BAMAKO, Mali: Delegates attending the Global Ministerial Forum on Research for Health, underway until Thursday in Mali, were reminded today (Monday) that amidst the focus on faster,cheaper medical drugs and more active government policies, there was a risk of overlooking a rather important component of good health.
It's called food.
At a session on 'food for health' chaired by Ruth Oniang'o, founder of Kenya's Rural Outreach programme and co-author of 'The CompleteKenyan Cookbook', renowned researchers and high-level politicians were brought back to the basics: hungry people are never healthy people.
''Food is the most cost-effective intervention,'' declared Menno Mulder-Sibanda, a senior nutritionist specialist at the World Bank. Mulder-Sibanda said he hasn't seen such ''renewed attention'' paid to local foods such as sorghum and millet since the era of African independence. Only this time, the interest isn't triggered by pride or patriotism, but by the food crisis. Nonetheless, Mulder-Sibanda is delighted with the focus on quality local produce.
Much of the discussion about food sounded more military than nutritional. Mulder-Sibanda spoke about the need for food fortification. Marie Ruel, a director at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) in the US spoke in praise of a slightly different tack, called biofortification, in which plant breeders design more nutritious crops.
''The idea is to reach the poorest of the poor,'' said Ruel, who has worked in Ghana, Guatemala, Haiti and Panama..
Robert Ochai, executive director of The AIDS Support Organisation (TASO) in Uganda, revealed that the country will be bringing in the 'Food by Prescription' programme for malnourished residents, many of whom are infected with HIV.'The programme, already underway in Kenya, allows malnourished poverty-stricken people access to bags of powdered blends of powdered sorghum and millet enriched with vitamin, whey protein and other ingredients, in the same way that their drugs are subsidised.''The food is basically a drug,'' Ochai said.
''So far in Uganda, we don't have this on the shelves. But we expect to have it by midway next year,'' he said.
The Food By Prescription programme forms part of the American government's US$ 15 billion President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and has been very successful in Kenya and Ethiopia. So clearly the meeting of agriculture and health is a good one, whether in the field or at the global gathering of health and science ministers which has been held every four years since 2000, in Thailand, Mexico and now Mali.
Tuesday's focus at the Global Ministerial Forum on Research for Health kicks off with a focus on the public reaction to largescale health research efforts, and includes Farhat Moazam, chairperson of Pakistan's Centre of Biomedical Ethics and Culture and Hannah Akuffoof the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).
Conference organisers said Ariel Pablos-Mendez, the Mexican-born, USA-based managing director of the Rockefeller Foundation, is expected to make a major announcement on Tuesday morning at the Forum, followed by a video message from South African human rights activist and Anglican archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu.
For more information on PEPFAR's work on HIV and food security, see www.usaid.gov/our_work/humanitarian_assistance/ffp/pepfar_conceptual.pdf
For more information on the Global Ministerial Forum on Research for Health at www.bamako2008.org