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Posts tagged ‘malnutrition’

Ideal Conditions

Earlier this month it was announced that the sport scientist turned diet guru Tim Noakes is in talks with Derek Carstens, former First Rand executive and now Karoo farmer, about improving the diets of farm workers. The Cape Times reported:

Once the project begins, the families on the farm will be monitored for five to 10 years. With a diet high in offal – which is readily available in the farmlands of the Karoo – the families will stop consuming carbohydrates, which Noakes says are of no benefit to the human body.

‘This is an ideal set-up,’ said Noakes. ‘And it would be much harder to do research of this nature in a place like Cape Town.’

Since the emergence of nutrition as a field of scientific enquiry in the early twentieth century, the poor, the hungry, and the socially and politically disenfranchised have often been the subjects of research into diet and malnutrition. Last year, University of Guelph-based food historian Ian Mosby published evidence that during the 1940s and 1950s, scientists working for the Canadian government conducted a series of experiments on malnourished residents of rural Aboriginal communities and residential schools.

Rural impoverishment in the 1930s – brought about by the decline in the fur trade and cuts to government provision of poor relief – meant that First Nations people struggled to find enough to eat. They could not, in other words, afford to eat, and this knowledge informed the advice they provided to researchers for eradicating malnutrition. Mosby writes:

Representatives of the various First Nations visited by the research team proposed a number of practical suggestions for ending the hunger and malnutrition in their communities. In addition to more generous relief during times of extreme hardship, these included increased rations for the old and destitute, timber reserves to be set aside for the building and repairing of houses, and additional fur conservation efforts by the federal government, as well as a request that they be given fishing reserves ‘so that they could get fish both for themselves and for dog feed, free from competition with the large commercial fisheries.’

However, researchers decided to set up an experiment in which First Nations peoples were provided with vitamin supplements to gauge their relative effectiveness in combating the side effects of hunger. Crucially, researchers were well aware that ‘vitamin deficiencies constituted just one among many nutritional problems.’ In fact, they calculated that the average diet in these communities provided only 1,470 calories per person during much of the year.’ First Nations people needed food supplies, not vitamin supplements. Mosby concludes:

The experiment therefore seems to have been driven, at least in part, by the nutrition experts’ desire to test their theories on a ready-made ‘laboratory’ populated with already malnourished human ‘experimental subjects.’

In other areas, researchers regulated what kinds of food Aboriginals could purchase with their welfare grants (the Family Allowance):

These included canned tomatoes (or grapefruit juice), rolled oats, Pablum [baby food], pork luncheon meat (such as Spork, Klick, or Prem), dried prunes or apricots, and cheese or canned butter.

This experiment was also an attempt to persuade First Nations people to choose ‘country’ over ‘store’ foods. They were to hunt and to gather instead of relying on shops. To these ends, some officials tried to prevent some families from buying flour:

In Great Whale River, the consequence of this policy during late 1949 and early 1950 was that many Inuit families were forced to go on their annual winter hunt with insufficient flour to last for the entire season. Within a few months, some went hungry and were forced to resort to eating their sled dogs and boiled seal skin.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is little or no evidence to suggest that the subjects of these research projects consented to being part of them.

In South Africa, anxiety about the productivity of mine workers in the 1930s drove the publication of a series of reports into the health of the African population. Diana Wylie explains:

The Chamber of Mines in particular was alarmed at the 19 per cent rejection rate for Transkei mine recruits. Some of the researchers urged the government to concern itself with nutritional diseases ‘as an economic problem of first importance in which not merely the health but the financial interests of the dominant races are concerned.’ Another warned, ‘unless a proper food supply is assured, our biggest asset in the Union, next to the gold itself, our labour supply, will fail us in the years to come.’

In response to these findings, mining companies introduced supplements to miners’ diets to combat scurvy and generally boost immune systems. They did not, obviously, address the causes of miners’ ill health and poor diets – which were partly the impoverishment of rural areas and the system of migrant labour.

Mine workers in Kimberley.

Mine workers in Kimberley. (From here.)

The Canadian experiments and South African research projects were produced by a similar set of concerns: by an interest in civilising indigenous people, but also because, in the case of Canada, ‘it [was their] belief that the Indian [sic] can become an economic asset to the nation.’ Africans also needed to be well fed and kept healthy for the benefit of the South African state.

Noakes is correct when he says that conducting the research he proposes to do on rural farm workers would be almost impossible in a city. Although he insists that he will seek ethics approval, I wonder how he and other researchers will go about winning the informed consent of a group of people who are dependent on their employer – Noakes’s collaborator – for their livelihoods, and who have, historically, very low levels of education.

Also, Noakes seems to believe that only carbohydrates are at the root of farm labourers’ poor diets. As the First Nations people referred to above argued, malnutrition is caused by an inability to access good, nutritious food – and usually because of low wages. Instead of feeding Carstens’s employees offal, it might be worth considering how much they are paid, and how easy it is for them to afford transport to shops selling healthy food.

Noakes argues that ‘We can’t build this nation in the absence of sufficient protein and fat.’ To what extent is this project purely for the benefit of Karoo farm workers? And to what extent to prove a controversial theory proposed by a prominent researcher?

Sources

Ian Mosby, ‘Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952,’ Histoire Sociale/Social History, vol. 46, no. 91 (May 2013), pp. 145-172.

Diana Wylie, ‘The Changing Face of Hunger in Southern African History, 1880-1980,’ Past and Present, no. 122 (Feb. 1989), pp. 159-199.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Food Links, 06.03.2013

The crime syndicates illegally importing meat into South Africa.

Why it’s difficult to eat well on a tight budget.

Eating for a week on a food stamp budget.

The rising cost of pistachios in Iran.

An interesting new study on malnutrition, diet, and microbes.

What it’s like to work at Applebee’s.

An interview with the CEO of Whole Foods.

How cocaine was removed from soft drinks.

Such a lovely charity: Free Cakes for Kids.

School lunches in Japan.

McDonald’s all over the world.

Vegetarians suffer from lower rates of heart disease than meat eaters.

The meaning of breakfast.

MacMunch – apartheid South Africa’s McDonald’s.

Lunch with Ed Balls.

Fikile Mbalula praises his wife’s meatloaf…

How to write a good recipe for muffins.

Sales of Nutella are improving.

Now’s the time to buy El Bulli’s wine cellar.

A recipe for mushroom and taleggio pie.

Eating in Naples.

Where Chefs Eat.

In case of fryer.

The best recipes for milk tart.

Build your ice box.

Recipes for stew.

Looking for a supper club?

Coffee.

Thoughts on South African restaurants.

Seventeenth-century food markets.

Cooking with snow.

Taiwan’s Barbie-themed restaurant.

Haggis is eaten all over the world.

What is a flat white?

Photographs of vegetarian street food in Shanghai.

Jay Rayner on why he hates dishwashers.

Cabbage in…bread.

Where to eat ramen in Toronto.

The future of the Jewish deli.

Virginia Woolf‘s recipe for bread.

Kama Sutra cookie cutters.

A Cup of Coffee

One of the best articles explaining the context in which the recent Western Cape farm workers’ strike occurred, notes that even the new minimum wage introduced as a result of the action is

not enough to make ends meet, some Western Cape farmworkers subsist on little else but black coffee during the last few days of each month.

This piece in the Mail and Guardian drew my attention because it resonates with another description of poverty in rural South Africa. During the early decades of the twentieth century, C. Louis Leipoldt – medical doctor, eugenicist, food anthropologist, proto-Afrikaner nationalist, writer, Buddhist, and poet – worked as the Medical Inspector for Schools in the Transvaal province of the newly created Union of South Africa. He described his experiences of working in the lowveld – the hot, humid and, formerly, malaria-infested region in present day Mpumalanga – in Bushveld Doctor (1937).

Much of the focus of this collection of essays is a description of the everyday life, beliefs, and struggles of a population of impoverished whites scratching a miserable existence in a disease-riddled area. He ascribed the poor health of the children to endemic malaria and bilharzia, and also malnutrition. Leipoldt described one nine year-old patient:

When he left home in the morning his father gave him an inch of twist tobacco which he put into his mouth and chewed on his way to school. That and a cup of coffee (made from the root of a Bushveld tree) constituted his breakfast. There were other lads in the school who did the same to stay the pangs of incipient hunger.

Leipoldt observed that these Bushveld children were shorter than their better-fed and altogether healthier urban contemporaries. The problem was that good, nutritious food was in short supply. These subsistence farmers simply could not afford to eat well:

Malnutrition is prevalent because food is scarce in the Bushveld, where fresh fruit and vegetables are difficult to obtain, and because the children exist on an unbalanced diet. Their staple food is mielie meal, which has a low nutritive value. Milk and fresh meat are scarce. Wheaten bread is common enough, and of fair quality when obtainable, but it is not a staple article of diet. Fats are rarely included in the diet, and fresh butter is a comparative rarity.

In today’s language, these families were food insecure. Indeed, as are the farm workers described by the Mail and Guardian:

many farmworkers … are dependent on on-the-farm stores for food. Many farmworkers and NGOs accuse farmers of pricing foodstuffs higher than commercial shops.

This, compounded with low wages, further promotes food insecurity. ‘Prices in rural areas are always slightly higher than they are in urban areas. So if farmers are charging more than the market price, which is already high, farmworkers just can’t afford food,’ says [Colette Solomon, of the NGO Women on Farms], and explains that average household income is R1 500 a month. ‘Many farmworkers buy on credit, but the prices are so high that … when they get paid, they have to pay their debts back and basically don’t have money left.’

As a result of this

Stunted growth is not unusual: a study done by the University of Cape Town in the 1990s showed that farmworkers in the province are, on average, an inch (2.5cm) shorter than city dwellers.

In November last year, grape pickers in the Hex River Valley went on strike. Demanding higher wages – R150 an hour, rather than the minimum wage of R70 – the strike spread from De Doorns to Robertson, Wolesley, Ceres, Prince Alfred Hamlet, and elsewhere. Hundreds of strikers marched, gathered, and erected barricades. In some townships, the stand-off between strikers and police turned violent, as protestors pelted cops with rocks, and the police used rubber bullets, tear gas, and water canons to disperse the crowds. Shops were looted, and vines set alight. Two people were killed. There were allegations of police brutality.

The strike was called off in December and then resumed in January this year. In the meanwhile, efforts to mediate between farm workers, farmers, and the Department of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries were not productive. The Department’s decision to raise the minimum wage to R105 – thus ending the strike – was met with a lukewarm reaction from nearly everyone connected to the strike, with some farmers arguing that higher wages will force them to retrench workers.

What was so surprising about the strike was that it happened at all. Alongside domestic workers, farm labourers have one of the lowest rates of union membership in South Africa. When the strike began, both the African National Congress and the Democratic Alliance – which controls the Western Cape – accused each other of organising the workers. The union alliance Cosatu was caught unwares and scrambled to take control of the strike, but with limited success. The strike in January was more formally organised by both Cosatu and the more radical Bawsi Agricultural Workers Union of South Africa led by Nosey Pieterse, but, even so, these two organisations’ mandate for representing the strikers is shaky. (Pieterse is currently under investigation for intimidating non-striking workers. He is also suing the Cape Times for describing him as a member of the ‘lumpenproletariat.’)

This is a very cursory overview of the strike. As Rebecca Davis’s excellent reporting for the Daily Maverick shows, workers went on strike for a range of reasons – from genuine anger at low wages, to disputes around municipal politics.

It’s partly because of the complexity of the strike that I’ve avoided writing about it. Also, I’ve been concerned that I am too close to the issue to view it dispassionately. I grew up in Paarl and Stellenbosch, two towns in the Boland’s wine-producing area. I went to school with the daughters of farmers and, later, farm workers. (Our primary school opened to all races in 1992.) On Saturday mornings in the early- and mid-1990s, my father used to take my sister and I around local wine estates. We fed oak leaves to the goats at Fairview, and chatted to old Mrs Back in the cheese shop.

As daughters of politically aware and active parents, we knew how to identify ‘good’ from ‘bad’ farmers. We could spot which farms allowed labourers to live in damp, tumbledown cottages without running water and electricity.  We saw which farms had legions of children not in school. It’s likely that those farmers may still have paid their workers in the form of alcohol, usually cheap brandy. The ‘dop’ (or ‘tot’) system originated during the nineteenth century on wine farms in the Boland as a means both of paying workers, as well as ensuring their dependency on farmers: alcoholic labourers would be less likely to move to Cape Town in search of better-paid work in the Cape Colony’s burgeoning industry.

Since 1994, the dop system has been banned, legislation restricting child labour introduced, and a minimum wage – now raised as a result of the strike – enforced. But these new laws have had a limited impact on farm workers: they have not reduced astronomically high rates of alcoholism which have caused the region to have one of the highest incidences of Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) in the world; they have not compensated families for the loss of income brought in by children; they have not ended the cycle of domestic violence which disproportionately effects women on farms; many workers still live in appalling conditions, often with no access to electricity and running water. NGOs like Women on Farms have collected horrific testimony of women raped by their employers; of families being turned out of houses without warning and for, apparently, no reason; and of labourers overworked and maimed by machinery.

I began by drawing attention to two examples of South African rural poverty – one from the beginning of the twentieth century, another a hundred years later – to demonstrate the relative usefulness of understanding contemporary events in historical context. I don’t pretend to know enough about the wine and fruit industries in the Western Cape to be able to account for the strike itself, but I was struck by how often journalists, strikers, politicians, and others referred to slavery and apartheid when trying to understand the strike and the unique relationship between farmers and their labourers in this region.

The South African wine industry was profitable during the twentieth century partly because it could rely on a steady supply of cheap – even free – labour. Farmers could justify labourers’ exceptionally low wages on the grounds of the paternalistic system of employment which existed – and still exists, to some extent – on the farms:

The relationships between farm-owners and workers have not been simply exploitative, but were shaped by the discourses of paternalism. The notion of themselves as benevolent but firm protectors and disciplinarians of a grateful and appreciative population of on-farm servants has been an important part of the self-conception of farmers in the Western Cape and elsewhere in South Africa since the eighteenth century. Ultimately, however, it was a hierarchical relationship, marginalising and silencing the voices of those whose labour helped create the wealth of the sector.

Although it’s debatable if the Cape Colony’s system of slavery could accurately be described as ‘paternalistic’ (and this is still the subject of some debate among historians), it was certainly the case that an inherently unequal, dependent relationship developed over time between farmers and farmworkers. Although paid and treated appallingly badly, farmworkers were usually provided with (rudimentary) housing, some food, and other basics.

Boschendal, Stellenbosch

Boschendal, Stellenbosch

My point is that however terrible the circumstances in which farmers may work and live – and Human Rights Watch released a damning report into them in 2011 – to argue that we need to understand the relationship between farmers and their workers in the context of nineteenth- or, even, early twentieth-century labour politics is mistaken. We need to look at the more recent past.

The South African wine industry has changed significantly since the mid-90s, from selling what was, often, so-so plonk to the locals, to a massive tourism concern and export business. As Joachim Ewert and Andries du Toit have demonstrated, since the beginning of the deregulation of the industry in the early 1980s, South African producers have become subject to the vagaries of the international export market, new estates have emerged as new wine growing regions have been planted, yields have increased, and previously powerful co-operatives have amalgamated and disappeared.

Although there were efforts to reform labour relations during the 1980s, led largely by the Rural Foundation, and in response to changes in the wine industry, it was only after 1994 that there was adequate political will radically to do away with the old paternalism:

A paternalist state has stepped in to push back the paternalist authority of the farmer, and has created new limits to farmers’ control over workers’ lives. These changes seriously challenge the legal and formal underpinnings of traditional farm paternalism.

But challenging paternalism is not the same as replacing it. There is considerable evidence that many farmers are reluctant to comply with labour legislation, if not downright hostile to it.

There has been a major change in how wine, and also fruit, farmers employ labour since the end of the 1990s. This is partly the result of mechanisation and more efficient farming methods, but it is also the product of farmers’ resistance to legislation which raises the wages and living standards of workers:

Facing a sustained challenge to their power as employers and feeling increasing competitive pressures, many farmers seem to be opting for the one measure sill within their power: restructuring their businesses. Many are resorting to casualization, externalisation, and contractualisation, deepening an already segmented labour market and further deepening the divide between ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’

Johan Fourie has shown that the numbers of workers employed on farms in the Cape Winelands District Municipality has declined dramatically since 1995:

even while output has increased by 1.4% annually over the entire period …, employment has fallen from more than 120 000 jobs to fewer than 50 000 today.

Loss of permanent jobs on farms also means eviction, and over the past decade or so, the numbers of employed former farm workers living in desperate poverty in shacks or overcrowded homes on the fringes of picturesque winelands towns and villages, have swelled. They are dependent on seasonal work and on social grants. Alcoholism, drug addiction, domestic violence, and child abuse are rife.

The recent, horrific rape and murder of Anene Booysen in Bredasdorp – one of these pretty rural towns – has drawn attention to the social implications of this change in rural employment.

There are many progressive wine farmers who have established crèches and primary schools, founded organisations to eradicate FAS, provided transport and bursaries to get farm children to school, and attempted to find ways of reducing alcoholism and domestic violence.

For instance, the Fair Valley Association was founded by Fairview workers in 1997, with the assistance of Charles Back, the owner of the wine farm. It helps labourers to buy land and build houses, and includes these workers in the day-to-day running of the estate. Similarly, at Solms Delta in Franschhoek, neuroscientist Mark Solms

organise[d] a loan, with his land as collateral, that allowed the 180 workers connected to his farm to buy 30 hectares connected to Solms’s land. Solms, along with his neighbour Richard Astor, joined forces with the farm workers, each a one-third partner in the Solms-Delta wine venture.

Through the Wijn de Caab Trust established in the workers’ names, Solms-Delta provides comfortable housing, health and dental benefits, plus Internet access, a full-time social worker and an afterschool teacher to help kids with their homework. One of Solms-Delta’s most successful ventures beyond the vines has been their music program: There are four bands on the farm, including an 80-person marching band. ‘A friend of mine likes to joke,’ says Solms, ‘that we don’t only farm wine, we farm music.’

The single biggest allocation from the workers’ trust has gone towards improving education.

Solms Delta is, truly, a beacon for other wine farms in the region. Its transformation is grounded in Solms’s realisation that he had no more claim to owning the farm than the generations of workers who have lived on it. The estate has acknowledged its slave past in an excellent museum, and workers’ pride in their involvement in the farm is palpable. (Do go, if you can.)

But the trouble with these – and other – laudable efforts is that they are aimed largely at those workers who remain on farms – and not the legion of unemployed, and potentially unemployable, labourers who have been pushed off farms since the late 1990s. These casual labourers constituted a significant portion of the strikers in November and January.

This returns to my original point about using the past to illuminate the present. Although slave pasts don’t really help to understand contemporary systems of employment, I think it’s worth thinking about rural poverty in the twenty-first century to that a hundred years earlier.

The emergence of a substantial population of ‘poor whites’ – like the people documented by Leipoldt – occurred as a result of many factors, including the transformation of agriculture into a capitalist enterprise. Poor white tenant and small farmers moved into towns and cities in search of work, while others lived in poverty in the countryside.

By the end of the 1920s, it was estimated that out of a total of 1,800,000 whites, 300,000 were ‘very poor’, and nearly all of these were Afrikaans. The Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question (1929-1932) concluded that an inability to adapt to a changing economic climate, outdated farming methods, and poor education were to blame for the existence of such a large population of impoverished whites.

In 1929, the South African government devoted 13 per cent of its budget to the eradication of white poverty. Much of this went to education, social welfare, and housing. The introduction of more stringent segregationist legislation progressively disenfranchised blacks, and reserved skilled work for whites.

I don’t want to draw glib parallels between the 1920s and 1930s and the 2010s – after all, white poverty was eliminated by the 1960s because of the systematic marginalisation of black workers. But I think that it’s worth noting that South Africa managed to eradicate one form of rural poverty during the twentieth century. By historicising poverty, we understand that it is not the fault of the impoverished – that poverty is the product of massive social, political, and economic change. More importantly, we see that with political will, it is not impossible to do away with it. It is eminently possible to stop people from having to live on black coffee.

Sources

Joachim Ewert and Andries du Toit, ‘A Deepening Divide in the Countryside: Restructuring and Rural Livelihoods in the South African Wine Industry,’ Journal of Southern African Studies, vol. 31, no. 2 (June 2005), pp. 315-332.

Bill Freund, ‘The Poor Whites: A Social Force and a Social Problem in South Africa,’ in White but Poor: Essays on the History of Poor Whites in Southern Africa 1880-1940, ed. Robert Morrell (Pretoria: Unisa Press, 1992), pp. xiii-xxiii.

C. Louis Leipoldt, Bushveld Doctor (Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, [1937] 1980).

Robert Ross, ‘Paternalism, Patriarchy, and Afrikaans,’ South African Historical Journal, vol. 32 (May 1995), pp. 34-47.

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Tangerine and Cinnamon by Sarah Duff is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

The President’s Vegetable Garden

There are very few countries, I think, where a satirical news site is frequently mistaken for being entirely serious. Hayibo – the South African equivalent of the Daily Mash or the Onion – must, occasionally, point out to its readers that its stories are made up, rather than real.

Readers can be forgiven for wondering if a report about striking Marikana mineworkers being charged for the Helderberg plane crash is true, when the ANC announces an official policy on the serving of cake at party celebrations. Or if Cosatu officials really did believe they could move into Cape Town stadium, after the ANC Women’s League decided to march against a rude painting of Jacob Zuma, rather than protest the circumstances which allowed for the serial abuse and gang rape of a seventeen year-old mentally incapacitated girl.

A Hayibo post from this week suggests that the ANC’s national conference to be held in December in Manguang, will be replaced by an episode of Come Dine with Me. Instead of conference delegates voting to choose the new leader of the party – and, thus, by default, the next president of South Africa – four contestants will compete in a series of dinner parties:

The cookery show…will feature President Jacob Zuma take on rival Kgalema Motlanthe, former ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema and Proteas batsman Hashim Amla.

When asked why Amla, a cricketer, was suddenly a contender for the top leadership position in the ANC, BBC producer Cokey McLush shrugged and said ‘Everyone loves that geezer, yeah?’

The four will each host a dinner party on successive nights, and after each dinner will rate the host on his evening. ‘The winner walks away with Pick ‘n Pay vouchers worth R5000, as well as obviously the complete control of South Africa’s political space, so there’s a lot to play for,’ explained McLush.

It would all be much more amusing were it not so very, very serious. I was thinking about food and South African politics this week, after the Mail and Guardian produced a handy interactive guide to the development of Nkandla, the village in which Zuma’s private residence is based.

The Nkandla scandal has rocked South African politics and civil society over the past few weeks, as the City Press revealed that the Department of Public Works has committed to spending R203 million – about US$23 million or £14 million – of public money, not only in developing this village in rural KwaZulu-Natal, but in building Zuma’s increasingly elaborate home.

South African Wonder Woman-incarnate Thuli Madonsela, the Public Protector, has announced an investigation into the development. Despite her interest and increasing public outrage, the government remains unrepentant: it has declared Nklandla a ‘national key point’, meaning that it comes under security legislation and can’t be reported on; the Minister for Public Works, Thulas Nxesi, declared at a press conference that ‘questioning the need for spending hundreds of millions of rands in Nkandla showed insensitivity to the cultural diversity of South Africa’; and the state has launched an investigation into how the City Press got hold of the documents which revealed the scale of the spending at Nklandla.

Not for nothing has Nkandla been nicknamed ‘Zumaville’. The M&G’s guide reveals how the village will be transformed with new roads, housing, and a shopping centre. Zuma’s own residence will have two helicopter landing pads, a football pitch, tennis court, and underground bunkers. (Remembering, of course, that he has two official houses, one in Pretoria and the other in Cape Town.) I was intrigued by the fact that a vegetable garden has also been included in the development.

The M&G explains:

The vegetable garden is outside the main security zone, but still inside the outer fence, making it accessible for the people who tend it without a need for them to use the front entrance of the compound. The public works department says food security was identified as a potential security threat for President Jacob Zuma and visiting dignitaries, which means the establishment of the garden may have been state-funded.

I am all for heads of state planting vegetable gardens: I think it’s an excellent idea, particularly as a means of encouraging people to grow their own food. I wish more presidents and prime ministers would plant vegetables to show their commitment to feeding their families healthily and relatively cheaply. But I have a couple of reservations about this garden.

Firstly, the Department of Public Works justifies funding the garden on the grounds that food insecurity could pose a threat to Zuma and his guests. What do we mean by ‘food security’? As a paper published in the Bulletin of the World Health Organisation, and cited by the M&G, explains:

Food security as an umbrella term includes: (i) the availability of food that is nutritious and safe; (ii) an assured ability to procure and acquire food of good quality in a socially acceptable way (e.g. without resorting to emergency food supplies, scavenging, stealing or similar coping strategies). In contrast, food insecurity exists when food is not easily accessible and households have difficulty securing adequate food.

The authors of the paper argue that although food insecurity declined in South Africa between 1995 and 2008 – due partly to the social grants system and the work of the National School Nutrition Programme – one third of South African children do not eat an adequately varied diet, and 18% of them are malnourished:

Our findings show that the nutrient density of the diet consumed by South African children is insufficient to meet their nutrient requirements. Similarly, they have shown alarmingly low food variety and household dietary diversity scores, both of which have been positively related to children’s nutritional status. … Hence, stunting still affects a large proportion of children.

One of the main reasons for food insecurity in South Africa is poverty and, partly as a result of this, the country’s population is at risk of becoming even more insecure. A 2009 report on food security published by the Human Sciences Research Council notes:

Rising food prices, particularly of maize and wheat which are the staple diet of the poor in South Africa, pose serious problems for the urban and rural poor as most are net buyers of food. Recent information from the Food and Agriculture Organisation…suggest that food prices will increase steadily over the next decade even if there are some fluctuations and the occasional drop in prices. Given increasingly strong linkages between the local level and national and international commodity chains and economic networks, even remote rural households in South Africa are affected by changes in these networks. Unless there are new policy directions, poor households will increasingly be forced to allocate a greater proportion of their expenditure to food, with the result that diets will become less diverse, lower in quality, and energy intake (calories consumed) will drop as people try to cope with the situation. Most severely affected will be the chronically urban and rural poor, the landless and female headed households.

Although the government deserves praise for reducing levels of hunger in South Africa, far too many people, particularly children, don’t have adequate access to food. Indeed, it would appear that with rising food prices internationally, there is a risk that the country may become more food insecure.

To justify the public funding of a vegetable garden for the president’s private residence on the grounds of ‘food security’ is deeply offensive to the numbers of South Africans who can’t afford to feed themselves and their families properly. If the president and the Department of Public Works were genuinely interested in reducing food insecurity in the region, it would make far better sense for them to plant a larger, communal garden for all of Nkandla’s residents.

My second problem with Zuma’s vegetable garden is the very dubious way in which it’s been funded. There is a link between poor governance and food insecurity. One of the best recent examples of how corruption impedes food distribution occurred in Uttar Pradesh. Throughout India, only 41 per cent of the food intended for the very poor by the Food Corporation of India – the government agency established in 1965 to ensure India’s food supply – reaches households. This is due partly to wastage, but also to corruption.

In Uttar Pradesh, though, nearly all food aid was stolen by corrupt officials over the course of three years, as Bloomberg reports:

The scam itself was simple. So much so, that by 2007 corrupt politicians and officials in at least 30 of Uttar Pradesh’s 71 districts had learned to copy it…. All they had to do was pay the government the subsidized rates for the food. Then instead of selling it on to villagers at the lower prices, they sold to traders at market rates.

The irony is that India’s food reserves are full – and there’s more than enough food to go around:

While the Food Corporation of India is required to keep about 32 million metric tons of rice and wheat, bumper harvests have left the country with a stockpile of more than 80 million tonnes, according to the corporation. Stacked in 50-kilogram sacks, the food would reach from Sitapur to the moon, with at least 270,000 bags to spare.

To stop food rotting, the central government lifted a four- year ban on exports of wheat last year. In June, India donated 250,000 tons of wheat to Afghanistan.

But with corrupt officials, there’s no way of guaranteeing that this food will reach the poor. When distribution systems fail, people go hungry – and more than half of India’s children, and 21 per cent of adults, suffer from malnutrition.

This is, admittedly, an extreme example of the implications of corruption for food security, but it demonstrates particularly well how poor governance can impact the lives of the very poor. Given the rising levels of corruption in South Africa, it’s not too much of a stretch to conclude that the government’s good work on reducing hunger has the potential to be reversed if systems are corrupted through bribery, theft, and mismanagement.

It’s an obvious point, but the R203 million set aside for Zumaville could have been used to build roads, railways, food silos, and other infrastructure to improve the distribution of food to rural areas.

Six years ago, Lonmin commissioned a report into the health of the communities in seven villages – including Marikana – around its platinum mines. One of the main findings was that malnutrition was a major problem, and that children had been discovered suffering from kwashiorkor:

an easily prevented condition that occurs when there is insufficient protein in the diet. Kwashiorkor is more common in countries in a state of political unrest, or where there has been a drought or natural disaster.

Why the president feels that he and his guests deserve a state-funded vegetable garden when South African children are suffering from a condition associated with failed states, is utterly beyond me.

Further Reading

Miriam Altman, Tim Hart, and Peter Jacobs, Food Security in South Africa (Human Sciences Research Council, 2009).

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A Hungry World

One of the best parts of teaching a course on African history is being able to introduce students to Binyavanga Wainaina’s amazing essay ‘How to Write about Africa’. In my first lecture, I wanted to emphasise the disconnect between the (powerful) narratives which have been developed about the continent – by travellers, politicians, journalists – and its history, societies, politics, and economics. Wainaina’s achievement is that he draws attention to a range of usually unchallenged assumptions about Africa, and shows them to be ridiculous:

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Africa is big: fifty-four countries, 900 million people who are too busy starving and dying and warring and emigrating to read your book. …

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between Africans (unless a death is involved), references to African writers or intellectuals, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from yaws or Ebola fever or female genital mutilation.

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion, particularly in the United States, about how the western media covers Africa. Laura Seay writes in an excellent article for Foreign Policy:

Western reporting on Africa is often fraught with factual errors, incomplete analysis, and stereotyping that would not pass editorial muster in coverage of China, Pakistan, France, or Mexico. A journalist who printed blatantly offensive stereotypes about German politicians or violated ethical norms regarding protection of child-abuse victims in Ohio would at the least be sanctioned and might even lose his or her job. When it comes to Africa, however, these problems are tolerated and, in some cases, celebrated. A quick search of the Google News archives for ‘Congo’ and ‘heart of darkness’ yields nearly 4,000 hits, the vast majority of which are not works of literary criticism, but are instead used to exoticise the Democratic Republic of the Congo while conjuring up stereotypes of race and savagery. Could we imagine a serious publication ever using similar terminology to describe the south side of Chicago, Baltimore, or another predominately African-American city?

Similarly, Jina Moore makes the point in the Boston Review that believing that journalists should only report incidents of violence or suffering, instead of other aspects of life on the continent, is

a false choice. We can write about suffering and we can write about the many other things there are to say about Congo. With a little faith in our readers, we can even write about both things – extraordinary violence and ordinary life – in the same story.

These narratives – these stories, these reports and articles about Africa – have a measurable impact on the ways in which the rest of the world interacts with the continent. Tracing a shift in American attitudes towards Africa from around 2000, when concern about the AIDS epidemic was at its height, Kathryn Mathers writes:

Suddenly there were no conversations about new democracies in Africa, or investment opportunities; the potential consumers were represented as too sick to labour, let alone to shop. This became the burden of caring Americans whose consumption practices can give a sick child in Africa ARVs or provide mosquito nets against the ravages of malaria.

To coincide with the final day of the 2012 Olympics, David Cameron and the Brazilian vice-president Michel Temer will host a summit on hunger and malnutrition in the developing world. It will be attended by officials from the US Department of Agriculture and the UK Department of International Development, as well as a clutch of celebrities. As an editorial in the Guardian puts it, ‘when tackling malnutrition involves photo-opportunities with icons such as Mo Farah and David Beckham, it’s hard not to be sceptical’ about the impact that this summit will have.

Although the summit was planned months ago, its timing is particularly apt: the world is facing another food crisis. Since the end of July, it’s become clear that the bumper harvest predicted, globally, for 2012 was not to be – in fact, maize and wheat yields are down. This year’s soybean crop is the third worst since 1964. Reading about this crisis, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it is exclusively the problem of poor nations: we know that Zimbabwe, the Sahel region, the Horn of Africa, and Yemen all face severe food shortages, and that the price of food is increasing in Egypt, Mexico, South Africa, and other middle-income nations.

However, the immediate cause of this food crisis lies far away from the regions worst affected by malnutrition and high food prices: in the United States, which is currently experiencing its worst drought in almost a century. More than half the country’s counties – 1,584 in 32 states, including Iowa, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Wyoming – have been declared disaster areas.

It’s difficult to underestimate just how devastating this drought has been (and is):

Wherever you look, the heat, the drought, and the fires stagger the imagination.  Now, it’s Oklahoma at the heart of the American firestorm, with ‘18 straight days of 100-plus degree temperatures and persistent drought’ and so many fires in neighbouring states that extra help is unavailable. It’s the summer of heat across the U.S., where the first six months of the year have been the hottest on record…. More than 52% of the country is now experiencing some level of drought, and drought conditions are actually intensifying in the Midwest; 66% of the Illinois corn crop is in ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ shape, with similarly devastating percentages across the rest of the Midwest.  The average is 48% across the corn belt, and for soybeans 37% – and it looks as if next year’s corn crop may be endangered as well. …according to the Department of Agriculture, ‘three-quarters of the nation’s cattle acreage is now inside a drought-stricken area, as is about two-thirds of the country’s hay acreage.’

There are suggestions that the Midwest is in danger of experiencing a second Dust Bowl. But the drought is not limited to the US: unusually dry summers have reduced harvests in Russia, the Ukraine, and Kazakhstan. And the effects of these poor yields will be felt around the world. Even if, as the Financial Times reports, the drought will push up prices of beef, pork, and chicken in the United States and Europe, the countries most at risk of food shortages, and, indeed, of social unrest, are those which rely on food imports to feed their populations.

If rates of malnutrition are to be reduced and food shortages, addressed, then politicians will have to consider them in global context. They will have to rethink America’s energy policies, which have allowed for almost forty per cent of the country’s corn crop to be devoted to ethanol production. They will have to address the impact that financial speculation has on the price of food commodities. A report published by the New England Complex Systems Institute suggests that food price increases are likely to be exacerbated by the unregulated trade in staples like maize and wheat.

Even these measures will not be enough to ensure adequate access to food for all people: we need to find strategies to slow down and mitigate the effects of climate change; social and economic inequality in the developing world must be addressed; land grabs need to be halted; and agricultural policies in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere need to favour small farmers.

In the same month in which the tofu industry in Indonesia has threatened to down tools over rising soybean prices, the cost of maize meal is increasing in Mexico, and there were protests in Iran over price of chicken, the grain trader Cargill announced revenues of $134 billion. This state of affairs is not sustainable.

While it’s certainly the case that famine and malnutrition in parts of sub-Saharan Africa are the products of dysfunctional and corrupt governments, it’s also true that as part of a globalised food system, food insecurity in Africa – and the rest of the developing world – is connected to a set of problems which can only be solved on an international scale.

This is, then, a global crisis. But reporting has tended to disassociate its cause and effects: hunger in Africa is reported separately from the drought in the northern hemisphere and the spike in food prices. Cameron’s summit on malnutrition focuses exclusively on the developing world. I think that this is partly as a result of the narratives which inform reporting on these regions: America is an agricultural superpower, while Africa is a site of terminal decline and disaster. It’s worth noting that America’s poor harvest tends to be reported on in the environmental or financial sections of newspapers and websites, while hunger and malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia are relegated to the sections dealing with aid or development. Linking malnutrition in South Sudan to the maize harvest in Indiana would upset these ways of thinking about Africa and the United States.

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Free-From Food

Last week I visited the new health food shop in the shopping centre near my flat. I was in search of coconut flakes to add to granola – why yes, I do make my own granola (what else did you expect?) – but, instead, bought nearly my own body weight in almond meal, and came away, amazed by the incredible range of foodstuffs and supplements on sale. I was struck by how little the diet advocated by the makers of these food products tallied with my own idea of healthy eating. While I try to eat a little of everything, and always in moderation, both the health shop and its products seem to view most forms of food with profound suspicion.

In a recent edition of Radio 4’s Food Programme, Sheila Dillon charts the rise of the ‘free from’ food industry. As she makes the point, for all that these lactose-, gluten-, sugar-, and wheat-free snacks, bars, and drinks advertise themselves as the ‘healthy’ alternative, they are as heavily processed as ready meals in supermarkets. I think that one way of accounting for this odd paradox – that people who wouldn’t normally go anywhere near a box of supermarket lasagne are willing to buy heavily processed kale chips or carob bars – is to consider how ideas around what we define as ‘healthy’ food have changed.

When I was preparing lectures on food and the 1960s counterculture my father recommended a story in Tom’s Wolfe’s New Journalism (1975). Written unbelievably beautifully by Robert Christgau, now best known as a music journalist, the essay charts the slow decline of a young woman in the thrall of a fad diet. Titled ‘Beth Ann and Macrobioticism’ the piece begins in Greenwich Village in 1965.  Twenty-three year-old married couple Beth Ann and Charlie, were living as artists, and off money from Charlie’s father, in hippy New York. Discontented with the range of mind-expanding experiences offered to them by the collection of drugs and therapies they’d been taking, Charlie learned about the Zen macrobiotic diet from a friend.

Published in the United States in the mid-1960s, Zen Macrobiotics: The Art of Rejuvenation and Longevity by Georges Ohsawa, a Japanese philosopher and sometime medical doctor,

contends that all of the physical and spiritual diseases of modern man result from his consuming too much yin (basically, potassium…) or too much yang (sodium) – usually too much yin. … Most fruits (too yin) and all red meat (too yang) are shunned, as are chemicals (additives and drugs, almost all yin, as well as ‘unnatural’) and Western medicine. According to Ohsawa, the diet is not merely a sure means to perfect physical health. …it is also a path to spiritual health and enlightenment.

As Christgau makes the point, Ohsawa’s macrobiotic diet is ‘dangerously unsound’. It’s comprised of ten progressively restrictive stages, with the final including only water and brown rice. The American Medical Association denounced the diet on the grounds that those who followed Ohsawa’s directions religiously were at risk of scurvy, anaemia, malnutrition, and kidney failure.

Beth Ann and Charlie devoted themselves to macrobiotics with enthusiasm, quickly deciding on Diet no. 7, which consisted mainly of grain and tea. Unsurprisingly, they both lost weight quickly, and experienced a kind of hunger-induced euphoria:

They slept less than six hours a night. They…felt high on the diet, with spontaneous flashes that seemed purer and more enlightening than anything they had felt on drugs. … One joyous day, they threw out every useless palliative in the medicine cabinet and then transformed their empty refrigerator…into a piece of pop culture, with sea shells in the egg compartments and art supplies and various pieces of whimsy lining the shelves.

Shortly after this, both began to sicken. Beth Ann, in particular, displayed all the symptoms for scurvy. Despite a fellow macrobiotic enthusiast’s recommendation that she add raw vegetables to her diet, Beth Ann began to fast, for stretches of two weeks at a time. She wrote to Ohsawa, who told her to remain on the diet. Soon, she was bedridden, and moved in with her parents-in-law, who urged her to see a doctor. On the morning of her death – with a fever, and very weak – another letter arrived from Ohsawa, informing her that she had misunderstood the diet completely. But it was too late: she died a few hours later.

Beth Ann was not the only person taken in by Zen macrobiotics during the 1960s and 1970s. There were several cases of people who either died from, or were hospitalised for, malnutrition and salt poisoning as a result of a too-rigid adherence to the diet.

I don’t suggest for a moment that Cape Town’s health food hippies are in danger of starving themselves to death in an attempt to follow the teachings of a twentieth-century Japanese loon, but there are remarkable continuities between the 1960s enthusiasm for Zen macrobiotics and contemporary anxieties about food and nutrition.

On the extreme end of this scale of suspicion of food, are proponents of restricted-calorie diets who argue – with very little evidence – that those who eat less, will live significantly longer. Earlier this year, a Swiss woman starved herself to death after attempting to live only on sunshine. (Perhaps she thought she would photosynthesise?)

But on the other, more reasonable side, are the legions of women’s magazines which advise their readers what not to eat, rather than what they should be eating. These, and other publications, have variously branded sugar, saturated fat, and carbohydrates as the enemies of healthy diets, and, like Zen macrobiotics, advocate increasingly restricted diets. This advice is subject to change, though. For instance, a group of experts at the American Dietetic Association’s most recent Food and Nutrition Conference noted that there is no evidence to suggest that low-fat diets have any health benefits.

Where does this idea – that food is the source of ill-health, rather than the fuel which helps to keep sickness at bay – originate? There is a millennia-old tradition in Western and other cultures of associating deprivation with moral or spiritual superiority and purity.

But, more specifically, I think that this suspicion of food can be located during the eighteenth century. Indeed, contemporary mainstream macrobiotic diets are based on the writing of an Enlightenment German physician Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland (1762-1836), who is credited with coining the term ‘macrobiotics’. In The Art of Prolonging Human Life (1797), Hufeland argued that each person possesses a ‘life force’ which needs to be nurtured and protected through rest, exercise, and a carefully-calibrated diet.

Hufeland’s writing was part of a wider, Enlightenment questioning of what constituted a morally and physically healthy person. In his influential text The English Malady (1733), the Scottish physician George Cheyne (1671-1743) argued that corpulence and over-eating undermined both the health of the body as well as the mind. Roy Porter explains:

Cheyne’s books were extremely popular and many later medical thinkers echoed his calls to temperance, with added intensity. Moderation would overcome that classic Georgian disorder, the gout, proclaimed Dr William Cadogan. If the turn towards regulating the flesh was decidedly health-oriented, however, it also became part and parcel of a wider movement, expressive of preferred cultural ideals and personal identities.

The emergence of an ethical vegetarianism – vegetarianism by choice, rather than necessity – during this period was one of the best examples of this attempt to regulate excessive behaviour through moderate eating:

Joseph Ritson, for example, held that because dead meat itself was corrupt, it would stir violent passions, whereas greens, milk, seeds and water would temper the appetite and produce a better disciplined individual.

I think that there’s a continuum between this association of a restricted diet with being a better person, and contemporary notions of healthy eating. The Zen macrobiotic craze in the 1960s was an extreme example of this desire only to eat that which is ‘pure’ in order to be good – as is the relatively recent phenomenon of orthorexia:

Orthorexics commonly have rigid rules around eating. Refusing to touch sugar, salt, caffeine, alcohol, wheat, gluten, yeast, soya, corn and dairy foods is just the start of their diet restrictions. Any foods that have come into contact with pesticides, herbicides or contain artificial additives are also out.

To be clear, orthorexia does not refer to those people who are genuinely allergic to some kinds of food. Rather, it describes an obsession with eating healthily. Although this obsessiveness can be socially limiting, it’s also admired to some extent. Sticking rigidly to a needlessly restrictive, ‘free-from’ diet is seen, frequently, as a sign of self-control, and an even greater willingness to take full responsibility for maintaining one’s own health.

The emergence of orthorexia and even the growing popularity of free-from foods, are indicative of a wider belief that we should care more about what we don’t eat, rather than what we do – and that there’s a connection between eating ‘healthily’ (whatever we may mean by that), and being a good and virtuous person. In a time when it is ever-easier to eat cheap junk food, and when rates of obesity are soaring all over the world, surely, it makes better sense to emphasise the pleasures of good food – and not to suggest that the unhealthy or overweight are morally suspect?

Further Reading

Robert Christgau, ‘Beth Ann and Macrobioticism,’ in The New Journalism, ed. Tom Wolfe and EW Johnson (London: Picador, 1975), pp. 363-372.

Karlyn Crowley, ‘Gender on a Plate: The Calibration of Identity in American Macrobiotics,’ Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, vol. 2, no. 3 (Summer 2002), pp. 37- 48.

Roy Porter, Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls (London: Penguin, 2003).

Victoria Rezash, ‘Can a Macrobiotic Diet Cure Cancer?’ Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, vol. 12, no. 5 (Oct. 2008), pp. 807-808.

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Food Links, 16.05.2012

How to control global food commodity trading.

A spike in food prices is predicted for 2013.

Egypt’s kitchen uprising. (Thanks, Stephanie!)

How Mexican food became American. (Thanks, Hester!)

How poor women in rural India cope with food shortages.

Coke and Pepsi change their recipes – to avoid a cancer warning.

The dark side of soya.

What the world eats.

An entirely edible recipe book.

The vogue for squirrel meat and other forms of game. (Thanks, Milli!)

Why going to dinner with a foodie is an ordeal.

Edible silk sensors to monitor your food.

A pasta-naming game.

Sketch gets a makeover from Martin Creed.

The British government must not undermine efforts to stop the exploitation of agricultural workers.

How the conditions in which pigs are kept in the United States may be improving.

Heston Blumenthal explains the revamp of the Fat Duck.

In South Africa, bottled water is more expensive than petrol – so why its popularity?

The Middle Class Handbook on Sunday night supper.

The eight kinds of drunkenness, by Thomas Nashe.

Vodka made out of quinoa.

Should one rinse mushrooms?

A strange new phenomenon in the Middle East: children who are malnourished and obese.

How well does the language of wine tasting describe wine?

Why Big Food must go.

Five grains which could help to feed the world.

Baked beans in Maine.

Is ice cream as addictive as cocaine?

Meat theft is on the rise in the United States.

The return of the pressure cooker. (Thanks, Mum!)

What it looks like to eat on a dollar a day.

The politics of cinema snacks.

Mitt Romney’s diet.

Dictator cakes for Amnesty International.

Olivier de Schutter recommends five ways to fix unhealthy diets.

How to make your own pita bread.

Not your grandmother’s yogurt.

Aliens secretly study humanity under the guise of a 1960s sandwich recipe book.

Osman’s shanty bar, Istanbul.

Why we have sliced bread.

Know your pasta shapes.

A new documentary about Detroit’s urban farms.

Fancy dress as a side of bacon. From 1894.

How to make a chocolate model of your brain.

Feed the Children

There has been some fuss recently around the publication of Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. Murray, who co-authored The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life in 1994, has a reputation for annoying left-leaning academics and public policy makers. His description of the Bell Curve was accused of being blind to cultural and social influences on learning and childhood development, and his most recent polemic has been criticised for its rose-tinted view of the American white working class during the mid-twentieth century.

One of the best criticisms of the book which I’ve come across is Nell Irvin Painter’s article for the New York Times, ‘When Poverty was White.’ Painter, whose History of White People (2010) I urge you to read, makes the point that America has a well-hidden and very recent history of white poverty. She accuses Murray of ‘historical blindness’ caused by his

narrow focus on the cultural and policy changes of the 1960s as the root of white America’s decline. The story of white poverty…is much longer and more complex than he and his admirers realise or want to admit.

Her point is that to understand the nature of poverty – why some families seem incapable of escaping it, why certain members of society seem to be particularly susceptible to it – we need to historicise it.

There is a similar argument to be made about white poverty in South Africa. One of the reasons why photographs of poor whites in South Africa draw such attention is because South Africans tend to think of poverty as being black. Poor whites are a strange anomaly in the economic and racial politics of post-1994 South Africa.

But ‘poor whiteism’ as a social and political phenomenon only disappeared during the economic boom of the early 1960s. Since at least the 1920s, South African governments were preoccupied by the ‘poor white problem’ – by the existence of a substantial group of people who, as the popular author Sarah Gertrude Millin wrote in 1926, could not support themselves ‘according to a European standard of civilisation’ and who could not ‘keep clear the line of demarcation between black and white.’

South Africa’s earliest soup kitchens were not for black, but, rather, for white children. The first child welfare organisations aimed their work not at black families, but, rather, at white families who were poor. South Africa’s attempts to introduce compulsory elementary education in the 1910s and 1920s pertained only to white, not to black, children. This isn’t to suggest that black poverty was somehow less acute or widespread than white poverty. Far from it. State concern about poor whiteism was borne out of a eugenicist belief that, as Millin suggested, white poverty signalled a decline in white power.

The first attempts to eradicate white poverty were directed at families and children. Although we tend to associate the poor white problem with the 1920s and 1930s, there had been a large group of impoverished white farmers in the country’s rural interior since at least the middle of the nineteenth century. By the 1880s and 1890s, colonial politicians, and particularly those in the Cape, were increasingly anxious about this class of whites. This was partly because the numbers of impoverished whites – both in rural and urban areas – had increased during the region’s industrialisation after the discovery of diamonds and gold, but it was also the result of decades of poor education which had produced at least two generations of unemployable whites.

Both in South Africa and in the rest of the world, poverty was racialised during the 1880s and 1890s. The existence of unemployed and unemployable poor whites challenged the association of ‘natural’ supremacy and the exercise of power with whiteness. The term ‘poor white’ no longer simply referred to white people who lived in poverty, but, rather, invoked a set of fears around racial mixing and white superiority.

Impoverished white adults were believed to be beyond saving, as one Cape industrialist argued in 1895: ‘the adults are irreclaimable. You must let them die off, and teach the young ones to work.’ The Cape government poured money into schools for poor white children. In 1905, education became compulsory for all white children in the Cape between the ages of seven and fourteen. Politicians also passed legislation to allow these children to be removed from parents deemed to be unable to care for them appropriately. After the declaration of the Union of South Africa in 1910, government spending on education grew from 14 per cent of the national budget to 28 per cent in 1930.

But the problem did not go away. Industrialisation and economic expansion, as well as the effects of the Great War, two depressions, and urbanisation in the 1920s and 1930s increased the numbers of impoverished whites. By the end of the 1920s, it was estimated that out of a total of 1,800,000 whites, 300,000 were ‘very poor’, and nearly all of these were Afrikaans. The Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question (1929-1932) concluded that an inability to adapt to a changing economic climate, outdated farming methods, and poor education were to blame for the existence of such a large population of impoverished whites.

In 1929, the South African government devoted 13 per cent of its budget to the eradication of white poverty. Much of this went to education, social welfare, and housing. The introduction of more stringent segregationist legislation progressively disenfranchised blacks, and reserved skilled work for whites.

There was also a shift in emphasis in how child welfare societies – the numbers of which had mushroomed during the 1920s – dealt with poor white children. No longer did they only work to ensure that white children were sent to school and adequately cared for by their parents, but they began to focus on how these children were fed.

I’m still trying to account for this new concern about the effects of malnutrition on white children. I think that it was due largely to an international scientific debate about the significance of nutrition in raising both physically and intellectually strong children. Louis Leipoldt – Medical Inspector for Schools in the Transvaal, food writer, Buddhist, poet, and Afrikaner culture broker – was particularly aware of this new thinking about childhood development and nutrition, and wrote about it extensively in publications on child health and welfare in South Africa.

In a report of a survey of the health of children in the Cape published in 1922, the province’s Medical Inspector of Schools, Elsie Chubb, argued that malnutrition was widespread in the Cape’s schools for white children. In most schools, around 10% of the pupils were malnourished. In one school in the rural Karoo, 79% of children were found to be severely malnourished.

Chubb recognised that malnutrition was not purely the result of an inadequate supply of food – although it was certainly the case that many poor parents simply couldn’t afford to buy enough food to feed their children – but of poor diet. Some child welfare volunteers wrote of children sent to school on coffee and biltong, and who returned home at the end of the day for a basic supper of maize meal and cheap meat. Chubb wrote that far too many children were fed on a diet heavy in carbohydrates and animal protein. Children did not eat enough fresh fruit and vegetables, and milk. She recommended that feeding schemes be established to supplement children’s diets with these foodstuffs.

Helen Murray, the headmistress of a girls’ school in Graaff Reinet and active member of the town’s child welfare society explained the contemporary understanding of the link between malnutrition and poor whiteism particularly well in 1925:

In the winter of 1918 our schools had regular medical inspection for the first time. The doctor who inspected told some of us that he had found some fifty children in our poor school suffering from malnutrition and spoke strongly of the results of such a condition. The children were not in danger of dying of starvation, they had dry bread and black coffee enough to prevent that, but they were in danger of growing up to be ‘poor whites’ of the most hopeless type. The body insufficiently nourished during the years of growth would develop physically weak, and the brain as a result would be unfit for real mental effort. The child suffering from years of wrong feeding could not be expected to grow into the strong, healthy, clearheaded man or woman our country needs today, and will need ten and twenty years hence. To see that the underfed child is well fed is not a matter of charity, but must be undertaken in self-defence.

As a result of the inspection, the child welfare society found a room in the town where between fifty and ninety children could be provided with ‘a good, hot meal’ on every school day:

We had been told that these children could be saved from growing up weaklings if they could have one good meal of fat meat, vegetables or fruit, on every school day of the year….

We have the satisfaction of knowing that there has been a marked improvement in the health of the children and of hearing from a Medical Inspector that she has found the condition of the children here better than in many other schools of the same class.

Murray’s experience in Graaff Reinet was not unique. As child welfare societies were established in the towns and villages of South Africa’s vast interior, their first work was usually to establish soup kitchens, either in schools or in a central locations where schoolchildren could be sent before the school day – for porridge and milk – and at lunchtime, for soup or a more substantial meal, depending on the resources of the local society.

In Pietersburg (now Polokwane), to eliminate the stigma of free meals for poor children, all white children were provided with a mug of soup at lunchtime. Better-off parents paid for the soup, thus subsidising those children whose parents could not contribute. In Reitz, local farmers, butchers, and grocers donated meat and vegetables to the soup kitchen, and in Oudtshoorn children were encouraged to bring a contribution – onions, carrots, or cabbage – to their daily meal.

The National Council for Child Welfare, the umbrella body established in 1924 which oversaw the activities of local child welfare societies, liked to emphasise the fact that it was concerned for the welfare of all children, regardless of class or race. Some welfare societies, and particularly those in areas which had large ‘locations’ for black residents, did establish clinics and crèches for black children. But most of the NCCW’s work was aimed at white children in the 1920s and 1930s, and the same was true of the South African state. By the 1920s, most municipalities in towns and cities made free milk available to poor white mothers with babies and very young children.

Increasing state involvement in child welfare, alongside the work of independent societies, had a significant impact on the health of white children in South Africa during the early twentieth century. But it was only because of the growing prosperity and better education of the majority of white South Africans after World War II that white poverty and malnutrition were gradually eradicated in the 1950s and 1960s.

By historicising poverty – by understanding that white prosperity in South Africa is a relatively recent phenomenon – we can understand it as a phenomenon which is not only eradicable, but which is also the product of a range of social, economic, and political forces. As South African governments and welfare organisations were able to reduce white poverty and malnutrition dramatically during the early twentieth century, so it is possible for contemporary governments to do the same.

But charity and soup kitchens were not the sole cause of the disappearance of white poverty and malnutrition. Jobs, education, and better living conditions were as – if not more – significant in ensuring that white children no longer went hungry.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

SE Duff, ‘“Education for Every Son and Daughter of South Africa”: Race, Class, and the Compulsory Education Debate in the Cape Colony,’ in Citizenship, Modernisation, and Nationhood: The Cultural Role of Mass Education, 1870-1930, eds. Lawrence Brockliss and Nicola Sheldon (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

E.G. Malherbe, Education in South Africa, vol. I (Cape Town: Juta, 1925).

E.G. Malherbe, Education in South Africa, vol. II (Cape Town: Juta, 1977).

E.G. Malherbe, Report of the Carnegie Commission of Investigation on the Poor White Question in South Africa, vol. III (Stellenbosch: Pro Ecclesia-Drukkery, 1932).

Sarah Gertrude Millin, The South Africans (London: Constable, 1926).

Jennifer Muirhead, ‘“The children of today make the nation of tomorrow”: A Social History of Child Welfare in Twentieth Century South Africa’ (MA thesis, Stellenbosch University, 2012).

Other sources:

Vivian Bickford-Smith, Ethnic Pride and Racial Prejudice in Victorian Cape Town (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 1995).

Colin Bundy, ‘Vagabond Hollanders and Runaway Englishmen: White Poverty in the Cape Before Poor Whitesim,’ in Putting a Plough to the Ground: Accumulation and Dispossession in Rural South Africa 1880-1930, eds. William Beinart, Peter Delius, and Stanley Trapido (Johannesburg: Ravan Press, 1986).

J.M. Coetzee, White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988).

Saul Dubow, A Commonwealth of Knowledge: Science, Sensibility and White South Africa 1820-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Marijke du Toit, ‘Women, Welfare and the Nurturing of Afrikaner Nationalism: A Social History of the Afrikaanse Christelike Vroue Vereniging, c.1870-1939’ (D.Phil. thesis, University of Cape Town, 1996).

Hermann Giliomee, The Afrikaners: Biography of a People (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2003).

Isabel Hofmeyr, ‘Building a Nation from Words: Afrikaans Language, Literature and Ethnic Identity, 1902-1924,’ in The Politics of Race, Class and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century South Africa, eds. Shula Marks and Stanley Trapido (London: Longman, 1987).

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Justice, not Philanthropy

This week José Graziano da Silva, the Director General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, announced that the famine in Somalia has ended. A combination of good rain, the most successful harvest in seventeen years, and the effective dispersal and deployment of food and agricultural aid means that most Somalis now have adequate access to food. But this is likely to be a temporary reprieve: it’s uncertain if food stocks will last until April, when the next rainy season begins and the main planting is done.

This already fragile situation is compounded by Somalia’s complicated politics: the southern part of the country is still controlled by the Islamist group al-Shabaab, which banned the Red Cross from operating in the area this week, and has disrupted food supplies in the past. Tellingly, around half of the 2.34 million people still in need of humanitarian assistance and seventy per cent of the country’s acutely malnourished children are in southern Somalia.

The end of the famine is no cause for celebration, then. Thirty-one per cent of the Somali population remains reliant on food aid, famine looms in another three months, and there are the after-effects of the famine to cope with: the plight of the refugees scattered around Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya; and the generation of malnourished children.

It’s estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 people died in this famine, half of them children.

Clearly, something isn’t working.

And as one famine comes to an end – or, at least, a halt – in East Africa, another one seems to be developing on the other side of the continent. Niger, and, indeed, its neighbours Chad and Mali, is both drought- and famine-prone. Even in good years, it struggles to feed itself. Fifteen per cent of the world’s malnourished children live in Niger. But poor rainfall at the end of 2011 and a spike in global food prices means that the country’s population faces famine.

Niger’s last famine was in 2010, when the World Food Programme provided food to 4.5 million people. But things seem to be more hopeful there than in Somalia, and largely because Niger has a government which functions relatively well. Realising that it needs to store its food supply properly, provide jobs so that its population can afford to buy food, and also limit the growth of its population, the government of Niger is introducing measures to improve people’s access to food. One new piece of legislation will make it compulsory for children to remain in school until the age of sixteen, partly because of the strong link between girls’ education and declining family size.

Somalia’s weak and ineffectual government can’t do anything to prevent famine from occurring there again. With all the will in the world, there is no way that Somalia’s food crisis will end until its political situation stabilises.

The comparison of Niger and Somalia is particularly useful for demonstrating the extent to which responses to famine – from the media, NGOs, charities, and other international organisations – are heavily politicised. Reporting on the Niger famine in 2010 was fairly muted and I’ve only seen a couple of references to its most recent food crisis. Somalia, though, never seems to be out of the news. The reason for this is depressingly simple:

Niger, the large West African country whose name is best known for being just one unfortunate letter away from a pejorative racial insult, has a few terrorists, but not enough to really matter. Elements from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb wander across Niger’s border every now and then, taking advantage of the large desolate areas which characterise most of the country, but for the most part its contribution to the War on Terror is minimal.

Al-Shabaab is loosely affiliated to al Qaeda and the United States fears that the Horn of Africa could prove to be a useful base for planning future terrorist activities. It probably also helps that Somalia has media-friendly pirates too.

So all famines aren’t equal. All famines are complicated. Indeed, the whole question of ‘hunger’ is complex. I was amused to note that Monday marks the beginning of the WFP’s Free Rice Week. The project encourages individuals to play a game on a website. For every correct answer, Free Rice Week’s sponsors donate ten grains of rice to the WFP. The aim of the project is to ‘provide education to everyone for free’. Hmm…. ok – it includes some basic, if vague, information about ‘hunger’. And also to ‘help end world hunger by providing rice to hungry people for free.’

Huh?

So this is going to end world hunger by giving all hungry people rice?

Seriously?

Other than the fact that it would be as – or even more – effective for the project’s sponsors and participants to skip the cute competition and simply donate rice to the WFP (or, even better, to a local feeding scheme or food bank), this really isn’t going to end world hunger.

I know that this seems like a soft target to shout at, and, really, there’s nothing wrong with donating food or money to the WFP, but my annoyance with projects and competitions like this one, stems from the fact that they’re dishonest. There is no way that Free Rice Week is going to end world hunger. It’s a pity that the WFP sees fit to inform people that by taking part in it they’re contributing to solving the food crisis.

In fact, I think that Free Rice Week and other, similar projects actually contribute to the problem.

Firstly, they fudge the meaning of ‘hunger’.  Over the past year or so, we’ve become familiar with the FAO’s horrifying statistic that one billion people go hungry every day – that one sixth of the world’s population does not have adequate access to food. But there are problems with this statistic:

it is not the only way to measure food insecurity. Over the years, it has been criticised on many fronts: for the poor quality of underlying data; for the focus on calorie intake, without consideration of proteins, vitamins and minerals; and for the emphasis on availability – rather than affordability, accessibility or actual use – of food. Some say we’d be better off focusing on improving household consumption surveys, opinion polls, and direct measures of height and body weight.

These figures need to be accurate because they ‘are also used to help guide where to send foreign aid, track progress towards international development goals, and hold governments to account for promises made.’

Moreover, it glosses over the fact that there are many kinds of hunger: the extreme events – the famines – which are the products of natural disasters, conflict, and state collapse; the hunger which is the product of poor diets and an inability to buy or access enough food; and the hunger in developed nations. In Britain and the United States, the numbers of people now reliant on food stamps and food banks has spiked during the recession.

Secondly, these projects ignore the fact that responding to various kinds of hunger requires far, far more than throwing money at the problem. In fact, the WFP’s website even acknowledges this: ‘People can go hungry even when there’s plenty of food around. Often it’s a question of access – they can’t afford food or they can’t get to local markets.’ Famines in the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries occur as a result of a collapse of distribution systems, usually caused by conflict or a crisis in government. Famines tend not to happen in stable democracies. The WFP must receive money for food aid – that is absolutely non-negotiable – but long-term change, as we’ve seen in the cases of Somalia and Niger, can only occur once stable, effective governments are in place. No amount of free rice is going to end famine in Somalia.

In other cases of hunger, it’s clear that people are simply too poor to buy food: employment, education, good health systems, and higher wages will go far in remedying this situation. But even then, we have to accommodate the choices that poor people make when spending their money. In an article for Foreign Policy’s special edition on food last year, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo took a closer look at the lives of the ‘one billion hungry’ and came to some interesting conclusions:

We often see the world of the poor as a land of missed opportunities and wonder why they don’t invest in what would really make their lives better. But the poor may well be more sceptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives. They often behave as if they think that any change that is significant enough to be worth sacrificing for will simply take too long. This could explain why they focus on the here and now, on living their lives as pleasantly as possible and celebrating when occasion demands it.

We asked Oucha Mbarbk [a Moroccan peasant] what he would do if he had more money. He said he would buy more food. Then we asked him what he would do if he had even more money. He said he would buy better-tasting food. We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family, when we noticed the TV and other high-tech gadgets. Why had he bought all these things if he felt the family did not have enough to eat? He laughed, and said, ‘Oh, but television is more important than food!’

We need to take people’s choices about how they spend their limited funds, more seriously.

Thirdly, by focussing on raising funds, the WFP transforms itself into a philanthropic organisation. Donations of food and other forms humanitarian aid are absolutely necessary to alleviating food crises, but they won’t end these crises – or end ‘hunger’ (whatever we may mean by that). In an excellent article for the Guardian, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier de Schutter argues:

our global food system…is in crisis. Last year’s famine in the Horn of Africa, and the current woes in the Sahel, are the surface cracks of a broken system. These regional outbreaks of hunger are not, as such, extreme events.

Beyond semantics, this is a crucial distinction. In viewing these events as extreme and unexpected, we fail to acknowledge the regularity and predictability of hunger. This flaw is fatal, for it means failing to acknowledge that the food system itself is broken. It means failing to build readiness for persistent famine into international development and humanitarian policy. And it means waiting until people starve before doing anything.

Food aid doesn’t address the deeper, structural problems underlying the food crisis. It doesn’t consider bad governance; the impact of food speculation on rising food prices; and agricultural efficiency, particularly in the light of climate change.

By appealing to people to donate money to fund their response to food crises – which could have been avoided – the WFP and others cast hunger as something which can be remedied with old-fashioned philanthropy. It’s certainly true that philanthropic organisations can do immensely good work – like reducing rates of polio and malaria in the developing world. But this doesn’t necessarily solve the problems which give rise to these crises:

the poor are not begging us for charity, they are demanding justice. And when, on the occasion of his birthday, a sultan or emperor reprieved one thousand prisoners sentenced to death, no one ever called those pardons justice. Nor is it justice when a plutocrat decides to reprieve untold thousands from malaria. Human beings should not have to depend upon a rich man’s whim for the right to life.

Precisely. The world’s poor should not be dependent on the goodwill of wealthy people who have the time and inclination to play games on the internet.

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Margarine Myths

So this week’s blog post was going to be about food and fiction – having had drinks and supper at Pablo Neruda-themed Maremoto last night, it seemed appropriate – but along with the post on authenticity which I promised yonks ago, it will have to wait while I simmer with annoyance at the World Food Programme’s decision to solve the world’s food problems by working with Unilever.

Yes, you read that correctly. The World Food Programme is working with Unilever to alleviate the hunger crisis.

Unilever. The Anglo-Dutch food, margarine, and cosmetics giant which also happens to be the biggest consumer goods company in the world. Is this really a good idea?

I have nothing whatsoever against corporate social responsibility. In fact, I wish that more countries encouraged the private sector to become involved in philanthropic work. With their efficient logistical support and understanding of the market, there are few organisations better positioned to help poor communities that those which provide services or produce consumer products.

And as big corporations go, Unilever ranks pretty high up the sustainability stakes. Last year it launched its Sustainable Living Plan which aims not only to reduce Unilever’s greenhouse gas emissions, waste, and water use, but that of its suppliers and customers as well. It’s an ambitious plan which seeks to make the whole supply chain sustainable – while doubling Unilever’s profits. The company is also funding a range of projects, including encouraging the sustainable production of palm oil (although who knows if it’ll be able to roll back the incredible damage it did by investing in palm oil in the first place), and sponsoring hygiene programmes in the developing world to reduce the numbers of children who die as a result of diarrhoea.  I really hope that they succeed, even as it becomes increasingly apparent that we need to consume less for social and ecological good.

I think that my concern about the WFP’s enthusiasm for Unilever is connected to the fact that this business makes a profit by selling food which isn’t particularly good for its customers. However much Unilever might like to promote its fluffy credentials – and buying Ben and Jerry’s, the business which gave away scoops of Yes Pecan! ice cream on the day of Obama’s inauguration, was certainly part of this – its purpose is to make as much money as possible for its shareholders. The question we need to ask is how it goes about raising those profits.

For all of Unilever’s good intentions, it has a patchy track record on the quality of the food it produces. Consider the ingredients in a jar of Skippy peanut butter:

Roasted peanuts, corn syrup solids, sugar, soy protein, salt, hydrogenated vegetable oils (cottonseed, soybean, and rapeseed) to prevent separation, mono- and diglycerides, minerals (magnesium oxide, zinc oxide, ferric orthophosphate, copper sulfate), vitamins (niacinamide, pyridoxine hydrochloride, folic acid)

In comparison, the sugar- and salt-free version of South Africa’s Black Cat peanut butter (also the product of a big food company), contains peanuts and ‘stabiliser’. There are other brands of mass-produced peanut butter which contain only peanuts and oil.

I know that this might seem like nitpicking, but the point is that Unilever doesn’t sell ‘whole’, unprocessed food to make a profit: like any other big food company, it adds strange and occasionally harmful ingredients to its products to make them taste better or last longer, and it hides this fact with a vast advertising budget. In 2009, for example, it spent £148 million on advertising in the UK alone. In the same year, in Canada it promoted Hellman’s mayonnaise as part of an ‘eat localdrive. Two years before that, a US-based campaign around ‘real food’ suggested that Hellman’s could be included in a diet of ‘real’, ‘whole’ food. Hellman’s is neither ‘local’, nor ‘real’. Its low-fat version contains the following:

Water, modified corn starch, soybean oil, vinegar, high fructose corn syrup, egg whites, salt, sugar, xantham gum, lemon and lime peel fibres, colours added, lactic acid, (sodium benzoate, calcium disodium edta) used to protect quality, phosphoric acid, natural flavours

The bulk of Unilever’s profits come from margarine, which it promotes heavily on the grounds of its health benefits – something which still divides the medical world. This is a business which chooses its ethics carefully.

Consider its involvement in the Public Health Commission, a body created in 2008 by the UK’s then-shadow Minister of Health, Andrew Lansley (greedy):

In the chair of the commission, by invitation of Lansley, was Dave Lewis, UK and Ireland chairman of Unilever, one of the largest processors of industrial fats in the world.

With him were Lucy Neville-Rolfe, corporate affairs director of Tesco, , the supermarket that has been a leading opponent of the traffic light food labelling scheme favoured by the Food Standards Agency, and Lady Buscombe, Conservative peer and former head of the Advertising Association, where she established herself as a formidable political champion of the ad industry’s right to operate free of restrictions.

Asda’s corporate affairs director, Paul Kelly, formerly PR head of Compass, the school meals company of turkey twizzler fame, had to send his apologies. Mark Leverton, policy director of Diageo, manufacturer of leading vodka, whisky and beer brands, joined them by phone.

Lansley – who has links with the food industry – is now Minister of Health and, surprise, surprise, had invited this dubious collection of businesses, alongside McDonald’s, KFC, PepsiCo, and Mars, to help shape Britain’s public health policies around obesity and diet-related diseases. This is as pointless as asking BP, Shell, and Chevron to end the world’s reliance on fossil fuels.

One of the first outcomes of this public-private partnership was the Department of Health’s ‘Great Swapathon’ which encourages families in England to choose healthy products through a voucher scheme. The vouchers

can be exchanged for products deemed to be healthy, including Unilever’s Flora Light margarine, Mars’ Uncle Ben’s rice and Molson’s alcohol free lagers. Other businesses offering vouchers will include supermarket Asda, for its own brand goods; sportswear firm JJB Sports; outdoor activity provider Haven Holidays; Weight Watchers; and private gym group the Fitness Industry Association. The News of the World will help promote the scheme.

The list of companies includes food manufacturers whose products have been blamed for increasing obesity. Unilever’s product range includes ice creams, Pot Noodle and Peperami, while Mars makes chocolate and Molson is a brewer.

‘The News of the World will help promote the scheme.’ Priceless.

This is so misguided it’s almost amusing. A scheme to promote healthy eating actually benefits a clutch of big food companies whose products facilitate Britain’s obesity crisis.

The WFP is engaged in a similar project. It also works in partnership with PepsiCo, manufacturer of crisps, soft drinks, and a range of non-foods; Cargill, whose inhumane and unhygienic slaughterhouse practises contributed to an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant salmonella in some of its meat in the US; Yum! Brands, whose chains include KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell; and Vodafone, a company’s whose outstanding £6 billion tax bill in 2010 could have paid the UK’s welfare bill for a year.

The WFP was established in 1961 to eliminate hunger and malnutrition. Its focus is on providing food aid, but aims ultimately to reform the food system to the extent that food aid will become largely unnecessary. While the WFP has been invaluable in bringing emergency supplies of food to disaster areas, it has singularly failed to do anything else. We are in the midst of a global food crisis where food aid is needed more than ever before.

One could argue that this is precisely the reason why it’s necessary for the WFP to work with big organisations: they have money and resources. The WFP can only respond to the crisis with adequate funding and assistance. But even given the fact that the WFP is desperately in need of funds at the moment, there is no great imperative for it to work with Unilever, PepsiCo, Vodafone or any other dodgy multinational – and I think that these partnerships only serve to undermine the WFP’s aims. (And it’s worth taking a closer link at the WFP’s finances, as this excellent investigation into the WFP by Sheila Dillon of the BBC’s Food Programme does.)

Famine and malnutrition are caused by a range of factors and, paradoxically, a lack of food isn’t one of them. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen wrote, people starve or go hungry when they can’t buy food: when food becomes too expensive for them to afford it, or when distribution systems fail or are inadequate. There’s usually enough food to go around, but people have difficulty accessing it.

One of the best, and most poignant, examples of this was the 1992 famine in Somalia which occurred in Bay, one of the country’s most agriculturally productive regions. People starved because militias prevented food from being cultivated and distributed efficiently. It’s no coincidence that famines occur in countries with dysfunctional – or no – governments. The Ethiopian famine in the mid-1980s began after the collapse of its government – the country had managed to feed itself before then.

Democracies tend to have food systems which function properly. Instead of focussing on raising money and sending food parcels, promoting democracy and drawing attention to the connection between bad governance and hunger should be at the top of the WFP’s agenda.

Getting big food and agriculture companies to sponsor the WFP’s work will not bring democracy to the developing world, nor will it end the food crisis. These are organisations have little or no interest in promoting good governance if it’s bad for business.

And, secondly, some of these organisations have actually benefitted from the food crisis. Cargill is the world’s biggest agricultural commodities trader, and it’s been doing rather well recently, as the Financial Times reported in January:

Cargill benefited from supply disruptions in the global food chain and rising prices to report a tripling in profits in the second quarter of its fiscal year.

The world’s largest agricultural commodities trader said net income in the three months to November 30 rose to $1.49bn, up from $489m in the same period a year earlier.

First-half earnings more than doubled to $2.37bn, up from $1.01bn in the six months to the end of November 2010.

The windfall highlights the big margins in the sector led by Cargill, which rose to prominence in the 2007-08 food crisis, when agricultural commodities prices hit all-time highs.

Chris Johnson, credit analyst at Standard & Poor’s in New York, said that droughts in some of the key grain-producing regions and the ensuing trade dislocations were behind the strong results.

‘To the extent that you’re able to provide grains in parts of the world where they cost more you can get a larger profit margin,’ he said.

Food prices have been driven up by food speculation. Cargill is both a hedge fund and a commodities trader, so it not only benefits from higher food prices – but is partly responsible for causing them to rise too.

The title of this post comes from an essay by Roland Barthes from his collection Mythologies (1957). In ‘Operation Margarine’ he argues that advertisers use a kind of reverse psychology to persuade us to buy things we know aren’t all that good for us: the advertisement acknowledges that the product, margarine in the example Barthes provides, isn’t as tasty or healthy as its rivals, but then turns this on its head by emphasising its convenience and cheapness. Margarine then becomes the obvious product to buy.

The WFP is attempting some margarine-mythmaking in insisting that its work can only be achieved in partnership with these big multinationals: yes, they’re bad, but – hey, what can you do? They have money and power and people are hungry. Nonsense. The WFP is inadvertently giving the best PR possible to a clutch of businesses which, at best, have very little interest in producing good, healthy food. At worst, the WFP is trying to solve world hunger in partnership with organisations which have a vested interest in keeping the world hungry.

Further Reading

Texts cited here:

Peter T. Leeson, ‘Better off stateless: Somalia before and after government collapse,’ Journal of Comparative Economics, vol. 35 (2007), pp. 689-710.

Ken Menkhaus, ‘The Crisis in Somalia: Tragedy in Five Acts,’ African Affairs, vol. 106/204 (2007), pp. 357-390.

Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, revised ed. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

Amartya Sen, ‘The Food Problem: Theory and Policy,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 4, no. 3 (Jul., 1982), pp. 447-459.

Other sources:

A. Clarkson and E. Margaret Crawford, Feast and Famine: Food and Nutrition in Ireland 1500-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen (eds.), The Political Economy of Hunger, 3 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Black ’47 and Beyond: the Great Irish Famine in History, Economy and Memory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

Cormac Ó Gráda, Famine: A Short History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009).

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Making Famine History,’ Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 45, no. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 5-38.

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘Revisiting the Bengal Famine of 1943-4,’ History Ireland, vol. 18, no. 4, The Elephant and Partition: Ireland and India (July/August 2010), pp. 36-39.

Cormac Ó Gráda, ‘The Ripple that Drowns? Twentieth-Century Famines in China and India as Economic History,’ Economic History Review, vol. 61, (2008), pp. 5-37.

Amartya Sen, ‘Famines as Failures of Exchange Entitlements,’ Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 11, no. 31/33, Special Number: Population and Poverty (Aug., 1976), pp. 1273-1280.

Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

C.P. Melville, ‘The Persian Famine of 1870-72: Prices and Politics,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 133-150.

Anne M. Thompson, ‘Somalia: Food Aid in a Long-Term Emergency,’ Food Policy (Aug. 1983), pp. 209-219.

C. Paul Vincent, The Politics of Hunger: The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1915-1919 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985).

Christian Webersik, ‘Mogadishu: An Economy without a State,’ Third World Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 8 (2006), pp. 1463-1480.

S.G. Wheatcroft, ‘Famine and Food Consumption Records in Early Soviet History, 1917-25,’ in Food, Diet, and Economic Change Past and Present (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1993), pp. 151-174.

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