The time is oversue for the nutrition profession to stand back and examine its worldwide work dispassionately. (Part 1 of 2)

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Saturday, 20 June 2020 16:42

Human rights: Food for a past due thought  ‘The right to food and nutrition’


Human Rights Reader 532


It is not enough to react to hunger; we need to prevent it (Nothing new here)


-The generation of those who are born today does not wait; their future potential is decided before they reach their first year of life.


1. Hunger is a stranger to most of you and me. The way people in countries rendered rich eat represents an extremely inefficient use of resources. The same amount of food that is feeding 300 million Americans would feed 1.5 billion people. For a wo/man with only one crust of bread, a second crust may ensure survival, but for one with a loaf of bread, an additional crust is of marginal value.

2. Hunger entails four emotions: anguish, grief, humiliation and fear. Hunger has a little explored psychological element of hardship: you think about food all day long.


3. We the elites, have rather recently discovered that the persistence of pockets of hunger is a serious problem. People rendered poor have known hunger since the dawn of history and they are reminded of it every day, two to three times/day, at meal time.  So, morally, it makes no difference whether a man is killed in a war or is condemned to starve by the indifference of others.


Low purchasing power is actually the key word, not hunger; hunger is the consequence


4. From this perspective, the pragmatic question is not what the critical mass of nutrients an individual and her/his family needs is, but rather, what the critical mass of income the household needs is. The more direct questions to ask here then are: a) Does the big task of fighting the economic and political Goliath paralyze us? and b) Is it really true that, whatever we do, their domination will continue?* I doubt it. Choose the right strategic allies: the people!

*: Of all the dangers we face, the biggest is underestimating your (strategic) enemies. (Pearl Buck)


5. From a very much related perspective, unemployment is the biggest cause of hunger for many; it deprives so many millions of people of needed purchasing power. And, as we are talking about power, subsistence farmers facing chronic hunger do not need incentives to grow more food; they need the power to do so. The commoditization of their production** is a more efficient means to extract surplus value from small famers while at the same purportedly benefiting urban populations.

**: For small farmers, commodity prices are going, going, gone…


Nutrition professionals: The good, the bad and the ugly (Good, to me, means to be looking at nutrition from the right perspective)


6. Public health nutrition is largely (but not only) affected by two sectors --health and agriculture. These two tend to be very prominent politically, as opposed to nutrition that, in itself, is not threatening to global or national political aspirations, precisely because it is considered a small technical field with generally politically weak actors.


7. Be aware then that many, especially public health nutritionists, are used as pawns of the status-quo and are not really protagonists in resolving the problems of malnutrition (both under and overnutrition). All the veritable brain washing going-on even makes them believe and dream that what they actually do is making a sustainable difference. To ponder: Do better decisions to tackle malnutrition necessarily come from more and better data? (The same applies to health…)


8. For policy makers and planners in the nutrition field, to seek to reinforce people’s coping strategies is, in fact, more likely to lock people rendered poor into a low-level-food-security-trap***. It may blind these decision-makers to the need for a radical reappraisal of the requirements for people’s livelihoods when living in marginal conditions. (Susana Davies, J. Swift, IDS Bulletin, Oct. 1993).

***: For those of you who are more expert in this field: Stunting may not represent a failure in coping, but the cost of coping! (J. Corbett)


Nutrition is a difficult product to sell to politicians, because its results are long term


9. Food is the world’s most highly charged political issue, for food is the most basic symbol of the disparity between nations rendered rich and those they have rendered poor. Food is also the touchiest political issue in many countries. The challenge thus is converting passive food consumers into active food citizens!


10. People need to provide for themselves because ‘people die when they are fed’. (Ivan Illich) Dignity does not come from being fed; it comes from providing for oneself. Most people are indeed motivated to provide for themselves, and only need decent opportunities to do that. The most important human rights and right to food actions are, therefore, local --not originating in Geneva and/or in New York. Global agencies must do more to help local people find ways to provide for themselves. (George Kent)


11. We are left with difficult questions here: a) Is 10% more malnutrition going to make a difference in order for governments and their politicians to do something about it? I seriously doubt it. b) How much detailed planning is needed if there is commitment? c) Must the planning not be participatory? and d) How much commitment is there if the root problem is wealth maldistribution?  Ponder: Having malnutrition in the world fits certain interests perfectly. The ruling classes are not interested in getting rid of malnutrition.


Does ‘strategically ambiguous’ often mean contradictory? (taken from a World Nutrition review) (


12. Conceptual ambiguity generates a false sense that we are all pulling together in one common, unproblematic endeavor. (Mcgee) Technical approaches by the profession to address complex, often politically-charged processes, attempt to more simply frame a response totally side-lining needed ethical and political actions in the direction of human rights or, in our case, the direction of the right to food and adequate nutrition.


13. ‘Problematizing’ nutrition issues as technical has implications for what is done to address them. (Let us thus recognize differing views on what constitutes valid actions in nutrition). Values affect approaches to addressing malnutrition… The key problems and their solutions are thus framed in different ways. The way an issue is framed by different parties at different times is a powerful agenda-setting tool; it will determine who gets involved in issues, and how final solutions are decided. (C. Shiffman)


14. You can guess the risk here: What we see is often contradictory strategies, low levels of funding, no internal champion(s) and thus no good measures to sustainably impact the work done on nutrition.****   (R. Sumner et al)

****: Politicians stay in office if they do their job; should nutritionists stay in positions of nutrition governance if they do not solve malnutrition’s problems…?


15. I am aware: The international nutrition community is not monolithic, but rather has been split down various philosophical lines: prevention vs cure, technical vs social, multi-sectoral vs isolationist. Where nutrition practitioners fall on this spectrum varies by individual, and many see the benefits of multiple approaches. But given certain preferences and understandings of the issue, practitioners and researchers tend to fall into different epistemic communities, understood as networks of professionals (possibly from different disciplines and backgrounds) with recognized expertise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that domain. (R. Haas) The fact that the international nutrition community has been characterized as fragmented (Morris et al., 2008), therefore, has implications for progressing a coherent agenda within the field of nutrition. It also presents political opportunities for policymakers and practitioners to cherry-pick options by aligning with different interpretations of knowledge provided by different epistemic communities with differing philosophies, according to their political interests and/or beliefs.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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