Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Pills For Poverty

An article in entitled Don't Medicalize Micronutrient Deficiency argues that biofortifying foods or handing out food supplements is not a sustainable solution to malnutrition problems. Countries that have high levels of malnutrition have food and agriculture problems that pills or fortified foods will not solve.

This is a timely reminder, when so many 'solutions' come in the form of technical fixes that are often expensive, short term, inappropriate, unsustainable and often don't even work. I recently mentioned Bill Gates efforts to eradicate water borne diseases like polio, malaria and cholera by developing vaccines when the best strategy would be to improve water and sanitation. Water borne diseases can not be eradicated in areas where people don't have access to clean water and adequate sanitation.

Another problem with certain biofortified foods is that they have intellectual property rights associated with them, which adds a lot to their cost. Why should poor people suffering from nutritional deficiencies, instead of being enabled to produce enough high quality food, be offered something that is expensive and is just impoverishing their country further?

Some of the manufacturers of genetically modified organisms (GMO) have even got in on the micronutrient method of screwing yet more money out of developing countries. The vitamin A fortified rice, which was claimed to reduce blindness caused by vitamin A deficiency, springs to mind. Unfortunately, it contained vitamin A in a form that could not be absorbed and so it was a useless technology.

Poverty is the real problem when people can't afford a balanced diet for their family. If they are poor, they are certainly not going to be able to afford with the sort of premium price that intellectual property brings. And we have seen enough instances of poverty, disease and malnutrition being used as vehicles to sell expensive Western technologies, especially dangerous technologies that impoverish people further and that could even damage their health.

The attitude of multinationals, and that of certain people, seems to be to let people become sick and then come running with the pills or the GMOs or the technical solution. People need adequate economic means, food, food security, education, health services, water, sanitation, housing and the rest. In the absence of these human rights, they will suffer and die prematurely.

It may be the prerogative of multinationals and others to allow people to live in inhuman conditions as long as they can sell plenty of their goods. But it is not the prerogative of those who work in development or those who work to keep in check the excesses of multinationals. As the article in question points out, many of the people in the world suffering from malnutrition are farmers. They should be allowed to produce food that can provide themselves, their families and their countrypeople with a balanced diet. This would also improve economic circumstances and therefore health, education and other things, too.

If someone prescribes pills as a substitute for clean water or good food, they are probably a multinational.



Siobhan McAndrew said...

Ben Goldacre (in the UK educational context) cites the comedy headline: 'Pill solves complex social problem'. I think you've found the same thing...

Simon said...

Hi Siobhan. Yes, if behavioural problems are related to nutritional deficiencies I don't see a pill sorting it out. But people in the UK are in a position to choose from a very big range of foods and even to protest if food nutritional content is being diminished by manufacturing processes (an marketing trends).

Here, people have a very limited range. An adequate diet is probably possible but too expensive for many. But a lot of foods are not grown because people go for a combination of bulk food crops, like maize and cash crops, which they don't consume themselves.

When it comes to marketing, people here buy into absolute rubbish and really think that feeding handfuls of glucose powder than things like that is good for their children (who seem to inhale as much as they swallow). You can still get patent medicines here, like gripe water and sloan's liniment, for god's sake!