Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Plumpy'nut

As we all learned in class on Tuesday January 27th, plumpy'nut is a high protein energy paste that is peanut based and contains many vitamins and minerals. The amount of nutrients in just one serving of plumpy'nut is equivalent to that of a multivitamin and a glass of milk. This is all very intriguing but as the discussion after the movie ensued I was interested to learn more.

Apparently among other things plumpy'nut has a two year shelf life and was actually inspired by the chocolate hazelnut spread: Nutella. However, is this supplement just providing weight gain? The children are only measured for weight gain, is there evidence that plump'nut is providing sufficient nutritional benefits? Plumpy'nut is only supposed to be used in extreme cases of malnutrition... how can anyone be certain if it is appropriate to be used as food for everyday? This might be an assumption, but even after the child who is malnorished is given the three weeks of plumpy'nut and is at the level of nutrititon they should be at is plumpy'nut what they should be consuming at this point? Niger cannot sustain itself on plumpy'nut alone. It is not a long term solution and as the news reporter said "the answer." I found out through some basic research that plumpy'nut is patented by Nutriset, a French company. After this bit of information though, every source goes on to say that it can be prepared locally. I could be wrong, but if the water supply is not good enough to make powdered milk and Niger does not seem like a place that would locally produce peanuts, there would have to be some outside help in order to get a plumpy'nut production station in Niger. Plumpy'nut could be the beginning of an answer if there were ways to get villagers involved with the production of it, thus making it a product that coud be produced inside the borders with the shortfall coming from the importation of some of the ingredients.


Friday, January 23, 2009

Access to Food as a Universal Human Right?

Another interesting question, which was brought up in class, is whether or not access to food should be considered a universal human right. If the answer is yes, this brings up serious questions about implementation. What quality of food/ degree of nourishment would fulfill this right? Should these minimum requirements be continually adjusted in light of increasing standards of living? What recourse, globally, would there be for those who were deprived of access to adequately nourishing food? I suppose one of the problems here in terms of general acceptance of the notion of access to food as a human right is that it deals with a much more tangible, consumable kind of resource than the kinds of things which we traditionally think of as being rights.

Actual implementation of a system to ensure that access to food would be guaranteed brings up a whole slew of other problems. In the US we have malnourishment and hunger despite the fact that there is an enormous amount of food which is wasted before it even hits the supermarkets. Why isn’t that food, much of it having been rejected in light of the average consumer’s supposedly inherent preference for unblemished produce, made available to those who need it here? Wouldn’t that be more effective than a can drive? Despite a general awareness of the issue of hunger, we can't even seem to adequately address food access here in the US where relief would be fairly easy (after all, a lot of produce is rejected after it reaches distribution centers). It certainly seems that access to food should be a priority, even if one might not agree that it should be a universal human right, but even after dealing with the specific problem of defining what "adequate access to food/nourishment" is, how can we enforce it, especially internationally?

Treating the Symptoms, Not the Causes

It seems as though when dealing with issues like access to food, people tend to focus on treating the symptoms rather than the causes. The first few chapters of World Hunger: Twelve Myths mention foreign aid repeatedly, noting that these resources tend to be allocated toward production of crops for export rather than for supplying the nation in question with food. In a related manner, farmers need to make a profit on their crops in order to survive, but the poor cannot afford to purchase these crops, and so the most viable option in the current system is to export despite the local prevalence of hunger.

Currently, in the case of foreign aid, it seems almost as though the support is contingent on continued exports to/economic dependencies on the countries which supplied the aid in the first place, especially when one considers that we seem to cling to this mode of aid in spite of the evidence that there must be better ways of aiding nations in developing more equitable, efficient food production/ distribution systems in hopes of reducing hunger (the ostensible goal). This brings up the question of whether the current system of aid is really primarily intended to benefit the people in need at all, or rather the nations giving out the aid and the middlemen in the transaction? We’ve already seen that the US food aid program supplying cheap food began as a way to get rid of surplus produce. Is the system the way it is more because of chance and incompetence in dealing with the causes of hunger, or more by design? These programs certainly don't adequately address the underlying social issues which create world hunger despite the abundance of food being produced.

The third chapter of World Hunger, which while demonstrating that hunger and population growth do not show a causal relationship but rather are rooted in the same underlying social issues also discusses the issue of overpopulation, brings up efforts to promote sterilization (and less extreme forms of contraception), and how these methods of reducing birth rates are pursued despite numerous examples demonstrating that growth rates can be reduced simply by improving social stability and living conditions (thereby reducing the economic incentives to have many children in the first place). At one point, the authors even mention that some researchers have advocated getting rid of programs to introduce basic medical care for infants in favor of instituting more aggressive contraceptive and family planning programs, despite the proven inefficiency and lack of effectiveness of these latter programs in reducing population growth.

I'm left with the following question: Why do we so aggressively pursue temporary solutions to the symptoms (which in many cases take up an extended amount of time and resources anyway) rather than attack the underlying social causes of these problems? Treating the symptoms often isn't even a short-term solution; haven't we encountered enough examples which demonstrate this?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Far from Food Production

While I was reading this week an interesting idea was proposed. People in the western world view food in a monetary way, in dollars and cents, due to our capitalist economy. I agree with what the author is saying, but it made me think. At one point in time we must have been closer to our food, even when food was still traded for other goods. A large portion of our population lives in large urban centers. Fewer and fewer Americans are farmers, added to the fact more and more food are being grown in other countries to save money. Urban Americans are so far from the growth and process they have lost the essence of what food is all about. Making small gardens might help us become closer to the food we eat. Respect it beyond an arbitrary value. The more work done for something the more it is appreciated.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bananas

In this post on the Huffington Post blog, Johann Hari argues that the current disease threat to bananas is a "parable for our times." Basically, he argues that when corporations are not constrained by government regulations, they trample over people and the environment in the pursuit of profit.

I see a slightly more nuanced "parable" in the case of the banana. It seems to me that when there is a minimum of diversity in the actors controlling an important step in a food commodity chain (in this case, the big three banana companies, but it could also be the fast food restaurants that want standardized tomatoes), it tends to result in decreasing biological diversity (monoculture). What do you think?

We might consider the alternative: what kinds of food commodity chains tend to lead to greater biological diversity?

Concentration in the organic industry

I was surprised to learn that many of my favorite organic brands (which were probably small companies at one time) are actually owned by some of the largest food processors in North America. What did you think when you saw this list?