Aya Hirata Kimura: Hidden hunger: gender and the politics of smarter foods
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- Kent, G. Agric Hum Values (2014) 31: 529. doi:10.1007/s10460-014-9524-4
In Hidden Hunger, Aya Kimura, a colleague of mine at the University of Hawai’i, explores “how and why fortification and biofortification became the preferred ‘solutions’ to the Third World food problem.” Fortification refers to the addition of micronutrients to food products during the manufacturing process. Biofortification is the biological alteration of crops so that the plants themselves contain more micronutrients.
There are many exaggerated health claims about fortified processed foods. These claims are often associated with inflated retail prices. This pattern in high-income countries has been well documented by food scholars such as Marion Nestle and Michael Pollan. Through her broad overview and her case studies in Indonesia, Kimura shows how the pattern is penetrating more and more deeply into the food systems of low-income countries.
The focus on fortification emphasizes dietary deficiencies while ignoring the roots of widespread, sustained malnutrition. The approach “effectively depoliticizes the food problem by recasting it as a technical matter.” Kimura uses fortification and related issues as her point of entry into exploring the deep culture and politics of modern malnutrition.
Kimura shows that the ways people define a problem are largely determined by the remedies they wish to deliver. Until a few decades ago, it was believed that the only thing needed to prevent malnutrition was a diverse supply of good quality food. Now the malnutrition problem is being defined by corporations that have highly specialized products to sell, and their products are being promoted almost as if they were medicines.
This study makes a major contribution to the emerging category of feminist food studies. Many others have noted the distinct gender roles, but it is only recently that studies of food systems have been done with a distinctively feminist lens. Despite the dominant role women play in food systems, from primary production in the fields, to processing and marketing, all the way through to final preparation and consumption, their decision-making powers fall far short of what would be expected, given the burdens that they carry.
Fortification schemes add to women’s burdens and detract from their power. Suddenly people need chemicals with unrecognizable names, delivered through programs and foods designed by specialists and experts. Where people used to get almost everything they needed from their gardens, they are now told they must get things in boxes and bottles. The advertisements tell them how important it is to provide those boxes and bottles; it is the responsible thing to do. This adds to the pressure to get into paid employment, even if it is for meager wages.
In the chapter on baby food, Kimura speaks about the fatty acid DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) added to biscuits and other foods “to help brain development”. In an article published in the online International Breastfeeding Journal (Kent 2014). I show that the claims regarding intellectual development from such additives are highly questionable. My analysis focuses on the failure of the United States Food and Drug Administration to ensure the validity of such health claims.
Regulation of fortification and related practices in high-income countries is weak, and in low-income countries it is almost completely absent. What can be done about the exaggerated health claims that many food manufacturers use to promote sales of their products? What can be done about the many other weaknesses of modern food systems analyzed so skillfully in this book?
Kimura finds some hope in alternatives based on increasing local control of food, but the path forward is not clear. It would have been helpful if Kimura had explored options for controlling the misleading health claims made by food manufacturers for their highly processed products.