Not hunger is the biggest problem on the countryside, but malnutrition. A revolutionary insight that only broke through internationally in 2014. Small-scaled farmers and farm workers who produce primarily for export chains usually get enough calories, but the shortage of vitamins and minerals is dreadful.
If there is any yield to mention about the UN Year of Family Farming, it is the worldwide realization that not only hunger is a major problem, but especially the monotonous diet. A realization that hit Bärbel Weiligmann as a thunderbolt. For her, it was a life changing moment. An eye opener with far reaching consequences.
Bärbel works for decades as an agronomist in developing countries. ‘In addition to increased production, we looked at the environmental and social conditions. But we never looked at the diet.’
Weiligmann is special advisor at GAIN, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. If the income of small-scale farmers goes up, the rest will follow, was the general hypothesis. It was also Weiligmanns assumption.
Until she met Marianne van Dorp. Van Dorp is program coordinator at the Centre for Development Innovation (CDI), part of Wageningen UR. This was during her support to cocoa farmers in Indonesia to improve their production.
With a bit of practice, one can clearly see the consequences of malnutrition, looking at children. Marianne pointed out the appearance to Bärbel. The height and weight. ‘Suddenly I could clearly see the underdevelopment on the children. That experience changed my life.’ Bärbel couldn’t do her job anymore the way she used to. ‘From that moment I had to take malnutrition in all my projects.’
‘Suddenly I could clearly see the underdevelopment on the children. That experience changed my life.’
Because the impact of a diet with too little variety is disastrous. Worldwide, 53% of child deaths is related to underweight. With the primary producers of international export chains, sometimes more than a quarter of the children are too small for their age, due to a limited diet.
It seems a problem that is easy to tackle. But simply introducing some fruits and vegetables and some animal products, is not enough, warns Yuca Waarts of LEI Wageningen UR. In Kenya, she examined, commissioned by the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), the possibilities of diversification of small tea producers.
‘Economically, these farmers dependent on coffee only.’ With projects in farmer field schools, IDH wanted to increase their economic strength with producing other products. Maize and chickens, for example. But she didn’t investigate whether this led to improved food security.
‘Maybe they sell all their chickens and vegetables on the market. Or maybe they ate eggs before, now they just don’t need to buy them anymore. ‘It is clear that it has a positive impact on income, but that does not automatically lead to another diet. ‘Perhaps with the extra revenue their children can go to school. Or they buy a TV.’
‘There is a clear correlation with monocultures’
About the causes and the responsibilities of chronic malnutrition at the start of the export chains, like those in cocoa, the Van Dorp from CDI is diplomatic: ‘There is a clear correlation with monocultures. Whether there really is a causal relationship, we have not studied.’
However, the same correlation exists in cocoa regions in Ivory Coast and Ghana. ‘And you find the same high malnutrition rates in research of three major tea and coffee regions.’
Weiligmann has developed a roadmap for cocoa and coffee. Along with IDH she works on the development of existing structures in programs for agriculture, community and education.
Not only Weiligmann; worldwide this insight has landed. It can become a revolution. Weiligmann compares it with Rio ’94. ‘That’s where the environmental debate came at full intensity.’
Meanwhile, there is so much attention for malnutrition; 2014 can become the year that will be remembered as the year when the food debate has erupted. For this year it became clear that there are two billion people undernourished and the same amount of people are obese. And not only hunger is a major problem, but especially the monotonous diet.
Lots of multinationals want to invest in companies that produce their raw materials, knows Jordy van Honk, program manager Tea in Africa at the IDH. ‘Companies increasingly focus on topics that have no direct link to the product or the consumer. They truly want these issues to be resolved.’
The Netherlands is leading in those kind of programs. It is here where a systematic approach to the problem is created. ‘The collaboration between private, government and knowledge is typical for the Netherlands,’ explains Bärbel Weiligmann. ‘And this country also has a rich history when it comes to training farmers and developing organizational structures such as cooperatives.’
© Marc van der Sterren