The global actors in the food business are now busy finding or creating markets for industrial food products. Countries with a large population, where laws and regulatory authorities are absent or weak, are generally the targets. Categories such as 'nutrition,' 'micro-nutrients,' etc play a role in constituting new corporate markets.
These categories implicitly suggest that agriculture, and farming communities cannot provide healthy foods and nutrients necessary for a healthy life but could only be provided by high-tech industrially produced commodities.
A major shift in our perception of food, agriculture and nutrition is taking place in this era of globalisation. Therefore, the high prevalence of malnutrition has become a good market for industrially produced food, which is technically designed for the corporate sector rather than farming communities.
At the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), to be held on 23 September 2021 in New York, the proponents of industrial food production are arguing that the 'food system' is broken. Therefore, the transformation of the food system is urgently needed to feed everyone in this globe. Feeding people and solving malnutrition are two major market opportunities for the big corporations and philanthro-capitalists.
Bangladesh has a high prevalence of malnutrition among children and women. Consequently, the country has become one of the target countries for technological solutions. It has recently graduated from the Least Developed Country (LDC) status. The poverty rate also has declined to 15 percent in 2016. Moreover, per capita income has reached US$ 1,968 (World Bank data, 2020).
But the situation with regards to malnutrition is not as bright.
About 5.5 million children under 5 years (36 percent) are suffering from chronic malnutrition (stunting or low height-for-age), and 14 percent are acutely malnourished (wasting or low weight-for-height), according to the National Institute of Population Research and Training (NIPORT) 2016. Another NIPORT report (2013) shows about 35 percent of the population remains food insecure, and 10 percent of ever-married women are moderately or severely food insecure.
These are the consequences of the so-called Green Revolution that has been implemented for decades. The Green Revolution was premised on the theory that in order to feed a growing population focus should be on the quantity of food production and not the quality of how and what we produce.
Malnutrition is not the only consequence, non-communicable diseases (NCD) have also been increasingly prevalent. A critical re-evaluation of the Green Revolution suggests that there is a need for a qualitative shift in our understanding of farming and food production.
At the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS), to be held on 23 September 2021 in New York, the proponents of industrial food production are arguing that the 'food system' is broken.
The shift is much needed to make it more responsive to the environment, ecology and the natural cycles and processes so that science and technology can function more harmoniously with natural and biological laws rather than distorting, destroying and devastating the very basis of life.
Despite the Earth Summit of 1992, Convention of Biological Diversity, and programs such as Agenda 21, the global concerns for the environment, ecology, farming, and indigenous knowledge have been systematically ignored in favour of profit from the food business and corporate interests and priorities. Science and technology have been increasingly reduced to serve the interests of corporations rather than humanity.
In this context, 'micronutrient deficiencies' has been a way of techno-fixing the problem of malnutrition in a targeted manner. According to NIPORT and ICDDR,B, vitamin A deficiency among preschool children was estimated at 21 percent; zinc deficiency affects 45 percent of preschool children, and 51 percent of children under 5 years suffer from anaemia. Similarly, iodine deficiency disorders were measured by goitre prevalence and urinary iodine excretion. In the mid-1990s, around 47 percent of the population suffered from goitre. Today, that number has fallen well below 6 percent.
However, the iodisation of salt remained a major program. Lately, the Iodised Salt Bill, 2021, was placed in the Parliament aiming to improve the monitoring and efficacy of the country's salt iodisation program. The proposed bill will be enacted by annulling the previous 'Iodine Deficiency Disease Prevention Act-1989' which made it mandatory for all salt on the market meant for human consumption to be iodised. Under the new Bill, it would be considered an offence for anyone to import, produce, market, or stock salt without registering beforehand. It is now a big business for iodised salt for all age groups of the population.
In 2008, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation funded the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). UNICEF formed the Universal Salt Iodisation (USI) partnership project to intensify business-oriented efforts toward the global elimination of iodine deficiency. The goal of the partnership project was to increase household iodised salt coverage in 13 priority countries to achieve a combined household coverage of 85 percent.
Bangladesh is also among the 12 USAID-sponsored Feed the Future Initiative, with a focus on nutrition. About 60 US companies are involved in this project under the new US government's Global Food Security Strategy. The main objective of the project is to intensify staple production as well as to diversify agriculture into high-value, nutrient-dense commodities.
Food and nutrition are no more in the hands of the farming communities, these are being taken over by the food companies. Our food and health is now merely a sector of production for corporate investment for profit.
Bangladesh joined the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement in 2012 and formed SUN Business Network (SBN) with 137 private sector members. The government mandates the fortification of multiple food products.
In preparation for the UNFSS 2021, the Ministry of Food has been coordinating national dialogues supported by the FAO and Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). The Ministry of Industries along with the private sectors are working to 'improve' the nutrition situation of Bangladeshi people through a programme to fortify a huge amount of food with vitamins and minerals.
In its efforts to eradicate malnutrition, the government has passed a law in 2013 to fortify edible oil with vitamin A. As a result, 95 percent of packaged edible oil and 41 percent drummed edible oil has come under the vitamin A fortification programme. The government is also planning to fortify wheat and cornflour with vitamin A.
In all these programmes, the Ministry of Agriculture is less visible, however, it is also bio-fortifying rice with zinc, and more engaged in genetic modifications of eggplant, rice, potato, etc. It simply means that the role of farmers is denied in producing food for solving malnutrition. The private sectors, including the commercial importers, are rather more visible with their profit motives.
These projects do not try to find out the real causes of malnutrition among children, and women of reproductive age. For that, we need to first know about the state of malnutrition among the poor people, the workers, the floating population and different sections of the society as the food availability is not equal for all.
These initiatives of industrial fortification of food overlook the fact that Bangladesh is very rich in food diversity including rice, lentils, vegetables, fruits, and others. There is no discussion on how the food crops are losing nutrient values due to the use of chemicals, fertilisers, and pesticides. In modern chemical-based agriculture, food is becoming unsafe, leading to many food-borne illnesses.
Monoculture rice crops, using almost 80 percent of the land, are resulting in a deficiency in the production of other essential food crops needed for nutritional balance. Poor dietary diversity, with 70 percent of the diet comprising cereals and inadequate protein and micronutrient intake is blamed but it is not mentioned how the monoculture production and use of pesticides affect the availability and quality of food and nutrition.
Instead of transforming the chemical-based farming, new techno-fixing of few food items, edible oil fortified with vitamin A, rice fortified with zinc, salt fortified with iodine are offered as solutions to malnutrition. These are not the only foods that people eat. An agro-ecological and biodiversity-based farming approach to farming for food production would solve most of the problems.
It is to be noted that only 30 percent of the global population is fed primarily by the industrial food chain while the remaining 70 percent obtain their food primarily from local smallholder food webs including the family farms around the world. (ETC Group Communiqué #118, July 2021).
We need science and technology to strengthen our bio-geographical, environmental and ecological basis for the production of food and nutrition consistent with our culture and local knowledge practices to ground science in our day-to-day practice.
However, the techno-fixing of fissures disregarding the cause of the food and nutritional problems are dangerous trails that we must avoid. Inviting uncritical engagements of global corporations and agencies, binding Bangladesh to external dictates denies our ability to solve problems in line with our scientific, economic, and ecological interests that must be grounded in our history and indigenous knowledge.
These are the major battlegrounds for aspiring nations like ours. The industrialisation of food and nutrition by destroying agriculture as the basis of life is a very insecure and dangerous trail that we must avoid. We must integrate science and knowledge to build up the basis of our lives, farming, and culture of food and healthy life.
The author is the Executive Director of UBINIG.