Food For Mzansi’s Sinesipho Tom chats to Dr Marc Wegerif, a lecturer in development studies at the University of Pretoria. He has done extensive research on child stunting in Mzansi with a particular focus on the children of agricultural workers. Stunting is the impaired growth and development that children experience from poor nutrition, repeated infection, and inadequate psychosocial stimulation. Children are defined as stunted if their height-for-age is more than two standard deviations below the child growth standards median set by the World Health Organisation.
Earlier this week you pledged your support for a national task force to address child stunting in South Africa. What are the key findings of your research on this issue which is often swept under the mat?
I looked at how food systems makes food accessible, which is essential for achieving food security and ending stunting. Of particular interest is the way that a balanced diet is made accessible to those in poverty. In this regard, street traders and hawkers play a much more important role than is often realised. We need a food system approach to ensure the sustainable achievement of the right to food for all is achieved. This is a complex and multifaceted problem. If we make food cheaper, we will put farmers and workers out of business, and we will only see higher levels of hunger. If we produce cheap food, we will degrade soils and contribute to climate change which will cause hunger for future generations.
What frustrates you about the stunting crisis in Mzansi?
The level of stunting in South Africa is ridiculously high for a country with the wealth we have. Our stunting levels are similar to those of many other African countries and worse than the levels that some countries with far smaller economies than ours have. This is primarily because of the high levels of inequality in South Africa, including inequalities in the food system. We see supermarket executives paid hundreds of millions of rands while half the population can’t afford a balanced diet.
The other frustration with regard to stunting is that we become used to it. In poorer neighbourhoods it is a norm, most children are smaller than they could or should be, it is hard to get people to care about the problem. Yet, it is a disaster, a disaster for the more than 1 in 4 of our children who are affected; children who will never reach their full physical or intellectual potential because, through no fault of their own, they did not get enough nutrition in the womb of their mothers and in the first years of their lives. And what a loss this is to our country.
Do you have projects currently in motion that assist children with stunting? If so, how do you see them developing overtime and secondly changing the stunting situation faced by many of our children in the country?
The contribution I hope to make, and I think academics and universities need to make, is the generation of knowledge about the problem and potential solutions. I do what I can to carry out relevant research focused on finding systemic solutions to this chronic problem. Beyond the research I and others at the University of Pretoria contribute to public debates and to policy debates that can contribute to finding solutions.
We are only going to address chronic food insecurity and stunting with substantial and systemic changes that need political and policy maker commitment from government and from civil society. The changes needed include a far-reaching transformation of our food system, it needs to become a more democratically controlled food system with achieving the right to food being the goal. Food production and distribution is too important an issue to be shaped only by companies seeking profits.