In the spotlight: Wijnand Klaver, retiring researcher of food security and nutrition in Africa

After almost 30 years, Wijnand Klaver is retiring as a researcher at the African Studies Centre Leiden. On the occasion of his retirement, the ASC is organizing the seminar 'Nutrition in Sustainable Development - Africa on its way from undernitrition to obesity?' on Tuesday 15 December. We also interviewed Wijnand about the challenges Africa will face within the next 35 years concerning food security and nutrition. 
Wijnand - who will continue to be affiliated with the ASC - studied human nutrition at Wageningen University (1968-1976), and this has always remained the main focus of his research. After his studies, he worked at the National Nutrition Bureau in Rwanda, on behalf of the FAO. While joining the ASC, he already taught and worked as a coordinator for an international course on Food Science and Nutrition in Wageningen, and he combined the two positions from 1987, until his retirement at Wageningen University in 2012.

One of your research topics is Africa’s food and nutrition security 2010-2050. Tell us about the challenges African leaders will face within the next 35 years.
‘The population in most countries is still growing, and even when in some cases the growth rate drops, the population will continue to grow for decades, until it eventually stabilizes. At the same time, African countries are faced with the trend of rapid urbanization. These are huge challenges: populations both in rural and urban areas must feed themselves with healthy, diverse and affordable food. Producers in rural areas will continue to grow their own food, but have to produce increasing surpluses to meet the growing urban demand. These challenges are further compounded by the threat of climate change: as the effects become more real, people are forced to adapt their livelihood or even to migrate to other areas. Other groups of people, especially those in the cities, but also many so-called net buyers in the rural areas, are dependent on the availability of affordable food in the market, produced by small and large producers. This implies that one’s income becomes more important for household food security, and therefore one’s opportunities for employment.’

How does urban agriculture play a role?
‘Since the 1980 and 1990s there is increased interest among academics, policy makers and practitioners in urban and peri-urban agriculture (UPA) . People in the cities grow various crops, such as cereals, vegetables or fruit, or keep animals in their backyard, or in public spaces, e.g. along roads and railways. While this was often not allowed in colonial times (keep the parks tidy!), local governments have become much more aware of the fact that it’s part of people’s livelihood and is an essential part of their food security. In the period of 1999-2002, I was involved in a study with my colleague Dick Foeken in Nakuru town, Kenya, which then had 300,000 inhabitants. As a result of the study, the local government changed their mind about urban agriculture. They decided to allow it and to address the negative sides of it by new regulations. Take for example maize: it can grow really high, so thugs can hide in it and it can cause traffic incidents at street crossing, when it blocks proper sight Another drawback is, that crops can be a breeding place for mosquitoes. Animals produce waste and dung. So the local government introduced new legislation on ‘zoning’: one zone was reserved for growing maize, another for lower crops, while other zones in town were reserved for keeping animals. Nowadays, UPA is flourishing in many towns and cities in Africa, for instance in Accra, Freetown, Yaoundé, Addis Ababa, Dar-es-Salaam, Kampala, Nairobi and Cape Town.’

How about the rural areas having to produce for the cities now as well?
‘Visualize a city, with a peri-urban area around it, and the rural area around that. For certain foods the rural area can be as far away as a few hundred km, and this area has to produce part of the food for the city’s population. This means that producers in rural areas will continue to grow their own food, but have to produce increasing surpluses to meet the growing urban demand. Nowadays, food flows are organized in so-called value chains (from producer through processor and trader to consumer), which require produce that meets minimum quality standards. Producing food for export has to complement, not replace, the production of food for the national market. To transport these increasing flows of food, a good road infrastructure becomes extremely important, as does the market infrastructure. This means that there is a lot of work to be done by town planners. Where, for instance, do you build the slaughter houses, processing facilities, markets and facilities to recycle the urban waste streams? And in the meantime the city itself is not static, but  continues to grow and to encroach on the surrounding rural area. We need creative minds of all kinds of disciplines; a city has to rejuvenate itself all the time. To some extent this is a self-organizing process, driven by entrepreneurial citizens, but it also requires an enabling context and that is where the (local) government comes in. In the European Union it is said that local governments may become thé governments of the future (major cities governed by a burgomaster); that may happen in Africa as well. In any case, all layers of government  have the duty to provide an enabling environment to reach the goal of healthy, affordable, diverse food for all. Things are happening, but it is essential that governments become aware of the challenges ahead and look at the future beyond the next elections.’

On the occasion of you reaching retirement age, you are organizing the seminar ‘Nutrition in Sustainable Development – Africa on its way from undernutrition to obesity?’ on 15 December. Is Africa moving from hunger to obesity?
‘In academic research, we have discerned several forms of malnutrition. While in the 1950s malnutrition was still described as a result of multiple deficiencies,  in the 1970s, the main focus was on protein deficiency in combination with a low intake of calories (dietary energy), due to a quantitative lack of food: proteins, carbohydrates and fats (the energy-giving macronutrients). In the 1980’s attention started to shift to deficiency of micronutrients, namely vitamins (especially vitamin A and pro-vitamin A – carotene-) and minerals (especially iodine, iron and zinc). Blindness, goiter, anemia, and growth retardation are some of the consequences of a shortage of micronutrients. This is caused by a lack of dietary variety. We call it ‘hidden hunger’, in contrast to the hunger caused by protein-energy deficiency, which is visible, because it makes you thinner and shorter. From the 1990s, awareness was increasing that a third form of malnutrition (overweight and obesity) was by no means limited to rich countries, but was becoming an increasing problem of public health importance in most countries in the world. Overnutrition, caused by the fact that people adopted a western style of food consumption (with more sugar, refined flour, fats & oils, meat, fish and milk, often in the form of ‘convenience’ food like snacks) and a sedentary life style (desk work). It has led to the phenomenon we call ‘the double burden’ to society: undernutrition and overnutrition happening simultaneously within the same country. As undernutrition comes in two forms (visible hunger and hidden hunger), the more appropriate term is now even: ‘triple burden of malnutrition’. A paradoxical trans-generational l effect has been discovered as well: maternal dietary restriction during gestation may lead to a malnourished child whose metabolic system is programmed to lead to obesity later in life. This is explained by a compensatory mechanism with an evolutionary basis.’

Nutrition is a theme that cuts across several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). How?
‘Food and nutrition security for all will depend on reaching Goals 1-3: ‘no poverty, zero hunger and good health and wellbeing’, but also on e.g. Goal 4 ‘quality education’, because education will enhance the chance for remunerative employment, thus an income  to acquire food. Better education also includes: becoming aware of the importance of healthy nutrition. Goal 5, ‘gender equality’, is important because women are active in the production of food (the majority of farmers being women), as well as in the acquisition preparation and intra-household distribution of food. While their role is important, they often have less voice in decision-making. The men demand and get the best pieces of food, women and children tend to be served last and get the lesser pieces. Women are also the ones who become pregnant and who will breast feed their baby (6 months of exclusive breastfeeding is the advice, as an early form of full food security for the child!). Malnutrition has consequences - through their DNA - over several generations.
Finally, healthy nutrition is also part of Goal 12: ‘developing sustainable consumption and production patterns’. Regrettably, the full extent of malnutrition and its various linkages are not visible in the SDG document. Malnutrition is only mentioned once (in SDG 2), and the actions on how to counter it are not mentioned, nor is overweight ever mentioned. To counterbalance this, the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has published an important document: the Global Nutrition Report 2015. The underlying message of the report is that, unless governments, donors, and stakeholders commit to and make themselves accountable for improved nutrition in our societies, achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals will be in jeopardy. The 2015 Global Nutrition Report should be a call to action for all of us to invest more in the nutrition programs that we know are effective, while also identifying and filling data gaps that may be barriers to progress. It is essential, because undernutrition, lack of dietary variety and overnutrition are also a burden for societies in the sense of costs: the loss of working power, of productiveness is enormous. IFPRI calculated that the costs for governments to prevent all these forms of malnutrition are much lower than the costs of curing them. So, here is a task for governments.’

What aspect of doing research has given you most pleasure?
‘I am very much interested in statistics and in the methodology of indicators: for instance, how to express and disentangle anthropometric measures (underweight, stunting and wasting) and how to make the nutrition situation in a country visible? With my colleagues Ton Dietz, Andre Leliveld and Yinka Akinyoade, I have made food production data of various countries visible for crop groups, in terms of area cultivated and yield, combining in the same graph what is available for consumption in the end. We have used Food Balance Sheet data consolidated by the FAO, that account for what happens with what was produced, e.g. export, change in reserves, animal feed, food wasted and seed for the coming year. The remainder of it (plus food imports) should theoretically – and hopefully in fact - have been available for human consumption. We were surprised to find that in many countries, food production kept more than pace with population growth - at least up to 2012 - but that at the same time, malnutrition only improved slightly. Probably because of unequal distribution. This calls for a deeper analysis of the factors that could explain this. Nutrition, like health and education, also seems subject to changes in behavior. You get the strongest proof of evidence by following a group of people in a prospective study of their food consumption, but such studies are quite time- and manpower-intensive. The ASC could and should continue to do research on food and nutrition security, in collaboration with other partners, such as Wageningen University!’

Fenneken Veldkamp