A weighty dilemma
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CTA. 2005. A weighty dilemma. Spore 117. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
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Feeding the growing towns of the South is a hefty challenge for ACP countries, already forced to import massive quantities of food at the expense of local production. To limit deficiencies, and the already alarming levels of obesity in many regions, they
n all ACP countries, growth in urban populations has already outstripped or very soon will that of rural areas. In Caribbean and Latin America, 75% of people live in towns. According to FAO, that figure will rise to 83% by 2030. In the Pacific and Asia, the percentage is set to increase from 37 to 53%, and in Africa it will rise from 38 to 55%. In coastal countries on the Gulf of Guinea, the urban population increased nine-fold between 1960 and 2000, while the rural population fell from 80% to 50%. Feeding towns which often have more than a million inhabitants is a considerable challenge for the governments of countries in the South. For a long time now, their main concern has been how to supply sufficient quantities of food for these people. In many countries, local farmers have dramatically stepped up production in order to supply the new urban demand. Food crops have become cash crops . Agriculture has also developed rapidly in and around the major cities, and this contributes to the supply of fresh vegetables, eggs, and poultry, among other products, for people living there. But in spite of the efforts of producers, local agriculture simply cannot keep pace with the growing requirements of these towns, which are forced to resort to imports. Rice, wheat, meat, oil, industrial agro-alimentary products imported merchandise is flooding the markets, often selling for less than local products. Countries vary in the extent to which they depend on these imports. In the Pacific, urban populations now rely almost entirely on imported products made by agro-alimentary industries. In the Caribbean, consumption levels of such products differ from one island to another. The cost of imports In sub-Saharan Africa, per capita imports have remained unchanged for the past 20 years, but according to recent studies, the overall figure has increased substantially due to the growth of urban populations. The fall in world commodity prices, together with trade liberalisation and agricultural subsidies to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries have led to a steady rise in cheap imports to countries of the South. FAO figures show that between 1995 and 2002, the volume of cereal imports to African countries rose by 58.2% while the price per tonne of rice fell by 35.2% (see Spore 115). Likewise, poultry imports have increased threefold while the price has dropped by more than 40% (see Spore 114). Mauritius, sick of junk food The mobile health missions which have been plying through the towns and villages of Mauritius for the past two years have made an alarming discovery: 40% of adults over 30 are obese, 30% suffer from high blood pressure and 20% are diabetic. In Mauritius, one out of every two deaths is linked to a "non-communicable disease" (NCD). Forever pushed for time, the islanders buy frozen and ready-to-eat food or eat street food. As part of the price of modern-day life, no one has time anymore to prepare meals or exercise not even walking. These bad habits became more widespread around 1995/1996, 5 or 6 years after the onset of Mauritius economic miracle. Traditionally, the people of this island ate large quantities of vegetables and very little meat. These days, however, junk food is the norm for town and rural dwellers alike, and no one is spared its effects. Thanks to these imports, food security for urban populations has not been a major worry for governments and the international community over the past decade, in contrast with the rural areas. But the cost of importing food has placed a heavy burden on a number of countries, which are forced to devote a growing share often more than half of their export revenues to feeding their people. Dependent on world prices, Africa is finding it increasingly difficult to pay for the imports needed to supply its urban growth. The recent rise in import prices is threatening to upset the balance of supplies for the towns and to leave the poorest sectors of urban populations to go hungry. Local products cannot replace them the supply is inadequate and they are usually more expensive than imported products. Since 2001, Africa has seen a deficit in its agriculture and food trade sectors. Food imbalances However, even though the towns in the South may not actually experience food shortages, the nutritional status of the people who live there is still far from satisfactory. A significant proportion of urban dwellers suffer from malnutrition. In the Pacific islands, no one dies of hunger, but there are high levels of anaemia and deficiencies in vitamin A and in trace elements. The same is true in West Africa, where one symptom of urban poverty is the rising level of micronutrient deficiency, especially in children. Lacking the means or even a place to cook meals, the poorest households often have no choice but to buy street food which just fills their stomachs as opposed to feeding themselves in any balanced way. Senegal: a vegetable garden on your balcony Tomatoes, salad leaves, cucumbers all these vegetables grow in profusion in Senegalese towns, planted in hydroponic "micro-gardens" set up in courtyards or on balconies. Launched by the Centre de Développement Horticole (CDH), an NGO in Cambérene, near Dakar, the "micro-garden" project was designed to help combat the malnutrition that affects many of the poorest families in the Senegalese capital who cannot afford fresh vegetables. The scheme also helps the gardeners earn extra income. The vegetables are grown in wooden tubs or polystyrene boxes. Instead of earth, the substratum is made up of peanut shells, rice husks and clay pellets and watered with a solution containing micro-nutrients. n many towns of the South, there are now two categories of people living side by side those suffering from serious nutritional deficiencies and those who have a diet that is much richer, but which is often far from balanced. The eating habits of urban populations has in fact changed dramatically over the past few decades. In the big cities, traditional food based on dishes which take a long time to prepare are being increasingly replaced by processed foods made by agro-alimentary industries, which often contain too much fat, sugar and salt. High consumption levels of sugary, carbonated drinks, fast food and food additives all take a toll on people s health. Families no longer sit down to eat together; instead, people eat on the run, relying on pre-packed food, a tendency which encourages snacking. A study carried out in 133 developing countries revealed that urban migration could result in a doubling of consumption levels of cheap, ready-to-eat food with a high fat and sugar content, in preference to more costly traditional dishes, which take longer to prepare and which are often also rich in fat. Added to these strictly nutritional factors is the problem of changing lifestyles more time spent sitting down, more use of transport, the mechanisation of the workplace, more passive leisure activities and the effects are beginning to make themselves felt. Researchers refer to a nutritional transition , a phenomenon which is very marked in towns which, depending on the country, have either undergone, or are undergoing a change from food insecurity to a situation where diseases associated with excessive nutrition are common conditions which are linked to unbalanced diets and urban life. The pace of this transition is more rapid than was thought as studies now show that babies born to malnourished mothers develop mechanisms in the womb to save on both energy and nutrients. Once they become well nourished adults, they have a stronger tendency than others to succumb to obesity. The problem of excess weight, and the string of diseases that it generates mainly diabetes and cardiovascular diseases is causing havoc in many towns of the South. Although this was originally an issue affecting the better-off social classes, it is now rapidly becoming a problem for the poorest sectors of the population, who have less choice about the food they eat. Non-communicable diseases Studies show that in Pacific states such as the Cook Islands, Nauru, Samoa and Tonga, 75% of inhabitants suffer from obesity. Diseases linked to obesity cause almost six out of every ten deaths in the western Pacific region. In these islands, rice, sugar and canned fruit and vegetables have taken the place of fresh fish, fruit and local vegetables. In the Caribbean, the fight against obesity, which, for example, now affects one in three Jamaicans, has become a key health priority for governments. In South Africa, which has the highest obesity rates on the continent, almost 20% of all adults and 30% of black women are affected. These non-communicable diseases are becoming increasingly common throughout Africa, where the percentage of deaths caused by cardio-vascular disease is already higher than in the West. In Cameroon, one out of every two men, and one out of every three women are overweight. And while such figures give cause for considerable concern, it must also be said that most people have very little understanding of the negative implications of excess weight. In Africa, being overweight is often seen as a sign of prosperity. In women, stoutness is considered a sign of good health (especially at a time when AIDS is rife), fertility and material well-being. These days, as participants at a recent CTA seminar in Belize noted, governments primary concern should certainly be to ensure that people have food in sufficient quantity. But they should also be concerned about the quality, so that people can lead healthy lives, work and be productive. A trio of CTA seminars Food and nutrition security is an important theme for CTA, which has arranged three seminars on the subject, covering the three ACP regions. The first was held in Maputo in November 2004. The second took place in Belize in March 2005. The final workshop, for the Pacific region, will be held in Apia. Farmers should strive for similar goals. Locally produced, high-quality products will always be popular, provided they do not cost too much and are quickly prepared. Increasing the supply of locally produced food is a vital issue for many city dwellers in the South. Do everything in your power to make sure your traditional diet remains as varied as possible , advises Francis Delpeuch, who heads a nutritional research team at the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), the French science and technology institute. If you forget these different ways of preparing food, which help to make up a varied diet, the imbalances are going to get worse. For most people living in the cities of the South, however, the main priority remains eating their fill.
- CTA Spore (English)