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writing for godot

It seems the time is overdue for the nutrition profession to stand back and examine its worldwide work dispassionately. (part 2 of 2)

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Saturday, 27 June 2020 18:09

Human rights: Food for a past due thought  ‘The right to food and nutrition’ (2)


Human Rights Reader 533


As used today, the Food Systems concept is a non-political attempt to make issues technical


-The UN and external funders embarked in the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement have ended up propagating a disappointingly narrow interpretation of what nutrition actions and food systems interventions are supposed to be; they systematically exclude claim holders with their approaches much more focused on the social and political determinants of nutrition.


16. One of the underlying reasons for the emergence of the current predominant food systems approach (pretty much catering to the agro-industrial sector) is probably the persistent attempt by governments to secure cheap food for the population. Cheap food is required to keep salaries low in order to preserve the competitiveness of industries, as well as political stability. The result of a cheap food policy has, on the one hand, been a reduced relative weight of food in household budgets over the last decades and, on the other hand, a neglect of the hidden costs of producing food, in particular costs incurred in terms of natural resources degradation, deterioration of the environment, climate change, increased reliance on fossil fuels, loss of biodiversity --all social costs born by farmers and fisherfolks.


17. But, locked-in in decades of a biased ideological thinking of analyzing-by-measuring, it has become extremely difficult to think out-of-the-box, and those who succeed in doing so, are often considered either naive dreamers or dangerous and reckless activists. [If so, I am one of those].


18. In the-dominant-way-of-staging-the-food-issue, important elements of a solution to the food problem are quietly eliminated from the discussion. Little by little, over decades, this change has been accompanied by the elaboration of a large set of rules and regulations that are adapted to industrial mass production. Strong interests thus created a system capable of resistance against any change that would be a threat to the interests of some of these operators.


19. It is likely that in the near future, emerging ‘Big Data’ operators will become the new bosses of our food system. The implication is that any resistance to the past and current trends requires us to (re)act implementing nothing less than profound changes in some kind of a cultural revolution. In such an endeavor, resistance is to be expected from powerful groups defending their interests. It is many many individuals in the public that will have to challenge key notions they were raised-with since childhood, influenced by all the stimuli surrounding them, in particular through advertising. A fundamental revolution of mentalities and behaviors is what is required and it is likely that this will take time to occur and that it will be in some way rather painful and, in many ways, extremely challenging. (all the above adapted from Hunger Explained)


At the end of the food system are the consumers of the wrong processed foods

-You must be made aware (again) that we are under the spell of The Nutrition Triple Profit Cycle that: a) malnourishes you with ultra-processed formulations; b) sells you the supplements to make up nutrient deficits; and c) sells you the medicines to ‘restore’ your health when you develop non-communicable diseases (NCDs).


20. The consumption-shift towards processed, fast food cannot continue any longer; it is unsustainable. We cannot have the food sector killing us. The big companies are not producing healthy products. They produce junk food (ultra-processed formulations) that leads to NCDs and they repeatedly say: “It is not our responsibility”. This has to end and here is just a sample of the reporting and the actions that will be needed to counter Big Food and Big Soda: (Jeffrey Sachs)

  • Are the production processes being used sustainable? [Often forgotten: Food waste must include the unsustainable waste in the packaging of ultra-processed foods. (FIAN Colombia)].
  • Are the companies supply chains sustainable? For example, Kraft Heinz, is a buyer of products from the Amazon region under deforestation; that is not acceptable, we cannot have international trade exacerbating the environmental crisis. The company cannot just say “I just buy, I am not responsible to report on supply chains”.  We need to insist that upstream supply must be divulged and must be sustainable.
  • Are the companies good corporate citizen? In simple words: Are they paying their taxes? The biggest company in the world ends up putting their profit in one of the smallest spots in the world, into little tax heavens where they have no offices. Hundreds of billions of USD are put there; we have to stop this. We need tax accountability. This is for too long been in the hands of the powerful countries. These countries know what they are doing. Law firms are helping their companies to hide their money. That is beyond dishonest business. We need that money in (y)our countries’ budget to provide social services. Citizens ought to call for campaigns on accountability of these businesses. (J. Sachs)


The role of science and technology is, in fact, peripheral to solving the problems of malnutrition in the world

-The CODEX ALIMENTARIUS is the commercial rules and regulations setter industry uses; it is not a scientific rules and regulations setter. (FIAN Colombia)


21. Nutrition history has, so far, been written by the alleged victors. Dissenting nutrition research and practice have more often than not struggled to bring-in broader social science and political theory into the discourse. The 2008 and later 2013 Lancet series of papers on nutrition made it clear we must adhere to the ‘technical coherence’ that needs to be at the center of public health nutrition work. But this has come at the cost of largely excluding research and practice that does not fit with this dominant paradigm.


22. As defined by The Lancet, nutrition science builds on assumptions about what are legitimate domains of study and how these domains are being consciously reconfigured to open a path forward. Practitioners will thus now often feel inclined to recognize and reproduce the common opinions in the nutrition field as self-evident --crowding out even the acknowledgment of other possible ways of working. Therefore, dominant current practices (such as the ‘Nutrition for Growth’ or the ‘1000 Days’ and the ‘Scaling Up Nutrition’ initiatives) propagate a narrow, private sector-influenced interpretation of what nutrition means. This opens background assumptions in addressing the nutritional problems at hand now embedded in public health nutrition as a discipline; they have become so ubiquitous as to become invisible.


23. These inherent biases struggle with the more complex political and human rights (HR) issues in the responses to hunger and malnutrition currently called-for.* Not recognizing, or paying only lip service-to, and dismissing as ‘overly complex’ the social and political context (or the historical and structural conditions that created the problems in the first place), removes the context of the issue and represents it in purportedly neutral scientific language thus filtering out the possibility of non-technical social or political actions in addressing the myriad problems of malnutrition.

*: Take nutrition education: Don’t you feel that, more often than not, as practiced, nutrition education is about "Keep them poor, but teach them"? (this is not a facetious question).


24. Malnutrition has thus been removed from the realm of the ethical and political and brought under the sway of self-proclaimed experts and technologists. Basic science is simply construed as ‘truth’… In order to be able to continue to research and act, the nutrition community has been consciously framing nutrition in terms of the-dominant-development-discourses-of-the-day in order to get an important issue onto the agenda and into donor funding cycles. But this framing in turn limits the ways that nutrition can be talked about in policy and practice circles and, therefore, limits the things that-we-are-able-to-do in response.


25. Rendering an issue technical eventually leads to designated experts being the only people accredited to talk about it with authority, even while those actually experiencing over or undernutrition may prefer different responses. Despite its explicitly political and rights-based origin, the core guiding structure in nutrition, i.e., the UNICEF Causes of Malnutrition Framework (1990),** has come to explicitly separate the determinants of undernutrition into immediate and underlying issues, to be tackled through a range of technical programs; and basic and structural causes, with social and political interventions encompassing advocacy strategies, accountability initiatives, leadership and capacity enhancing programs and investments being relegated to the back burner. (This mirrors the neoliberal bias in much of development research in general).

**: The UNICEF conceptual framework of the causes of malnutrition has, for sure, widened the nutritionists’ horizon, not allowing them to carry out business as usual, but rather using new glasses… [I insist: Not the right questions are being asked according to the conceptual framework --particularly about the basic causes].


26. This all represents the ‘rendering technical’ of complex, often politically-charged processes in order to more simply frame a response --but with implications for what is done to address them…


27. This all is said, because nutrition scientists as an interest group too often take a technical stance and focus on appealing to others to change their interests accordingly. This, rather than focusing research on ways to reorganize the power relations behind the problems that they are (naively) trying to solve. (Participatory research is a promising avenue that needs more exploring here). I hope you agree with me that, for these scientists, purely technocratic cures for malnutrition hold out simultaneously the possibility of moral virtue for doing the right thing and the political expediency for doing it with minimal inconvenience to the haves of the world.

Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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-There are about 80,000 edible species of plants, of which only about 50 are actively cultivated on a large scale. (50% of the world’s crops eaten as a staple come from only 12 species).

-Due to what has been described as ‘policy inertia’, little progress has been made in tackling any of the three components of the so-called Global Syndemic, namely undernutrition, overnutrition and climate change. Policy inertia includes the combined effects of inadequate political leadership and governance to enact the policies needed, as well as the lack of unequivocal demand for policy action by claim holders, combined with strong opposition to those policies by powerful commercial interests. Those with the greatest commercial interests, and the ones that would lose most if we were to tackle the three pandemics, are the various transnational corporations that make their profits along the food chain. (Roger Shrimpton) your social media marketing partner
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