The subject of food and nutrition security is a complex one. According to FAO (2000), Food Security is achieved when all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. This heavily loaded definition presupposes that such food is adequate in terms of both quantity and quality. Four important elements which must exist for food security to prevail are availability, access, use/utilisation and stability/sustainability.
Food insecurity and micronutrient deficiencies continue to afflict a big population in the developing world. It is estimated that globally, over 854 million people are chronically hungry, about two billion experience one or more micronutrient deficiencies while 170 million children are stunted, with about 33% of the malnourished located in the Sub-Saharan Africa.
The effects of general food insecurity notwithstanding, those of micronutrient deficiency are many and diverse, but can be summarized as: Reduced learning and productivity of the affected people due to poor physical and cognitive ability (micronutrients are vital for normal growth, tissue recovery and brain development); and increased health costs for treating the affected populations as they are prone to various ailments and disease attacks due to reduced immunity.
We must remember that Africa has a diversity of heterogeneous societies, the majority being rural and generally resource poor. Diverse communities present a multiplicity of contradictions. The major concern of these populations is protection against hunger and starvation, which inevitably forces them to concentrate on activities and strategies to access adequate quantities of basic foods for themselves and their immediate kin and kith. In most cases, even the quantities of the essential foods are not fully secured for such families, forcing them to consume foods of less calorific value. While iron, Vitamin A and iodine deficiencies tend to be the commonest, lack of several other micronutrients such as vitamin C, vitamin B complex and minerals is also prevalent.
Challenges to overcome Micronutrient Deficiencies
The challenging factors contributing to the complex micronutrient deficiencies are diverse. In this respect, it is imperative to understand the underlying causes of the problem for it to be adequately addressed. Below is a list of some factors which in anyway is neither exhaustive nor arranged in order of essentiality.
Massive poverty in the developing countries significantly contributes to food and nutrition insecurity in general and micronutrient deficiency in particular. Poor communities have many competing demands to which they must prioritize and allot resources, hardly sparing enough to invest in either producing or purchasing adequate and nutritious food to supply the required minerals and vitamins. They tend to use their meagre resources to either produce or purchase the relatively cheaper energy and protein giving foods for immediate survival rather than stretch the resources on quality foods which are often more expensive. The poor hardly sustain the supplies of fruits, vegetables and animal products which are the main sources of most of these micronutrients.
Limited education greatly contributes to micronutrient deficiencies in various ways. Inadequate knowledge of micronutrient deficiency can be elaborated by a case where, in one rural area of western Uganda where protein supply was deficient in the 1950s, a mother bitterly complained of her child having contracted mutuku (kwashiorkor) from a neighbour’s child after the two children shared a meal. In her conviction, mutuku was contagious and not nutrition-related. Inadequate knowledge prompts unsuitable methods of food preparation leading to micronutrient wastage. For example, carotene, an integral component of vitamin A gets denatured and destroyed by heat if overcooked. This applies to most foods (especially fruits and vegetables) that supply micronutrients. High illiteracy rates diminish the capacity of the populations to read instructions and labels on containers of food additives and supplements for micronutrients. Such labels and instructions are often written in official languages which in most cases are also foreign.
Communication and information dissemination are important means to mobilize, educate and inform the masses. Most African countries, however, have limited communication and information dissemination facilities and technologies, a situation which constrains national efforts to fight micronutrient deficiencies.
Inadequate political will
Political will plays a very significant role in directing socioeconomic development. The political dimensions that exacerbate micronutrient deficiencies in Africa include: inappropriate and or inadequate food and nutrition policy to direct national thinking and action in addressing the problem; inadequate planning and programming to prioritize food and nutritional security in the national development agenda and improper infrastructure such as health centers. This limits the ability of the African Governments to train and disseminate information among the rural populations on important aspects of prevalence and effects of micronutrient deficiencies. In addition, most African countries lack the capacity in terms of manpower, technology and equipment to sufficiently monitor the levels and severity of the problem.
Traditional beliefs, Socio-cultural and religious factors
People’s feeding habits are shaped by history, traditional beliefs, socio-cultural and religious factors. Different tribes consume some foods that are taboo to others, a situation also applicable to religious lineages. Some values and beliefs restrict different sections of society from consuming certain types of foods, which are in most cases of very high nutrient value. For example, pastoral communities abhor eating fish on pretext that it affects milk production in their cattle herds. Whether this exists is a question that deserves more research. In many parts of Africa, women are prohibited from eating fish, chicken and goat’s meat. Ask any tribe in Africa the foods which are a taboo in their communities and you will be surprised that mostly, the sources of micronutrients fall the first casualties. This being the case, how are pregnant women expected to get the micronutrients which are critical for child development? Incidentally, such norms prevail even among educated adults.
In-built self pride deeply embedded in ignorance plays a great role in micronutrient deficiency. In some tribes, men (especially in the rural areas) cannot eat fruits, salads or other forms of vegetable simply because culturally, those foods are for children. It is explained that men require more energy to do manual work, which can be derived from starchy foods. It is thus not uncommon to hear men confessing that raw greens are for rabbits and ruminants. How on earth can the African Governments overcome the burden of micronutrient deficiencies where such beliefs and traditional beliefs still prevail? How can our populations be enabled and convinced to take fruits, vegetables and other foods that contribute great quantities of vitamins and other micronutrients regardless of their age, gender or cultural lineage? This still remains a big challenge that must be addressed.
Other challenges include family size, disease, insufficient capacity and geographical barriers. Big poor families, especially in polygamous communities bear the burden of fending for and feeding many mouths to ensure their survival. Diseases and parasites contribute to the problem of micronutrient malnutrition. Intestinal worm infestations are capable of sucking a lot of blood from their victims leading to anemia when severe. Inadequate capacity of the populations to produce adequate food including the micronutrients is accentuated by non participation of men in food production in societies where men spend most of their time drinking local brew instead of contributing to agricultural activities. In such cases, women are left to toil and produce food for the family including the essential micronutrients. Geographical barriers are also important for food access. While for instance sea fish and ocean fish are good sources of iodine, populations in land locked countries like Uganda are trapped in a state of deprivation of such foods.
Josephat Juma of The African Executive poses a pertinent question as to why Africa is so much focused on food quantity instead of food quality. This question is challenging and I don’t have an immediate answer, owing to the complexity of the subject at hand. I however believe that the foregone explanations have attempted to unravel the major contributing factors and will stimulate a wider discussion on the subject.
By Robert Sabiiti
Agricultural Economist and Uganda’s representative in the UN agencies
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