Why nutrition matters

Nutrition is the X-factor in food security. A recent University forum examined ways to improve food quality, not just quantity.
By Chris Rodley
Nutritional chart

How to grow enough food to feed ourselves is a challenge humans have grappled with for more than 10,000 years. But after decades of research and development in agriculture, which have led to dramatic improvements in crop yields, a new problem has arisen. Now that the world can grow enough food, why are so many people still undernourished?

“The problem is that we haven’t been able to ensure the right nutrient yield,” says Associate Professor Robyn Alders, a veterinary scientist who studies food security at the University‘s Charles Perkins Centre. “So we are not necessarily getting better health from better food production.”

In fact, people who live where food is abundant can sometimes be among the worst off because their diet centres on a single, staple grain with a poor nutritional profile. For example, says Associate Professor Alders, some of the highest rates of undernutrition in Zambia are found in the heart of the nation’s corn belt. Up to 53 per cent of children there suffer from stunted growth, which can permanently impair their health and intellectual abilities.

Tackling this enigma was the focus of the inaugural forum on food security held at the University in March, which was jointly hosted by the Charles Perkins Centre, the Marie Bashir Institute for Infectious Diseases and BioSecurity and the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre. It united experts from across the University and around the world to discuss ways of ensuring people in developing and developed countries can access nutritious food.

According to Associate Professor Bill Pritchard, a geographer from the School of Geosciences, the main issue is a disconnect between agricultural policies and the needs of undernourished people. He cites the example of India, where heavy government subsidies for wheat and rice have resulted in massive surpluses of grain. “When we do surveys of the poor in India, we find that’s not the food they need more of,” he says. “They need more vegetables, and more iron and protein-rich foods like chickpeas and lentils.”

To fix the problem, he says we need to look at it through the eyes of the world’s 870 million undernourished people. Solutions will vary according to the needs of specific communities. They could include providing subsidies for farmers to grow more of what local people require, or offering assistance to families to start kitchen gardens, or helping them develop new income streams to buy more nutritious food.

Robyn Alders takes a similar, bottom-up approach in the project she is launching in Zambia and Tanzania, with funding from the Australian International Food Security Centre. To help subsistence farmers get more of the protein and micronutrients their diets are missing, her team will be assisting women to raise healthy, free-range hens for eggs, and to grow and store green leafy vegetables.

Tomato season in Zambia

Tomato season in Zambia

Targeting women in particular is key to the initiative, explains Dr Brigitte Bagnol, an anthropologist from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa who is collaborating with Alders. “Many women in Southern Africa who are subsistence farmers do most of the preparation and conservation of food, the water and sanitation activities, and the caring for children and the sick,” she says. Yet while women hold most of the responsibility for providing food in their families, they often don’t have the knowledge to do so effectively.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, only five percent of global farmer education and information programs end up reaching women; their project aims to change that.

Empowering women is vital because it’s usually women and their children who are most undernourished, says Dr Bagnol. By ensuring pregnant and breastfeeding women and children receive enough nutritious food, stunted growth can be prevented and the intergenerational cycle of poverty can be broken. However, women’s ongoing economic control of village poultry is not assured, she points out: “It has been reported that when an activity becomes lucrative, men who previously were not involved take over from women. So nothing is easy.”

While many of us think of undernutrition as a problem confined to developing countries, several speakers at the forum emphasised that it is also a critical issue for wealthy nations. Paradoxically, a lack of nutritionally-balanced food is driving the obesity epidemic in Australia, says nutritional ecologist Professor David Raubenheimer from the Charles Perkins Centre.

“Obesity is often considered to be a problem of gluttony and sloth,” he explains. “In fact, it results from a shortage of a particular nutrient, namely protein.” In his world-renowned research with biologist Professor Steve Simpson, Professor Raubenheimer has shown how our craving for protein can drive us to overeat when faced with foods that have low protein levels and high carbohydrates and fats.

Our tendency to keep eating until we satisfy our appetite for protein can explain the soaring rate of obesity in Australia’s socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, says Professor Raubenheimer. Because high-protein foods are more expensive, people fill up on cheaper foods that are high in carbohydrates and fats, and end up overeating. It should be noted, however, that Professor Raubenheimer’s research suggests it is also unwise to eat too much protein, which is associated with a lower lifespan: “Balance is everything,” he says.

Obesity is often considered to be a problem of gluttony. In fact, it results from a shortage of a particular nutrient, namely protein.

Our tendency to keep eating until we satisfy our appetite for protein can explain the soaring rate of obesity in Australia’s socioeconomically disadvantaged communities, says Professor Raubenheimer. Because high-protein foods are more expensive, people fill up on cheaper foods that are high in carbohydrates and fats, and end up overeating. It should be noted, however, that Professor Raubenheimer’s research suggests it is also unwise to eat too much protein, which is associated with a lower lifespan: “Balance is everything,” he says.

So how do we help people in industrialised nations like Australia to eat a more balanced diet? One popular strategy is health promotion and food labelling, such as the star rating system for food currently under review by the federal government. But while such efforts can be valuable, they’re only one piece of the puzzle, according to Shauna Downs, a PhD candidate at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy. “It’s upstream where we can make the huge difference,” she says.

For example, farmers could be given incentives to diversify their crops, while food processors could be encouraged or required to reformulate products to make them more healthy. Policies at the retail level could range from restricting the zoning of fast food restaurants to offering fruit and vegetable vouchers, a scheme now underway in New York City. Ideally, all these policies should be integrated. A good example, she says, is Illawarra’s regional food strategy, which spans everything from community education to providing council land for public vegetable gardens, fruit trees and new food enterprises.

There is one more tactic which could help humans gain better access to nutritious food wherever they live around the world: thinking about it as a human right. The concept of a right to food is already being used to drive positive changes, explains Bill Pritchard. In India, a peak civil society organisation took the Government of India to the Supreme Court, arguing that it had not upheld the right to food. And in Brazil, a range of policies, from urban agriculture projects to a social security safety net have been driven by a right-to-food approach. “This kind of right may sound hollow, bringing to mind people on expense accounts waxing lyrical in Geneva,” he says. “But the right to food is starting to move from an abstract concept to something practical.”