20 August 2012

Food shortages: what can we do?

A large percentage of the SA population is already living below the breadline. Any additional shortage or food price increase could be devastating for our country, warns DietDoc.


A large percentage of the SA population is already living below the breadline. Any additional shortages or increases in the price of basic food items could be devastating for our country, warns DietDoc. 

Recent articles in the newspapers with headlines warning of a “food price crunch” or “food price spikes” must alarm anyone who is concerned about the health of our nation. To achieve and maintain good health, it is vital that we all have an adequate nutrient intake. This means that we should all be afforded the right to nourishing food in sufficient quantities to prevent famine, that dreaded third Horseman of the Apocalypse.

If our food supplies, particularly staple foods such as maize, wheat or rice, become scarce, then the first dietary consequence is inevitably a lack of energy. Such a large percentage of the South African population is already living below the breadline, that any additional shortages or increases in the price of basic foods and/or staples could seriously endanger the total food security of our population. People who do not get enough energy from their diets face primary starvation or famine. We are all acquainted with the horrors of famine in other countries such as Somalia, but probably never think that such disasters could strike our own country. As drought stalks the earth, the possibility of wide-spread famine looms ever closer.

Dire predictions

According to an article in the Pretoria News by Veronica Brown (2012) entitled, “Importers rush for food amid price spike”, the drought in the so-called "farm belt" of the USA has been driving prices of maize, soya beans and wheat ever higher. To protect their own and prevent "food riots" which occurred in previous periods of food scarcity, many food importing nations, such as Mexico, have started buying up large quantities of staple foods. Economists fear that these actions may start panic buying and push up food prices to levels that many countries in the developing world will not be able to afford.

The FAO (Food and Agriculture Agency) of the United Nations has also had to acknowledge that there is a risk that “'prices have the potential to increase further” (Brown, 2012).

The drought in the USA has been classified as “the worst in more than half a century” (Abbott, 2012), which means that the American "bread basket" will not be able to supply sufficient wheat to their own markets or to other buyers.

South Africa, which is not fully self-sufficient when it comes to supplying the nation with food, will also be badly disadvantaged as food prices rise. TJ Strydom (2012), writing in The Times a few weeks ago, pointed out that maize, the prime staple food of millions of South Africans, already costs twice as much as two years ago. The prediction that a 5kg bag of maize which presently sells at about R28, could cost more than R32 in a year’s time, if food inflation reaches the 15% level, could spell disaster for nutrition and health in South Africa.

What can we do?

We must hope that our government has an emergency plan ready to assist the population if we as a nation should be threatened by famine. In the meanwhile, one of the most proactive means of combatting malnutrition is to ensure that the scarce resources that we do have, are used properly. To achieve prudent utilisation of our food resources the following actions are essential:

1) Nutrition education

People who are aware of the relationship between health and nutrition are more empowered to make informed choices when it comes to spending scarce financial resources on foods and drinks. We, as nutritionists, should help our people to understand that the first priority when purchasing food, is to buy staple foods such as fortified maize, fortified bread, brown rice, or sorghum plus some plant oil and/or tub margarine to meet the basic energy needs of men, women and children.

Once our energy needs have been provided for, we then need to supply the body with protein for growth and repair. Protein foods are, however, among the most expensive items on any food shopping list.

Most people do not realise that it is perfectly possible to obtain nearly all the essential amino acids (i.e. protein building blocks that we cannot manufacture in the human body), from plant sources such as peanut butter and legumes which include cooked or canned dry beans, split peas, lentils and soybeans. The latter foods have kept massive populations in countries like China, sustained for centuries. If we add a cup of cooked legumes to our daily intake of maize or bread, then we basically only need a small amount of animal protein (meat, fish, eggs, milk, yoghurt, maas, or cheese) of about 30g per day to ensure that our protein intake is adequate.

To provide additional vitamins and minerals for good health, we should eat vegetables and fruit every day. Many people cannot afford to buy fruit, but vegetables are just as nourishing and are generally much cheaper. Most vegetables, including pumpkin and carrots (high in beta-carotene), cabbage and tomatoes (high in vitamin C), can also be grown in home gardens. Teaching people how to cultivate their own vegetables gardens at home, on communal property and at schools, could mean the difference between deficiency diseases and good health.

2) Getting our priorities right

When a family is faced with the spectre of food insecurity, it is imperative that any money that is available, is spent on nutritious food and that alcoholic drinks, cold drinks and squashes, sweets and fast foods are banned until the economic situation improves. Too often, households starve while one or two members indulge in drinking alcohol at the expense of their families. It is human to want to "drown one’s sorrows", but if that money was rather used to buy food that can feed the whole family, just  imagine what a positive effect this would have.

In some areas, it is tradition that adult men in a family are given the best foods in the largest quantities. In dire times, all food should be divided among all the members of the family so that children and women (who are often pregnant or breastfeeding), also benefit from these scarce resources.

While we hope that the government will step in to alleviate the stress of rising food prices, education and learning how to prioritise when it comes to the allocation of food in communities and families, can go a long way to ensuring that even if we have little food, we are putting it to the best possible use.

 - (Dr IV van Heerden, DietDoc, August 2012)

(References: Abbott C (2012). Drought batters US maize stockpile. Pretoria News, 13 August 2012. Reuters Washington; Brown V (2012). Importers rush for food amid price spike. Pretoria News, 13 August 2012. Reuters London;  Strydom TJ (2012). Brace for food price crunch. The Times, 6 August 2012, pages 1-2.)

(Photo of woman shopping for groceries from Shutterstock)

Any questions? Ask DietDoc

Read more:

Good nutrition on a shoestring
1 in 4 children malnourished
UN child hunger target won't be met
Healthy eating on a tight budget


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