- Veena Shatrugna, formerly deputy director, National Institute of Nutrition1,
- R Srivatsan, senior fellow2
Communities must push back against global policy decisions that fuel Third World hunger
The report from the Right to Food and Nutrition Watch published during October 2012 considered the effects of globalised food policies on populations in the Third World.1 It offered a very different perspective on food insecurity than that provided by official United Nations/World Bank documents. The authors of the report considered food security in light of social determinants of nutrition, such as food availability, agricultural policy, land transactions, cropping patterns, and agricultural finance. The report focused on the lack of accountability of large food producers that also own vast tracts of land to the people who face hunger and who have a right to food. Their damning indictment is that “the right to food of people around the planet has primacy over the need to fuel cars and economies in the European Union or North America.”
The report included a review of the progress of the Committee on World Food Security (an international body set up by the UN) after it was reformed in 2009 to include people’s organisations. The report stressed the importance of keeping the right to food as a benchmark in policy decisions. The World Trade Organization routinely takes major policy decisions that affect communities’ right to food without due consideration. Other offenders include international investment groups that negotiate the terms of bilateral trade agreements, public-private partnerships that promote directly delivered medicalised nutritional intervention, and those that engage in speculative trading in food. The report reviewed finance capital in agribusiness and outlined the devastating effects on poverty of speculative trading in food. Speculation on food prices has resulted in dangerously volatile food prices since 2007. Agribusiness trades through individual contracts and with little market transparency. The source of finance is surplus funds in the West, but speculation wreaks havoc and impoverishment in the Third World.
The report also presents several case studies that are eye openers to what happens on the ground. They illustrate, for example, how coercive land acquisition (grabbing)—a historical legacy of colonialism in the Arab Spring countries—and allocation of prime agricultural land to non-local industry cause food crises and impoverishment in agricultural communities. The increasing diversion of agricultural land away from food farming and to the cultivation of biofuels needed by Western countries is another major problem currently contributing to hunger in Africa. Widespread economic havoc has been caused in Mexico under the unfavourable North American Free Trade Agreement, which sees Mexico trading agricultural commodities with the United States.
India has had enormous growth in gross domestic product with no evidence of a trickle down effect. In 2006 it was estimated that 51.5% of Indian children were stunted and 54.9% were underweight. About 34.6% of adults reportedly had a body mass index of less than 18.5.2 It seems that there has been little recent change.
India’s long term food policies have resulted in an epidemic of stunting and decreased muscle mass in the children of poor families. Indian national policy has for decades emphasised cheap cereals as the major source of energy for its population. In a 1968 publication, nutrition experts suggested that a mixture of cheap foods like cereals, pulses, and vegetables could provide a mixture of amino acids that was very nearly as good as if animal proteins were consumed.3 This particular statement was reproduced in the 1971 edition of the Indian National Institute of Nutrition’s report Nutritive Value of Indian Foods and every reprint until the latest in 2011. Furthermore, it has influenced policies on food and wages, including the calculation and classification of the “poverty line.”
In 1970, people were regarded as being above the poverty line if they could afford to consume 10 042 kJ (2400 kcal) daily from the cheapest food source. Minimum wages were then calculated to provide this level of intake for a family of five on the assumption that they would consume cheap cereals. The famous “myth of protein gap,” based on an observation in 1971 that undernourished children (1670-2090 kJ daily deficit) could consume adequate protein (20 g/day) from cereal if only “they ate more of their usual foods,” changed the way the diets of poor adults and children were regarded.4 Promotion of a cereal-pulse vegetarian diet effectively removed animal proteins from Indian diets.3 Even consumption of pulses diminished over time. The more affluent vegetarians, a minority, consumed adequate daily protein requirements through sources such as milk and almonds.
In addition to widespread malnutrition and stunting, which underpins negative metabolic consequences in adulthood, more than 70% of women and children in India have anaemia and deficiencies in intakes of most vitamins and minerals.2Against this background of chronic poor nutrition, more food shortages have worsened malnutrition and hunger in the Indian population. A more recent concern in India, however, is the complex association between adult onset obesity and food insecurity. Accumulating evidence suggests that, although severe food insecurity leads to wasting, mild to moderate food insecurity is associated with obesity.5 This hunger induced morbidity pattern will continue to plague India for decades.
The Right to Food and Nutrition Watch 2012 report concludes by discussing how hungry people can regain control over those decisions that affect their food and nutritional situation. The authors highlight several successes, including the first international instrument that applied a human rights approach to agree on tenure of natural resources—the new Guidelines on Responsible Governance on Tenure of Land, Fisheries and Forests. These guidelines were adopted in May 2012 by the Committee on World Food Security after an inclusive and participatory process. They urge communities to occupy the newly created political spaces for inclusive decision making on food and nutrition.
Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e8273
Competing interests: Both authors have completed the ICMJE uniform disclosure form at www.icmje.org/coi_disclosure.pdf (available on request from the corresponding author) and declare: no support from any organisation for the submitted work; no financial relationships with any organisations that might have an interest in the submitted work in the previous three years; no other relationships or activities that could appear to have influenced the submitted work.
Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.
- ↵Right to Food and Nutrition Watch. Who decides about global food and nutrition? Strategies to regain control. 2012. www.rtfn-watch.org/fileadmin/media/rtfn-watch.org/ENGLISH/pdf/Watch_2012/R_t_F_a_N_Watch_2012_eng_web_rz.pdf.
- ↵National Nutrition Monitoring Bureau. Diet and nutritional status of population and prevalence of hypertension among adults in rural areas. Technical report 24. National Institute of Nutrition, 2006. www.nnmbindia.org/NNMBReport06Nov20.pdf.
- ↵Gopalan C, Rama Sastri BV, Balasubramanian SC. Nutritive value of Indian foods. National Institute of Nutrition, 2011.
- ↵Gopalan C, Narasinga Rao BS. Nutritional constraints on growth and development in current Indian dietaries. Indian J Med Res1971;59:111-22.
- ↵Townsend MS, Peerson J, Love B, Achterberg C, Murphy SP. Food insecurity is positively related to overweight in women. J Nutr2001;131:1738-45.