Monday, 11 April 2011

POVERTY: Hunger is a business

April 06, 2011

The world's hungry people may not seem like an investment opportunity, but that is how nutrition expert Dr Steve Collins wants them to be seen. As Dr Collins puts it, hunger is a $10bn (€7.1bn) opportunity. "The multinationals are beginning to be interested. We have to show them the evidence that the market is there."
The economist Amartya Sen has written that famine is almost always a problem of food distribution and poverty, not global food production. In validation of his research, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 80 percent of malnourished children in the developing world live in countries that produce food surpluses. The socioeconomic aspect of the problem is even starker when one considers how much edible food is discarded annually in the West as waste.
Every year, more than 10 million children under the age of five die globally, and malnutrition is associated, directly or indirectly, with more than half of these deaths. Chronic undernutrition is the underlying cause for many of the principal child killers including diarrhea, pneumonia, malaria, measles, and AIDS. Malnutrition compromises child immunity such that episodes of illness tend to last longer or be more severe, thus interacting with infection in a vicious cycle.The World Health Organization cites malnutrition as the single gravest threat to global public health. Nearly 20 million children under age five suffer from severe acute malnutrition.
Nutrition is widely regarded as the most effective form of aid. Because foods such as wheat and soy do not contain a full complement of vitamins and minerals, emergency rations often provide the 40 essential nutrients that are critical for the first 1,000 days of life in sachets of fortified powders, mixed with peanut butter, or directly through supplements. 'Ready-to-use therapeutic food' (RUTF) is a term that could be used generically to refer to any food known or reliably believed to have special benefits as therapy, in particular in cases of severe acute undernutrition. However, as now used, the term refers to a nutrient-dense and energy-dense peanut-based paste originally designed primarily for the treatment of severe acute malnutrition in young children. It can be consumed directly by the child, and does not need to be mixed with water. It can be stored for three to four months without refrigeration, even at tropical temperatures.
'Scaled up' delivery of commercial or foreign 'packages' of nutrition interventions is being aggressively promoted, inside the UN, and outside by major governments, their agencies, foundations, and other big non-government organisations. Branded, commercial ready-to-use therapeutic food is now part of these packages. In contrast, the promotion of community-based and local government-supported empowerment of people living in poverty to claim their human rights to good nutrition, which is the rational way forward, is neglected. The commercially produced RUTF, bought and distributed by UN agencies and non-governmental aid organisations, is a totally unaffordable option for most people who live in poverty. The promotion of RUTF is now medicalising and commercialising the prevention of malnutrition, which is better achieved by local measures to improve food intakes, health services and child care. It is unrealistic, and even irresponsible, to suggest that RUTFs could be provided worldwide to the very many millions of children identified as having mild malnutrition or chronic hunger. Food is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for preventing young child malnutrition. Good child nutrition always simultaneously requires food, health and care. In other words, adequate household food security, access to basic health services and adequate caring practices, are all necessary. Many feeding programs are able to improve childhood malnutrition, but unfortunately, the effects are usually temporary. Children gain weight while in the feeding program, but then lose it again once they are not being fed.
The products are expensive. At around US 6 cents a package, a full two-month treatment with Plumpy'nut costs around US$ 60 a child. Parents of children with severe acute malnutrition cannot afford this. The costs so far have been borne primarily by United Nations agencies and by international non-governmental organisations such as MSF and it is not clear if these quoted costs include the price for delivery and distribution. A recent article co-authored by economist Jeffrey Sachs estimated that the direct cost of providing Plumpy'nut to the billion people reckoned to be hungry in the world would be US $ 360 billion per year.
In most cases as with Plumpy'nut, peanuts from the South are shipped to the north, the product is made commercially in France and is then shipped back south. Nutriset (Plumpy'nut) currently produces 80 percent of the RUTF market, sold commercially to aid agencies and NGOs. Nutriset produced 14,000 tons of its trademarked Plumpy'nut line of products in 2009 for sales totaling $66 million. The family-owned company has paid out millions in dividends. Even with franchises for the local production of RUTF, many of the ingredients and packaging materials are imported. What are the social, economic and other implications of a move from family foods to wide use of RUTF for people who live in poverty? The situation would be very similar to the negative effects of the aggressive promotion and marketing of breastmilk substitutes as witnessed by the Nestle baby-milk .
There was no foil-wrapped snack-bar answer to the persistence of poverty only social change can remedy the problem. Food security is about meeting the dietary needs of all people, at all times, enabling them to live a healthy life and not to be constantly in fear of the vagaries of the market. Only by addressing the monetary element, by coming to terms with the absolute necessity of removing it and any profit motive from the food supply will farmers, consumers and all the peoples of the world have the security of knowing that sufficient food is available to all, at all times and in all situations. Food security for all the world's citizens is just not possible in a capitalist system. Food production should be about meeting the self-defined needs of people, not a profit-motivated venture for corporations, agribusinesses and their boards and shareholders.
One aid agency writes " What we can foresee, is the possibility of amplification of the RUTF market by transnational food corporations, with their own branded products. In this scenario, Nutriset would play only a small part in a much bigger play. This would make mothers and children throughout the South into targets for company brands, seamlessly from birth to weaning throughout young childhood, and then on to adolescence and throughout adult life. Ironically, the families most able to buy such branded products would be those in least need of them. Is this the plan?"
Enter Spammy, a turkey spread that has been fortified with zinc, iron, B vitamins, and other essential vitamins and minerals. “Hormel Foods sought to create a product high in protein to help serve malnourished and poverty-stricken communities worldwide,” said Jeffrey M. Ettinger, chairman of the board, president and chief executive officer at Hormel Foods “The children who eat Spammy are more active, their grades are improving, and overall, they are happier and healthier.”

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