VEGA News Item

Science Applied to Africa - 12/01/2007
This second instalment of busy activities in September 2006 requires a special bulletin on our week's attendance at the Festival of Science; in particular, one whole day, doing Africa, needs special consideration.
1. This second instalment of busy activities in September 2006 requires a special bulletin on our week's attendance at the Festival of Science; in particular, one whole day, doing Africa, needs special consideration.

2. The Africa Day of the Science Festival in Norwich was preceded by a week or two by the Second Africa Nutritional Epidemiology Conference hosted by the University of Ghana and held at the Executive Conference Centre in the country. The Nutrition Society's Gazette (December 2006, Issue 31) rated it a "very successful conference, which attracted delegates from Africa, Europe, South America, the Indian subcontinent, and the USA."

3. Africa now faces a double burden of disease, having recently experienced a rapid nutritional transition following the demographic change that started about 3 decades ago. The current burden of non-communicable disease in developing countries is about 78%, compared with 21% in industrialized countries. This burden adds to the increasing rates of HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and morbidity and mortality, plus childhood malnutrition and mortality due to diseases actually preventable by vaccination that are "a direct result of increasing poverty and civil instability in a number of countries". Debt, corruption, and the ravaging of natural resources (e.g. of forests) add to the problems; and the demographic challenges are amplified by the ill-treatment of women, who are in many areas both child producers and farmers, Given that a human female enters her fecund years at the age of 15, and reaches her menopause at 50 years old and that the "calving cycle" (as farmers of bovine livestock would put it) is about 3 years - 9 months' gestation and 2 years of breast-feeding and, accordingly, moderate contraception - she is able to produce 11 or 12 offspring - or more if they arrive as twins or triplets - in her lifetime.


4. Scourges of disease lower this excessive procreation and set a dilemma for professionals involved in schemes to reduce the prevalence of perinatal mortality, only to deliver their successes into the failures of nutritional inadequacy. Africa and developing countries spanning wide ranges of latitudes and altitudes are racing through agronomic and demographic changes similar to those that took northern European countries thousands of years to work through. In affluent countries with excellent medical services and means of birth control families of more than 2 fecund offspring are common and are represented by important examples whose heads seek to instruct the developing nations further; prosperous countries are suffering a rising middle-aged spread in their populations, affluent pensioners, empty-nest syndrome and second homes, and, finally, expensive care for degenerative diseases and switch of responsibilities from family to state.

5. However, as in European custom at the beginning of the 20th century, birth control consisted of a survival mechanism to furnish the family with human livestock to underwrite the elements of the welfare state for the aged and infirm. Europe and North America are in the throes of difficulties arising from the benefits of the welfare state and advances in civilization such as sanitation, health and medical services, and nutrition, notwithstanding some major setbacks, that result in populations top heavy with the elderly and a smaller workforce committed to generating resources for their own pensions, as well as their parents'. Convincing people in poor countries of the costs and benefits of birth control is not easy when they learn of European and North American families, as well as those following religious precepts, with parents exceeding their replacement rate and by others going to great lengths to overcome difficulties in fertility and fecundity. The royals and high priests of politics in European and American countries demonstrate these controversial examples. In some cultures the pressure on women to produce sons results in unbalanced birth rates: conservationists forced to lower populations of wildlife are most effective when they take out females of the species preferentially to the males.

Habit, Custom, Tradition and Example

6. The Vegetarian Nutritional Research Centre (VNRC), forebear of VEGA, was much involved in Home and Colonial issues as WW2 ended. In the UK civilian population, which was enduring enforced frugality, members of some families declared themselves "vegetarian" to enjoy the pleasures of augmented cheese rations. The fortunes of the national loaf involved the wholemeal fibre-righters, who were notable among the veggie constituency, among whom austerity was more easily borne. Just after WW2 Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer was Sir Stafford Cripps, a vegetarian and health-food proponent, and vegetarians could speak with some experience and authority in the global concerns of protein-calorie malnutrition and the development of Plant Foods for Human Nutrition (which was the name of a scientific journal the VNRC launched). In the terms of the post-war Green Revolution the slogan Grow Food, not Feed was apt and the now-familiar arguments were rehearsed and tried, notably in Africa, where political upheavals were fomenting and commercial interests increasing. At least, the example of a population with a will to forgo the vaunted fleshpots of High Standards of Living - especially when it encompassed an altruistic expression of The Quality of Life in affluent societies - strengthened the respect the poor and undernourished in the world could manifest for the authority of the brigades of do-gooders.

7. The non-human animals kept, almost as part of the family, have to be counted in policies of food production, especially in areas still of nomadic existence or forced, like other animals, to move seasonally and unpredictably to cope with inclement changes of weather or the pressures of disease and war There are still communities in Europe with a house cow and some poultry far removed from the feedlot and other intensive systems that blite American and European agronomics. These are multipurpose animals, exploited in the Indian style to yield milk, meat, traction, load-bearing, and fuel (for tropical countries other than the sun's rays, to dry cow-dung into a practicable fuel for cooking; the ash remains as fertilizer. In areas where lactose-intolerance is significant among human populations, fermentations of animal milks overcomes difficulties by turning the milk into yogurt-style foods in which the lactose is transformed into easily assimilable lactic acid derivatives.

8. Again, "primitive" agronomy is not so far behind our own experience. It was only after WW2 that British farmers, having accepted the horse as superior to cattle for the purpose of traction, gave up growing oats and resorted to the internal combustion engine to till acres vacated for growing food-crops. Goats' milk was favored by Gandhi. Goats, being both browsers and grazers, derive and yield water as a major constituent of their milk and act as tankers especially useful for nomadic herdspeople. The concept of small African communities of women doing the farming and food-producing, and caring for the children, while the men are out hunting, or smoking and talking politics, may still be fitting, albeit overlaid by the eruptions of civil and religious strife.

Horn v. Corn

9. Although intakes of protein, calories, and fats from animal sources are low or very low in comparison with normal consumption in prosperous countries, the importance of non-human animals in African rural communities and custom is great: ancilliary factors make up for many shortcomings in feed-to-food conversions. These low-input, organic systems actually produce some "high quality" food in conditions for which industrialized farming would be futile - rather like sheep, deer, and game on Britain's "less favored areas" and the use by Maasai tribe's resort to both milk and blood from their living cattle (they could presumably be eligible for full membership of the Vegetarian Society). Nonetheless, the workings of the post-WW2 Green Revolution were imbued with the thrift of the Grow Food not Feed idea and the consequences of sustainability and self-sufficiency for Africa (where also the significance of diseases among non-human livestock and unusual consumption, e.g. of insects and prey from hunting, had to be allowed for). Diets heavily-based on cereals could be regarded as tricked out with animal-derived morsels as luxuries for feasts and special occasions, providing protein in amounts to satisfy diversity and nutritional adequacy in the eyes of many experts as civilization settled into the first stages of evolution from the cruder versions of hunting and gathering.

10. Nutritional factors must also take regard of micro-elements, deficiency of which may lower performance, e.g. in work, education, and resilience. The textbook nutritional diseases are still rife and more complicated: deficiencies of vitamin A, B, and C linger and of iron, zinc, and other trace-elements, depending on resources in the soil, such as selenium and iodine. In many areas widespread scurvy is averted by the seasonal ripening of the mangos, a typical food-for-free. Cassava is a starchy crop growing almost like a weed and a useful source of porridges, if precautions are taken to cook it suitably to remove cyanide. Cassava can be likened to the potato - a root crop that can be left in the ground and is less likely than standing cereals to be destroyed by marauders; however, the protein yield is low and has attracted the attention of geneticists and breeders for appropriate modification. African farmers may be illiterate but they are canny in the organic ploys of intercropping; theirs is still a precarious existence, requiring frequent Oxfam-style interventions, which need careful judgement to avoid swindling and misappropriation and disturbance of local farming economies with hasty disturbances of markets.

11. Untreated injuries and disabling conditions such as cataract ruin life for members of communities affected by the additional tragedies caused by land mines. Doctors have to cover enormous areas, so clinics and immunizations are infrequent and may be staffed by feldshers with the minimum of training. Many doctors and nurses trained in Africa depart for experience abroad and fail to return to their homelands. This drift of skills poses ethical problems for Africa and the professions: examples abound in the health services in wealthy countries, notably the UK.


12. Developments in the UK were quick after WW2 to look at plant foods suitable and adaptable for growth in areas of food shortage and of interest for countries emerging from the hostilities into prosperity. Leaf protein, developed at Rothamsted Research Station in the UK, was an example of wide potential application, in which VEGA's forerunners were involved. It has not prevailed against enterprises, such as the EU funding of a big slaughterhouse in Botswana to kill grain-fed cattle in the area for beef as a cash crop for consumption in countries such as the UK. It has had a chequered career and seems ridiculous on several counts, if only for the necessity to confine the animals at water holes away from tsetse-infested areas and fenced-off to exclude the regular migration northwards of wildebeest in search of water. We learnt at the Festival of Science also of millions of sheep walked across North Africa to their sacrifice at the hajj at Mecca attended by millions of Muslims. We at VEGA are seeking further information on this: we believe the carcases and offals are now distributed as offerings for the poor, but our efforts at seeking confirmation have so far drawn blank.

13. Oxfam initiated a few years ago a scheme to aid farmers in Thailand by arranging cultivations of cassava (manioc or tapioca) to export to Rotterdam in Europe, a deep-sea port, for further distribution through other ports in the EU and ultimately for feed for intensively-reared livestock in nations in northern Europe - but not for school dinners! The scheme has not caught on in the UK and it seems perverse. Oxfam has done much better in trying to bring some sense into the global and overstocked market in sugar, cane and beat, and starchy precursors for sweetening agents, for which there is a heavy demand from the procedures of manufactured and processed foods and beverages. These include the junk foods on which the Food Standards Agency is determined to identify, with warnings in red, of their high sugar and calorie content.

Blunder Business

14. Various agencies, and latterly Oxfam and Christian Aid among them, are advertising and fund-raising on the strength of Send-a-Cow projects to aid impoverished farmers in countries such as those in Africa. They are assuring contributors that the veterinary, welfare, environmental, and economic considerations can be satisfied - and, anyway, the money may be disposed on other schemes that might be more appealing to British contributors, who might see an appealing picture of an apparently happy cow, calf, sheep, goat, or poultry rather than, say, a latrine, pump, spade or even a machine to make leaf protein. The advertising agency has also managed nicely to assert generosity directed to human or to "animal" (i.e. non-human) welfare. Experts at the Festival of Science did not take too well to this campaign. Movements and importation of livestock carry risks of introduction of diseases. Resort to semen or embryos, which might be sexed, could reduce such dangers, but at a cost. The experts could think of poultry as the only practicable animals to be regarded for such purposes - but the prospect of avian flu throws misgivings over this idea.

15. Such movements might run in the other direction too. For instance, dairying is important in Nigeria, which is prosperous and has oil. TB is a serious threat to African populations and it is brought in by visitors and migrants to the UK. This is usually in the form of human TB, but more is coming now with human carriers of bovine TB, such as the infections that seized UK populations before the implementations in the 1920s of pasteurization. These observations emphasize difficulties with dairying in tropical areas.

Asset Stripping

16. Raw materials were being sought as soon as WW2 ended as novel sources of food and of pharmaceuticals, on the precedent of aspirin and, later, as starting materials for the production of drugs, some as alternatives to slaughterhouse by-products, from which sex and cortical hormones could be derived, among them contraceptives - but too costly for the peasants of Africa. Expeditions from British, American, and Swiss drug houses sponsored expeditions to Africa for such purposes. They sought native soap weeds (or soapworts), many of which contained saponins that were good sources of the desired industrial feedstocks. African is a continent rich in forestry and mineral resources, including oil. Such developments were attended by improvements in communications and transportation but the legacy of repressive colonial regimes has left African politics in a sorry mess.

17. The VNRC, subsequently under the banner of the Vegetarian Society's Research Section, played its part with Oxfam and Christian Aid and other organizations, as well as half of a civil servant from the British Government, in the education and development of plant-based diets to relieve the dire deficiencies in protein-calorie nutrition, particularly in Africa, taking into account farming custom, religious practice, and factors such as pastoralism, lactose-intolerance, water supplies, fuel for cooking, and diversions into cash crop enterprises and their influences on trade and nutritional security and resilience. The Chinese proverb Better to Teach the Starving to Fish than Sending Occasional Supplies of Food for Emergencies has imbued Oxfam and other agencies in enterprises of aid where droughts are frequent. Lessons of good agricultural practice, especially to avert diseases in crops and livestock, and to build on the literally organic wisdom of many farmers, some of whom may be illiterate but nonetheless highly skilled in their ploys to extract food and feed from unyielding land.


18. Schooling and communication are essential. The Africa Day at the Festival heard of the value of mobile phones and wind-up radios in the announcements of weather and market reports. Micro-light aircraft can be useful for medical and veterinary services. Many of the distressed areas are in the Tropics; therefore solar energy may contribute to maintenance of equipment, communications, and lighting (and thus schooling) without recourse to unduly high technology. It is very difficult for experts from countries rich in capital and labor to understand the futility of programs based on gifts of labor-saving machinery that needs costly and skilled upkeep and replacement. It is not too long ago that British farmers grew oats to feed the horses to pull the plow in a system sustainable at low traditional low-input systems of dairying cattle yield milk, motive power, and meat and leather in similarly thrifty systems.

19. As nations develop and recover from bouts of hunger, famine, disease, and other disasters they yearn for the richer diet associated with the higher standards of living and release the yoke of a monotonous diet offering only precarious support for their existence and livelihood. Choice is increased and opportunities for marketing and bartering appeal to the instincts of competition and betterment. We have only to refer to the history of our agriculture and diet over the last 10,000 years or so and the policies of temporary reversion the wars of the last century forced us into. Much of Europe was also affected and the threats of widespread hunger, nutritional inadequacy, and civilian rioting played a major part in the morale of the warring and blockaded nations. In the UK the wartime lacto-ovo-vegetarian regimen and the post-war poverty resulting from prompt withdrawal of financial aid from North America continued the austerity and developed into a serious matter politically. (Final discharge of the debt to the USA and Canada was only achieved almost uncelebrated at the end of the year 2006).


20. Thrifty vegetarian systems were well appreciated in many areas and still are in practice and custom. The house cow was part of the family almost in terms of Biblical husbandry. War time smallholders digging for victory probably kept a pig and some poultry maintained on scraps. In some communities the goat supplied the animal-derived components of human diets and sustainability. Goats can be grazers and browsers, yielding milk (and thus mobile food and water) and a little meat (for special occasions and sacrifices). Such resources were prized by human groups on the move over arid terrains in search of wells and oases. Gandhi's simple lifestyle included respect for the goat as a provider of milk, in more settled communities, as well as in nomadic conditions, the elements of organic mixed farming emerged. They were and are nearly lacto-ovo-vegetarian with none of the excessively high protein and calorie intakes that have stimulated the intensification and exploitations and disrespect for non-human animals that condemn modern methods of production and consumption, aggravated by greed, self-abuse (e.g. in resort to drugs and habits such as smoking and alcoholism) and profligate abuse of resources such as power, fuel, water, and environmental amenity.

21. Most European and American authorities and campaigners see the dangers if Africa and other developing countries follow this dissolute path, which is littered with all the lures of the Coca Cola world, fast food and McDonaldization. Economists reckon that villages of at least about 120 persons could function in many parts of Africa as sustainable communities, thus enabling them to live contentedly without joining the "Joburgizing" drift into the slums and shanties of big cities importing costly produce from the hinterlands and processed foods brought in at the cost of heavy expenditure on fuel and for pumping water. City dwellers will soon outnumber the world's rural populations. The UN's data show that the world's urban population has more than quadrupled over the past 50 years. About twenty "megacities" have grown up each exceeding populations of over 20 million inhabitants. As well as Tokyo the fastest-growing cities in the world are Mumbai, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Delhi, Kolkata, Dhaka, Jakarta, Lagos and Karachi.

22. Intensification of agriculture, industrialization of forests, and cultivation of "out-of-season" or exotic crops (including flowers) as exports to the richer nations of northern Europe will strain resources of power and water in Africa, albeit with some return in amenities for workers in enterprises run by socially-minded owners, farmers, and importers. However, every tonne of vegetables exported from drought-prone areas, removes more than 75% of this weight of water, even from areas of conservation. Fish-farming is also a project proposed for lakes in Africa, some of them already dwindling in area Lake Victoria is already suffering from overgrowths of tilapia and Nile perch. Terrestrial and water resources are being "mined" for essential minerals and other reserves, with no return for composting and remediation: In sub-Saharan Africa forests are being depleted to grow corn for feed for feedlot cattle. The big slaughterhouse built in Botswana on EU funding produces meat sold in European cities as "black man's beef". Populations in the forest areas of Central Africa, where civil war and strife are rife, despoil the forests and make bush-meat of wildlife (such as monkeys) that they can catch there. Illicit sales of trophies and remedies cause further damage. Starving people are unlikely to pay much attention to conservation, but eco-tourism may bring some desirable protection and employment in these desperate conditions; or will it emphasize the gap between rich and poor?

23. Major industrial enterprises are recolonizing Africa. Suppliers of presidential limousines, craft for national airlines, and the numerous trucks, lorries, and landrovers that ply on poorly developed highways will continue to exert banking pressure on agricultural policies as means of negotiating loans. European supermarkets will begin to exert similar pressures and modern technologies of IT will energize communications with a rapidity exceeding progress in earlier developments in the developed world, notably in overcoming tribal and language barriers and in improving public services such as weather forecasting and market prices. English is likely to emerge as the dominant common language, but China, Japan, and countries of the Pacific Rim are taking a big part in developments in which the hesitations (e.g. in environmental and political matters) and colonial reputations may hamper relations with EU countries. India is another rival in this competition. It too is undergoing quickening change, with developments germane to African affairs; liberating enterprise in air travel in preference to railways, for instance, and the growth of services such as call-centres, and development of exports of food grown, processed, and packaged within Africa. Intensified farming and fishing are, alas, likely.

Genes and Thrift

24. China has its problems and bad example too. Adoption of Western-style "rich" diets has rapidly resulted in an epidemic of Western-style scourges of premature degenerative diseases, obesity and its corollaries being obvious. China is now adopting the saner precepts of Western-style remediation, Portfolio-style policies would inform African agronomy and consumption would avert such disasters.

25. One of the British government's expert advisors, trained in a renowned institute of agronomy in the USA, lectured at the Festival of Science, emphasizing the need for communication in African agricultural policies. His Power Point depicted 3 men, 2 African and one, clipboard at the ready, the adviser, who we could find out was "a Hindu and a vegetarian". VEGA was impertinent enough to point out that the 2 Africans appeared lean and healthy, while the American-styled 3rd-trimester bulge on the adviser, which protruded on much of the picture, should sound a warning rather than contentment on the communicated advice and practice. African populations are likely, in common with people with the origins and genetics of southern Asia, to have significant thrifty genes and susceptibility to the metabolic syndrome. Africa, Beware that Bulge! It's Good to Learn by Your Mistakes; Still Better to Learn from Others'!

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