Africa: Care for Economic Development, Then Care for Food Nutrition, Food Researcher Tells Africa’s Politicians

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Milan, Italy — More than 2 billion people in the world are suffering from malnutrition. This is the result of diets lacking essential micronutrients such as vitamins, iron and zinc, which are vital for the body to function, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The nutritional situation is worrying in Africa, says Busi Maziya-Dixon, a Senior Food and Nutrition Scientist at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria. Here research indicates all forms of malnutrition, including stunting, wasting, and obesity, is growing. Maziya-Dixon has widely researched nutrition on the continent.

“Malnutrition affects both the rich and the poor,” Maziya-Dixon says. “It has become a problem because in Africa, actually, we see three different types of malnutrition, which at times we do not consider malnutrition.”

Maziya-Dixon said malnutrition is evident in cases where people do not get enough to eat, and that is the one a lot of people talk about a lot. Then where the people do not have enough of these micronutrients and being overweight.

Thanks to evidence research, scientific insights reveal both the magnitude and the location of the affected population. This means tailor-made interventions based on the specific region or country can be made.

IPS sat down with Maziya-Dixon to understand how research is proffering solutions to tackling malnutrition. Here excerpts from the interview:

What solutions is research proffering in terms of ‘hidden’ hunger?

In terms of ‘hidden’ hunger, it’s the lack of vitamin A, Iron and Zinc, which are the three major micronutrients of public health importance.

Then, of course, bringing in iodine which has been tackled by fortifying salt in many countries. This has proven to be an intervention which has seen most of the countries reduce their iodine deficiency.

Vitamin A is being tackled by supplementation, where you give a capsule to a child who is under five. It is also addressed by breeding or developing, crop varieties which have higher amounts of provitamin A carotene and iron and zinc.

Malnutrition cannot only be addressed by food. Of course, we also promote exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of every child of every child. The critical period we are now talking about in terms of nutrition is the first 1000 days (of life). Which means it is from the time a woman falls pregnant because malnutrition can start during pregnancy.

A healthy diet is one which has a variety of food which means you eat different things in the correct amounts, and you do not overeat one component. For example, you do not overeat staple foods like ugali or lepalishi or fofo – you just get the correct amount. You do not consume a lot of fat or a lot of sugary things or food that is high in salt content.

Does that not also relate to us about being educated in eating healthy?

It does. Education is the key. Knowledge is power, because if the person is given the information and they know which food they can eat and in the right quantities and also the impact.

At times people are not aware of what will happen if they embark on a specific activity. For example, somebody can sit down and say I am hungry, and they can take a big bowl of ugali or fufu or pounded yam and meat. That big bowl will fill the stomach. Still, in terms of the nutrients, you need to nourish your body, you will find that it is nutritionally inferior.

When people are given information and the impact of their behaviour, people will try to change.

You talked about biofortification, are there any other projects and technologies you are promoting to ensure people get the right nutrients?

Biofortification is one element. Consuming nutrient-dense foods, these are foods which will supply relative amounts of each of the nutrients and not one which will just be rich in protein, for example.

We say nutrient-dense because it will contain a little bit of protein, a little bit of carbohydrate, a little bit of this vitamin and that vitamin. You (need to) eat nutrient-dense food, and you (need to) eat a variety of foods in the correct amount. Which means food systems should be able to produce those varieties of foods so that they are available to the community.

I am curious, how could we ensure that our current food systems in Africa are sensitive to promoting nutrition, what should be done?

I think when we talk about food systems, it is not just the production. We are looking at the whole system: from production to markets to post-harvest issues and environmental issues. We want to use a healthy diet, which is eating a variety of foods, as an entry point, but we want to address the food environment.

When people go to the market, are the markets safe, are the foods people purchase safe to prepare and eat? Do they still have the nutrients they came with when they were harvested from the farm? Then the transportation of the foods from the farm to the market (is also crucial). So, it’s a value chain from production to the table. We need to address each one of those for the food system to cater for the population.

This then calls for the prioritization of investment in nutrition, where do we start?

We need to let our governments understand what nutrition is, and we need to make them understand that without healthy people, we have a problem. Nutritious foods are an input into a healthy society. Research has shown that if you have a child that is stunted, the mental development of that child is below average.