governments’ inaction on climate change have it clear: studies and good education they are currently receiving, might become irrelevant on a uninhabitable planet.

According to the world’s leading climate scientists, we need to act now, so that in 12 years the current trends pointing at a catastrophic climate scenario can be avoided. We, as parents also need to generally reconsider what is most important for our child. Next time you talk to a fellow parent, don’t be afraid to bring up The Environment, this big word that can turn some people off but might bring many more together.

Interview on EFEAGRO: How is Spain performing in the organic sector?

Nathalie Parès, EFEAGRO

Anabel Pascual, a journalist with EFE, the Spanish news agency, interviewed me this week about how Spain is performing  in the organic sector. Here’s my analysis on what is behind the latest Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) figures and my suggestions for consolidating the sector:

Spain has more land area dedicated to organic farming than any EU country. With two digit growth figures, its organic market is performing well (+25% in 2015 and +13% in 2016 – latest figures available). All this is encouraging for the future of the sector and it is rightly something the Mapama (Ministerio de Agricultura y Pesca, Alimentación y Medio Ambiente) should be proud about. On the cover of Mapama’s organic strategy document for 2018-2020, we can read “España, primer país de la UE y cuarto en el mundo en Superficie Bio” (Spain, first EU country and 4th in the world in terms of organic surface [area dedicated to organic production]). Also, “Bio, Eco, Orgánico, Más que Verde (more than green)” and they are damn right! However, organic means a bit more than a green grazing field. Organic farming  can greatly contribute in achieving: zero hunger, good health and well-being, clean water, decent work and economic growth, climate action and few more objectives of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) defined by the UN.

Bio, Eco, Orgánico, Más que Verde

So here are few facts from FiBl’s latest yearly statistics book  that should be taken into account when weighing up the Spanish organic sector.

  • The share of organic land in Spain is 8.7% of the total arable land, – the rest is occupied by so-called “conventional farming”. This  leaves Spain in 12th position of the EU ranking  (as an indication Sweden has a 18% organic land share and Italy 14.5%). Despite their best efforts, Spanish organic farmers can’t offset the scandal of El Ejido near Almeria with its “Moroccan slaves and 50km sea of plastic”.

Organic in Europe

  • More than half of Spain’s organically farmed land is grazing land, which might be good news for livestock but not for the climate. If we consider organic agriculture as a tool for answering sustainability challenges, overall the level of organic farming in Spain, while good, is not sufficient to answer the challenges of climate change, soil erosion, or rural exodus. More efforts should be done towards to develop organic arable land. In this regard, the high level of conversion to organic is a great news.

Then we come to the organic market. The double digit growth (+25% in 2015 and +13% in 2016) makes the +2% growth of conventional food sales look pale. Nevertheless we must mention the low starting point, and the fact that Spanish consumers only spend €36 per person on organic food per year, half of what the EU consumers spend on average. This figure relegates Spain to 15th position of the EU rankings (photo). There is room for improvement.

A first step might consist of developing and promoting domestic consumption. As it stands, Spain remains an exporting country and too little is done to promote organic consumption internally. Parallel to this effort in raising awareness, there is an urgent need  to diversify the products on offer, and to challenge the sale channels. Too often, shopping organic in Spain is a mission, that is often expensive and sometimes does not deliver in terms of quality. Spanish organic consumers deserve an enjoyable, affordable, and social shopping experience while buying organic. This is necessary in order to reach new consumers and maintain their interest in organic food.

Finally, the sector needs representation. Spanish organic farmers, producers and processors do not have a structure that allows them to speak with one voice, as it the case in most EU countries. Often, they belong to traditional farming associations that can defend organic production only to a point, considering the sometimes clashing interests with conventional producers (this problem is exacerbated in Catalonia where there is a powerful porcine industry and also a high concentration of GMO cultivation. The Mapama itself tried to address this issue, with inconclusive results.

This point is particularly important, as the sector is facing important policy reforms in the coming months, with the finalisation of the new EU organic regulation, and the new version of the PAC currently being discussed. Spain is now at a crossroads, and can either create a strong organic sector capable of feeding its population, while correcting the current plagues of the traditional food system (pollution, obesity, desertification, rural exodus) or it can continue focusing in supplying other EU countries.


Biofach: Catalonia Can Become Organic Leader

Organic crops in the Maresme, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Barcelona

Media Advisory

Nuremberg, Germany, February 12, 2018:- As global organic food producers converge on Nuremberg for BIOFACH, the world’s leading organic food trade fair, Catalonia – a pioneer of organic farming since the 1970s – can become a world leader in the sector, according to international organic food consultant Nathalie Parès.

Local demand for organic food is growing rapidly: +37% in 2015 compared to the previous year (+25% for Spain for the same period – latest available data) and, at the current rate the Catalan certification body CCPAE predicts that organic’s  market share could reach 25% of all food sales by 2020 (1).

However, with only 12% of Catalan farmland dedicated to organic production, Catalan customers – who have an affinity for proximity “km0” products – currently depend on organic suppliers from other countries. A recent study from 2014 demonstrates that by converting all of Catalonia’s farmland to organic, combined with a move towards a healthier mediterranean diet and less meat consumption, could not only fully satisfy the demand for organic products, but could actually achieve food sovereignty for the 7.5 million people living in Catalonia.

“With demand for organic food soaring in Catalonia, there’s never been a better time for Catalan producers to switch to organic production. Instead of being the EU capital of GMOs (2), Catalonia could become the beacon of organic food and gastronomy”, said Nathalie Parès, a Barcelona-based international organic food consultant and IFOAM Organic Leadership Fellow, currently present at Biofach.

“There are several steps needed to  forge a brilliant future for the Catalan organic sector. First, the sector needs to organise itself to speak with one voice to defend its interests, as has happened EU countries like France (FNAB), Italy (FederBio) or, more recently, Organic Sweden. Second, Catalan distributors and retailers must find a new ways of selling organic foods, and break with the lack of  choice, poor quality and high prices currently offered by retailers. Finally, politics matter; some political movements in Catalonia have demonstrated their readiness to take environmental and sustainability challenges seriously. The third report on climate change in Catalunya (2016) lists organic farming as a way to adapt and mitigate climate change (3)  – which is quite remarkable and something the sector should take advantage of”.


Nathalie Parès on ‭+34 691 825 067‬ or


Biofach runs from February 14-17th, in Nuremberg, Germany.

  1. by Pep Tuson

Gone shopping: I want “organic” not “natural”

Four countries in less than ten years, several bosses and apartments, and the same reflex when I land in a new place: where do I find organic food? After all, moving house makes a woman hungry.

Sant Cugat, near Barcelona, is where I currently live and it’s where the organic shopping journey starts. We are 20 minutes away from Barcelona, separated from the Catalan capital by the immense natural park of Collserola. This city of almost 90,000 inhabitants claims it has one tree per inhabitant. Under the green canopy, it seems to have almost as many swimming pools. Sant Cugat, actually one of Spain’s richest cities, is lead by a very agile female politician, Mercé Conesa, who makes smart cities looks easy and invites Jeremy Rifkin to talk about the Internet of Things at the local theatre. The streets are full of smart lampposts, joggers, families pushing prams, and fancy food businesses. But, I am not into jamón, (here is why: “Spain, towards a pig factory farm nation?”), and I look forward to the day cupcakes will become massively extinct. You see, I need to cook something for tonight.

I have been told, “organic food, oh yes!, you will find lots here”. That makes sense, after all, isn’t Spain the EU country with the most land dedicated to organic farming?

They have some in the supermarket. And check Casa Ametller, you should find plenty of natural products there plus, they don’t have middlemen!”

Continue reading “Gone shopping: I want “organic” not “natural””