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writing for godot

The right to nutrition is a fundamental human right, as without food there is no right to life. (Flavio Valente)

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Saturday, 16 May 2020 17:03

Human rights: Food for right to life thought   ‘The right to eat’


Human Rights Reader 527


-Human rights start rather than end with the fulfillment of the right to eat…


Undernourished people cannot wait around for the slow-moving process of agricultural modernization


-Marginal changes of any kind will not be enough.


1. As opposed to what happens in countries rendered rich, in countries rendered poor, agriculture has remained a big component of the total national economic activity. Therefore, land reform and a social transformation of agriculture are highly important prerequisites for any progress on the right to food. Add to this that, without legal protection, small farmers will continue to be exploited by the Gullivers of the country.* Without strong local institutions, two-acre-farmers will not get their two-acre-share of credit and fertilizer and access to market to sell their produce.

*: The dangers of the current food information system is that its misuse by Gulliver speculators leads to market destabilization; history has proven this over and over again.


Household food security is different from household nutrition security


2. Food ought to be accessible to all as it is an all-people’s-right. How this is accomplished is not fundamental to the notion of only food-security-as-a-human-right since human rights (HR) are indivisible --so all HR must be respected. (K. Parik)


3. Intrinsic to the debate of food-security-as-a-HR is an acceptance that food injustice is pervasive and will last forever unless we do something about it. Food security is not even just a question of poverty, because there have been people who have been rendered poor who have had good diets** (e.g., hunter gatherers, subsistence peasants in temperate regions, WW2 Britain). It is the commoditization of food products and the handing over power to profit-seeking businesses that sustain long-term vested interests that are responsible. This drives agricultural practices far harder so they end up having negative effects on small producers. (These practices are worse than those of any government policy unfriendly to small producers).  Corporations that drive this commoditization will ensure that the existing situation is maintained forever --and they are skilled at bending government decision makers to their wills. (Gay Palmer)

**: FIAN Colombia suggests to us that, for accuracy, instead of continuing to use the word ‘diet’, we ought to use ‘food profiles’, ‘food patterns’ or ‘food regimens’. Think about and consider this…  Additionally, Carlos Monteiro, Joaquin Craviotto and others remind us that we have to more decisively go from nutrients to foodstuff to meals, i.e., going from the physical (chemicals) to the psychophysical and the psychosocial.


4. But all the above leaves out the crucial concept of FOOD SOVEREIGNTY! It is a shame that the concept is not yet sanctioned by the UN as a HR; for now, it is ‘downputishly’ called ‘a platform’. But this must simply change!


Tell me how much you make and I will tell you what you eat: The intimate relationship of income with nutrition


-Engel’s Law: As income increases, the percentage of income spent on food decreases, but absolute food expenditures increase. Bennet’s Law: The percentage of total calories supplied by starchy staples decreases as income increases. …Moreover, the consumption of expensive processed foods increases as income increases from the lowest levels.

-A rise in food costs is an inconvenience in rich countries; it is a disaster in countries rendered poor. (Frances Moore Lappe)


5. The sad truth is that economic improvements happen over the long run. But, unfortunately, people do not eat in-the-long-run --and elderly people do not even have a long run. They and our children eat and live in the present. (Bread for the World)


6. Let us look at an example: A big chunk of the current literature attempts to prove and convince us that increasing household income alone is not enough to do something significant towards combatting undernutrition in countries rendered poor. But the cut-off points for absolute poverty lines have been set at levels way too low to show measurable improvements in undernutrition in the short term if and when these cut-off income levels are attained. This, because higher income creates alternative consumption choices and preferences that, in the case of those rendered poor, lead to decreased percentages of disposable household income being spent on food. A relative poverty line thus emerges as a greater need with a clearly higher cut-off point than the one researchers (and the World Bank) are using when concluding that ‘income alone is not enough’.


7. Therefore, poverty alleviation of an order of magnitude significantly beyond absolute poverty is needed. And this poverty alleviation still remains absolutely central in the ultimate battle against malnutrition and other assorted HR violations.  I repeat: Income improvements alone do revert undernutrition of the lowest income decile households. In countries with very low per capita income, doubling the income/capita results in reductions of malnutrition of up to 40%.***

***: It is for moderate (not severe) undernutrition that it is more difficult to show significant improvements when income alone increases; a 10% increase in income can lead to about 4% increase in caloric intake.


8. Since the most urgent problem we face in the world still is severe malnutrition, anything we do to first eradicate severe cases of malnutrition is already a laudable and monumental task. This task is thus urgent and we need to get-on with it. Conversely, what we get to hear less about is that the literature also hides other evidence: for instance, in countries with GNPs per/cap of under $1,000/yr, a 300% increase in income would actually reduce the prevalence of malnutrition by up to 60%. Is this HR utopia? (u-topia = no place) Not if the preexisting per/cap income is $200/yr. Just think of how China conquered undernutrition… and India has not…


9. Now, ponder: Market expansion is increasing the availability of non-food goods and services… and our economists tell us that this fact plays a crucial role on households sacrificing nutrition to fulfill other desires.****

****: This new availability of affordable goods and services leads to household spending and consumption patterns that are not necessarily optimal from a nutritional point of view.


10. To make things worse, non-food expenditures rise more rapidly with increasing income than do food expenditures. This is why we need to remind ourselves that poverty, that is relative poverty, is related to the cost of locally acquiring food plus non-food commodities and services.


11. So, if poverty is measured directly as under-consumption of calories, as most of the literature does, one is measuring absolute poverty. Moreover, malnutrition measured as weight deficit is an indicator of ultimate outcome thus more related to relative than to absolute poverty. Therefore, even if the cut-off point chosen to define poverty is based on nutritional considerations, the malnourished household members still need mostly income to surpass that poverty line. Households that raise their income barely beyond a poverty-line-set-too-low, that is, based on absolute poverty levels, have actually no chance to expect improvements in the nutritional status of their members.(!)


So why be surprised?


12. Poverty alleviation significantly beyond absolute poverty is needed for lasting nutritional improvements, particularly because the percentage of total income being spent on food is lower due to competing needs. Poor people’s elasticity of demand for non-food items often surpasses that for staple foods (or the one for more expensive processed foods). Ergo, a simple household–food-first strategy is now more relative, because an array of non-food goods and services have become competing priorities. With competing expenditure options and needs for income disposal, the relative and more realistic poverty line is clearly at a higher household income cut-off point than the absolute poverty line that researchers in the literature are using as a threshold to be overcome to conquer malnutrition.


It is governance and policy failure more than anything else that prevents us from overcoming constraints to equity and thus to the eradication of malnutrition in the world


13. Trying to improve the nutrition of people ignoring how they are voting with their pockets will only keep pushing us in the wrong policy direction. Somehow, current interpretation of available data is leading to a double message: Income improvements have a role to play in reverting malnutrition in the long run, and non-economic related interventions in the short run. As a result, policies derived from this message, notoriously, mainly target the short-term interventions and leave the former long-term measures for ‘others’ to do something about. It will be only through more income elasticity of demand assessments that will tell us:

a) who our lowest income quintile or decile group is,

b) how this group’s income relates to the poverty line as set,

c) how nutritionally at risk people under this cut-off point are and, most importantly,

d) how households under the poverty line behave economically.


14. Only then will we be able to estimate more objectively how significant the increase in household income will have to be to better assure coverage of the caloric and other needs of all household members. We have then to find locus-specific cut-off points for percentages of household income spent on food below which malnutrition rates of children <5 can drop sharply enough. In other words, we need to find the threshold income needed to overcome the economic causes of malnutrition. And to reach this point, rather sizeable increases of total household income will be needed. As an indicator, this ‘percentage of household income spent on food’ will nicely complement the one that estimates the number of hours of work needed to buy a basic food basket that incorporates both wage and price effects.


15. For all these reasons, I still see disparity reduction (not poverty redressing) interventions as central in the ultimate battle against malnutrition worldwide --even if, as a start, enacted as increases in income alone.


Claudio Schuftan, Ho Chi Minh City

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