Curiosity Issue 6

Page 1


Research . Rethink . Relearn




4 EDITORIAL Editorial: The Hunger Games 5

Featured Researchers


FOOD BITES Food gardens and disco soups Feeding functional food effectively

8 FEATURE Food takes root in Africa 12 Phansi, profiteers, phansi! 14 A healthy meal in every neighbourhood 16 Appetite for dignity 18 No space at the table for food commoning 20 The fight in food prices 22 Slave maize: the truth about mielies 24 Crunchy on the outside, squishy on the inside 26 Insects: What not to eat 27 The rat race towards obesity 2


30 Eat to live, not to shrink 32 Body cravings 34 You are what your Ouma ate 36 Breastfeeding advances society Q&A 38 Beware the monster in your energy drink 40 Misleading labels and insidious ingredients PROFILE 42 The chemistry of chaos and the magic moringa COLUMN 44 For sauerkraut’s sake, teach our children right!



HISTORY 46 Blue-ribbon bulls and agriculture






It is tragic that we live in the midst of the fourth industrial revolution, yet we have millions of people who starve every day.

t is incongruous that we have more data than ever before, scientific research that can be used in smart decisionmaking to influence national policy, yet we hesitate to do what is best for the majority. It is ironic that it costs so much more to eat healthily and that the most vulnerable amongst us are often left malnourished or obese as it is too expensive to access healthy food. It is paradoxical that Africa is a resourcerich continent but, in the words of Wits Professor Ronald Wall, “Africa is a potential food basket for the world, but not for Africans themselves.” The Hunger Games are real and the threats to the sustainability of the African continent and the futures of African people are significant. The stories reflected in this issue of Curios.ty delve into the opportunities for a food sustainable future for Africa, the green revolution, and good governance in food production and supply. Some researchers (p. 12) argue that the right to food should be treated in the same way as the right to water in South Africa – as a basic human right – to benefit all in society. Wits Professor Vishwas Satgar and Jane Cherry advocate food sovereignty and believe that the solutions to food security lie in “community, ecological and people-based alternatives”. Read more about the Wits Food Sovereignty Centre on p. 16. Context matters and it is imperative for us to find African solutions to African problems, whilst drawing on the best ‘glocal’ research and practice available. For example, Professor Luke Chimuka has developed a Moringa Energy Drink with high nutritional value but without caffeine and significant

Curios.ty is a print and digital magazine that aims to make the research at Wits University accessible to multiple publics. It tells the stories of pioneering research at Wits through the voices of talented researchers, students and academics. First published in April 2017, Curios.ty is published three times per year. Each issue is thematic and explores research across faculties and disciplines at the University that relate to that theme. This issue is themed FOOD. The stories explore food security, food science and food politics and governance, nutrition and food-related issues such as obesity, diets, breastfeeding, and body image. These stories reveal the dynamics of ‘the hunger games’ in Africa, South Africa and at Wits. Erratum: In issue 5 of Curios.ty, p. 35, we printed the word ‘invaded’ instead of ‘intervened’ in the sub-heading of the story entitled, Pacifist or military strategist? The moment dictates the means. We regret the misprint.


amounts of sugar (p. 42), whilst many Wits researchers study entomophagy – the human practice of eating insects – a potential solution to food insecurity. There are dedicated inter-, multi-, and transdisciplinary teams at Wits who research food, health and society. We should be worried when they describe parts of South Africa as “obesogenic environments”, in a country where about onefifth of children are stunted. Professor Karen Hofman and her team in PRICELESS SA have successfully undertaken research and advocated for the introduction of a ‘sugar tax’ on sugarsweetened beverages, which saw a major policy change in South Africa in 2018 (p. 27), but many challenges remain – especially on the food labelling front. Professor Shane Norris, leader of the Bt20+ study, explores the attitudes of young South Africans towards food, body image and eating disorders, in both rural and urban settings. Learn more about diets and exercise from experts in the Wits Sports Medicine and Exercise Science Centre on p. 30. We are fortunate to be in a research-intensive university like Wits, where we have the expertise and experience across disciplines and the relevant links to the public and private sectors to tackle the complex challenges of the 21st Century. Food security should be high on our list if we are to eliminate the Hunger Games and ensure a sustainable food future for Africa. Professor Zeblon Vilakazi Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Postgraduate Affairs

Shirona Patel Head: Communications

Buhle Zuma Senior Communications Officer

Dr Robin Drennan Director: Research Development


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COVER Design by Lauren Mulligan

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A number of Wits experts are featured in this edition of Curios.ty. View the profiles of all the researchers and contributors at:


Associate Professor Eliton Chivandi is a researcher in the Endocrinology and Metabolism Research Laboratory in the School of Physiology at Wits. His primary research interest is the potential of non-conventional feed resources (including seed meals from indigenous trees) as dietary energy and/or protein sources in livestock feeds. A secondary focus is evaluating the potential of plant extracts to mitigate diet-induced obesity and metabolic dysfunction in rat models. These rat models mimic children fed obesogenic diets. Chivandi is a C3 National Research Foundation-rated researcher (established researcher).


Professor Karen Hofman directs PRICELESS SA (Priority Cost Effective Lessons for Systems Strengthening), a research unit in the School of Public Health that analyses how to best use resources to achieve better health outcomes. Hofman led advocacy for taxing sugarsweetened beverages, based on research that shows fiscal measures mitigate public health outcomes such as obesity and diabetes. She previously served as Director of Policy and Planning at the US National Institute of Health's, Fogarty International Center. She is widely published in international, peer-reviewed journals.








Dr Tracy Ledger is a Research Associate in the School of Social Sciences at Wits and Head of Research at the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI). She has been working as an independent researcher for the past 12 years. She previously worked as an economist in banking, stockbroking and asset management for 12 years, followed by eight years independently researching local economic development, rural development and food systems. Her research interests are alternative food networks, food security, and local economic development.


Professor Mucha Musemwa is an environmental historian and Head of the School of Social Sciences at Wits. An NRFrated scholar, his research interests include history and the politics of water in colonial and postcolonial Zimbabwe, and environmental urban and social history of Africa, specifically contestation over resources. He is a board member of the Water History Journal and of the International Consortium of Environmental History Organizations. He holds a PhD from the University of Minnesota, USA, and has published extensively on various environmental history topics.


Professor Shane Norris is Director of the MRC/Wits Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits and Acting Director of the Centre of Excellence in Human Development. His research interest is in child and adolescent growth and body composition, obesity, and diabetes. In addition to these fields, Norris has over 20 years of expertise in life course epidemiology and cohort studies.


Dr Gareth Roberts is a Lecturer in the Department of Economics in the School of Economic and Business Sciences at Wits. He teaches courses on International Trade, Econometrics, Research Methods (Economics), and Quantitative Impact Evaluation Methods. His research interests include the methodological constraints associated with estimating the effects of interventions for policy purposes, and the role of psychology in economic decision-making. His PhD research, within the African Micro-Economic Research Unit, entailed conducting quantitative impact evaluations of economic development interventions, focusing on youth unemployment and education.




Disco Soups

Lauren Mulligan


A new form of food activism is making gardening ‘cool’ in the township of Khayelitsha. A research project on food governance, based in the Wits School of Governance, is investigating this new activism.


he Earth Connections food research project is a sciencecitizen initiative that explores the intersection of matriarchs, gardeners and their relations with land in a South African urban township context. The research team comprises three academics from Wits and the Nelson Mandela University, and two food gardeners from Ikhaya Gardens in Site C in Khayelitsha, Western Cape.


The research site, a food garden at a primary school in Khayelitsha, is a ‘space of hope’ where children participate and learn from food gardeners. Food governance and the food garden are a response to Big Food retailers who dominate food consumption and distribution. Philosophically, a food garden represents a site of selfgovernance for the body. A food garden is a place where we control our own food and, by extension, our own bodies. Reconnecting with the earth through a food garden reduces


feelings of alienation that are symptomatic of modern life. “Neo-liberal governance produces extreme forms of alienation in the work and social environment. Connecting with the food garden produces a site of revitalisation and relative autonomy within our social relations,” says Dr Darlene Miller, Principal Investigator of the Food Research Team.


The Khayelitsha food gardeners host ‘disco soups’ where they mix music, recite poetry and make soup with recycled vegetables. At the spinach ‘bar’ near a Khayelitsha train station, you can buy a spinach bread loaf for R10. Earth Connections has produced a documentary of the political philosophies of these food gardeners. “We are more focused on education. We are more focused on bringing back the dignity of the people – the independence. We are more focused on self-reliance where we say that you can feed yourself from the small soil that you have. So we’re more about expanding the knowledge of growing,” says Xolisa Bangani, a food gardener. C




Nutraceuticals are nutritionally enhanced food but the way in which we consume them could compromise their efficacy. DEBORAH MINORS

Lauren Mulligan


he Wits Advanced Drug Delivery Platform (WADDP) in the Department of Pharmacy researches innovative ways for us to consume and ingest the medicines – or nutraceuticals – that we need. Nutraceuticals are medicinally or nutritionally enhanced ‘functional foods’. They include everyday products such as yoghurt and fortified breakfast cereals, or more advanced ‘designer’ foods that improve a food’s health benefits and prevent or treat diseases. Delivering nutraceuticals to the body is a complex process. These naturally derived molecules must be adequately protected, remain viable and, where necessary, absorb effectively to deliver health benefits. The WADDP team use innovative biomaterials to develop formulations that enhance the delivery of nutraceuticals to the body. Biomaterials are any substance engineered to interact with biological systems for a medical purpose. “We developed a unique tablet that one takes orally, which uses the body's own digestive enzymes to absorb Vitamin D3 effectively,” says Professor Viness Pillay, Director of the WADDP, who, with Professor Yahya Choonara and Dr Pradeep Kumar co-authored a paper published in the Journal of Functional Foods in 2014. The WADDP is now researching new ways to deliver gut microbes, which have proven effective for gut health and preventing or treating obesity. Studies show that gut microbes (microorganisms that live in the digestive tract) are linked to obesity risk and related metabolic disorders. The WADDP’s nutraceutical formulations can manipulate gut microbes to facilitate weight loss or prevent obesity in humans. This work is undertaken by two Postdoctoral students within the team – Dr Mershen Govender and Dr Sunaina Indermun. C Read the study: S1756464613002211



Food Africa

takes root in

Farmer David Rakgase watches his livestock in Northam, South Africa. Small-scale dairy farming in South Africa is being decimated.

Africa has the ability and resources to feed the world, but much needs to be done on a continent full of challenges, opportunities and pitfalls. Ufrieda Ho looks at the stumbling blocks and opportunities for a food sustainable future in Africa. 8

Deon Raath


eard of the lablab bean? No? It is not surprising, but this indigenous African pulse is a metaphor for the continent’s potential to beat food insecurity – provided we’re wiser about optimising what we have. The lowly Lablab purpureus, also known as the Hyacinth bean, is widely consumed in the tropical and sub-tropical regions of Africa. It is a hardy plant that grows wild in nature, gets the thumbs-up for taste, is high in protein and is versatile enough to be served for dinner or to be used in animal feed.


Professor Mulala Simatele in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies at Wits is a fan, even though the beans are not big on menus and don’t make it into supermarket veggie aisles. For Simatele, the lablab bean represents an opportunity for the continent to think about biodiversity in a time of climate change, widening urban-rural divides, continued technological deficiencies, a low skills base and yawning wealth gaps. “We have to go back to basics, think about how to optimise scarce resources like water and start realising that Africa’s food security crisis cannot be addressed just by looking at it through a single lens,” says Simatele. One of the basics Simatele names is switching to growing a wider range of indigenous crops. These crops will better withstand the coming extreme weather patterns. Another of Simatele’s basics is promoting food production in urban and peri-urban areas, closer to where most people live, in order to reduce energy and fuel needs that add up to larger carbon footprints. There’s also room to strengthen networks across disciplines – from weather monitoring through engineering to indigenous knowledge systems, and even activism to shift policy and hold leaders to account.


Simatele says the food crisis for the continent is complex and is a mirror of multiple failings and pressures in society. It has taken

“Africa is a potential food basket for the world, but not for Africans themselves” hold over generations, compounded by everything from a legacy of highly industrialised agricultural practices that have excluded those with limited financial access, to the dominance of crops imported to the continent in a colonial era, to present-day bad governance and corruption. But somewhere between the picture of Africa as a write-off and Africa as the new food Eden, is a version of the continent that is less exaggerated and in its honesty holds plainer answers to what strategy, resilience-building and appropriate adaptability for food security must look like.


For Professor Mary Scholes who holds a Research Chair in Systems Analysis in the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at Wits, a crucial starting point is identifying what we have so that we know how to harness its potential. As a soil expert, Scholes says that because Africa has mostly old, tropical weather soils, we have a limited amount of fertile, arable soil. Imperatives that may help the soil are the correct use of fertilisers and better adjudication in granting water-use licences, especially in areas where water is the most limiting resource.


“Inorganic fertiliser used correctly can boost the soil’s phosphorus and nitrogen composition to improve yields in the short-term,” says Scholes. “Organic fertilisers like maize stover, grass clippings and chicken or cattle manure may be more sustainable in the long-term, but you may need huge amounts for it to be effective, which is not always practical.” On water licences, Scholes gives the example of how, in some instances, it makes more sense to give licences for ventures in aquaponics rather than for maize crops. Humans require a balanced diet of proteins, carbohydrates and minerals and these needs should be met by regional production to minimise transport costs.

Lauren Mulligan


Africa “missed” the agricultural revolution of the 1960s. The so-called “green revolution” of that time had its pitfalls, including soil erosion, mono cropping and increasing the pesticide load in the environment. On the flipside, the form of farming that embraced science and technological approaches – including the use of hybridised seeds, pesticides and improved irrigation systems – made large-scale farming possible in more areas and for longer periods throughout the year. Judicious funding was also integral to the success of the green revolution. It is widely regarded as an intervention that solved starvation among the most vulnerable people in the world half a century ago. This is why Scholes doesn’t discount the role of genetically modified (GM) crops. GM foods and crops continue to divide the room and remain controversial. Critics shun it over concerns about its impact on the environment and for the long-term health of people and animals. It is also considered problematic in deepening the commoditisation of food, entrenching corporate monopolies and muscling out smaller farmers. Scholes says though, “If you are wealthy, you have the choice to walk into a supermarket and choose a product that is GMO-free, but if you are poor, it is a case of eat GMOs or starve.” Pragmatism and sensible, informed decision-making matters in overcoming food insecurity, says Scholes. For Dr Tracy Ledger, a researcher at the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI), sensible decision-making stops when food is not affordable and accessible to most of the population. Ledger wrote the book, An empty plate: Why we are losing the battle for our food system, why it matters and how we can win it back. She believes we produce enough food – but we’re not making it accessible to those who need it most. “We live with a system of buyer-led (retailer) value chains,” says Ledger. “Just because you grow more food does not mean


you are better off. If you grow more maize in the Eastern Cape, it does not mean you are going to put food on the table for a family in Ivory Park. The planet already produces enough food. The problem is people don’t have access to it.” According to Ledger, it is crucial to understand the enormous implications that the skewed food system has on our society.


This skewed food system includes the way we grow, buy and distribute food. It includes the costs associated with getting a plate of food on the table, issues of land tenure, title deeds, microfinancing, and access to markets, science, and technology for many smallholder farmers. “It is a wicked problem for smallholder farmers stuck in debt and still not growing enough in some years. You also can’t expect people to care for the land and to grow food on the land if they do not have title deeds or secure tenure,” says Scholes. Land reform and land expropriation have dragged on in South Africa. Settling the matter decisively and smartly can bring about the clarity and stability needed to shape policies around food security. This is part of the good governance and leadership that needs to be threaded through everything, including food security strategies, says Professor Ronald Wall, who holds the Chair in Economic Development of the City of Johannesburg in the School of Economic and Business Sciences at Wits. Sound governance, cooperation and vision are at the heart of Wall’s best-case scenario for a transformed continent that can attract the right kind of foreign direct investments (FDI). FDI improves everything from medium to high-tech infrastructure development through to better sanitation – all of which impact on improving agriculture and food processing, which in turn can help make Africa more food secure and more prosperous.


Wall, a chief researcher and author of the UN-Habitat report The State of the African Cities 2018 report: The geography of African investment released in July 2018, believes there are reasons to be optimistic. Positives are Africa’s large youth population, the opportunity to optimise low, medium and high-tech production in the pockets of arable land (particularly in cities and peri-urban areas) and the opportunity to leapfrog errors made by other countries and to experiment with new ideas and technologies. “Agriculture and investment in agriculture have been underlooked for a long time because farming is considered to be linked to poverty and to things low-tech and rural. But we have an opportunity to combine knowledge-intensive food production and our huge human resource in young people to create employment and opportunity through valued-added agricultural processing businesses,” says Wall.


South Africa’s nascent city food gardens, A-frame hydroponic rooftop gardens, food gardening as landscape, and food waste management initiatives represent a trend of agro-urbanity and creative problem solving. It attracts young people who see themselves as farmers and agricultural entrepreneurs. “We need to be able to build cities that are a mosaic of productive areas. Road networks and infrastructure need to improve to close the urban-rural divide. This helps cool the unprecedented rate of African urbanisation, while giving opportunity to people in rural areas. Food production should be something that is part of city life, not something that happens

“Food production should be something that is part of city life, not something that happens somewhere faraway”

somewhere faraway.” Wall believes urban people need to experience food systems to see explicitly that they are also about political power and investment flows. He warns, for example, that Africa’s arable land is being gobbled up by food multinationals to grow food for export markets, not the continent’s people. “Africa is a potential food basket for the world, but not for Africans themselves,” says Wall. Ledger says a great example of this is the state of the small dairy farming industry, which has been decimated in South Africa. In recent years, 5 000 small dairy farmers who used to provide 50 000 jobs in the country have gone out of business. “Farmers get paid R4.80 per litre of milk that is sold for over R15 in the shop, so almost every small dairy farmer in South Africa has gone out of business. Farmers take all the risk with producing milk, while retailers (and to a lesser extent, processors) make most of the profit,” says Ledger. Wall and his fellow authors write in the UN-Habitat report of the dangerous seduction of food FDI in Africa that is only concentrated on land acquisition

and international food exports. Bad deals with multinationals negatively affect local economies due to related social, economic and political conflict. Fairer deals should include the likes of joint ventures, increased local employment and guaranteed technology transfer to local producers. “Studies have shown that 115 million acres of agricultural land have been leased to investors worldwide (international land outsourcing for food exports) and that the bulk of this is in Africa (Land Matrix, 2016). Hence, food investment in Africa has become a ‘resource-seeking production and export platform’ venture that generally does not support local food availability.” Wall, like Simatele, says protection and pushback against international pressure comes down to engaged, critically aware citizenry and good governance. Regional economic communities like the Southern African Development Community or the Economic Community of West African States need to be strong and the African Union as a whole has to be able to withstand potential exploitation through skewed deals. “You can’t have a case where a foreign firm negotiates with one country and if

it doesn’t get the deal it wants simply goes to a neighbouring country to make a similarly bad deal,” says Wall. He has more bad news, pointing out that land grabbing, inefficient land administration, poor documentation, lack of transparency, low capacity and the demand for land surveyors are all barriers to attracting the FDI that could positively impact food security. Still, Wall is optimistic and says vision and hope have very real roles to play in turning things around for the continent. These may seem intangible, but inspiration, imagination and optimism are the stuff that make people believe they can and should map out their future solutions, rather than remaining stuck in dead ends. Hope may seem a huge leap for the question of how dinner gets on to a plate tonight, but planting and nurturing a seed gives it every chance to grow to its fullest potential. C Read the State of African Cities 2018 report here: the-state-of-african-cities-2018-thegeography-of-african-investment/


Phansi, profiteers, Phansi! The Constitution guarantees the right to food and there is enough for all, but a system that prioritises profits over people undermines both society and justice. SCHALK MOUTON


f we are serious about solving the massive food insecurity problem in South Africa, then it is time to completely overhaul the food system in the country. This is the view of Dr Tracy Ledger from the Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI), who believes that food provision should be treated the same as other services guaranteed in Section 27 of our Constitution. “The last time I read Section 27, nowhere did it guarantee the right to make a profit, but it does guarantee the right to food,” says Ledger, who wrote the book, An empty plate: Why we are losing the battle for our food system, why it matters and how we can win it back. “We have been very successful in

commoditising food and leaving food distribution in the hands of commercialised retailers. If we treated water or education [other rights guaranteed in Section 27] the way we treat food, it would mean that we would have handed over the decision about who gets water and who doesn’t to the profit-making sector,” she says. “We all understand that this isn’t in our collective best interests when it comes to water, but when it comes to food, we do exactly that. We all carry the enormous social costs of that decision.”

ACCESS AND COST OVER QUANTITY Food security, says Ledger, is not just about producing more food. It is

about reducing the cost of food and making it more accessible to vulnerable communities. “While it may generate some employment opportunities for a few people, there is no way that establishing a couple of rooftop food gardens in Johannesburg is going to feed the literally millions of food insecure people in the city,” she says. According to the fifth Quality of Life survey released on 13 November 2018 by the Wits-based Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO), a guaranteed, regular meal is increasingly out of reach for families living in the province’s cities. Overall, one in five households (21%) has gone hungry this year. Since 2014, the number of households




Nadette Voogd


with a monthly income of R3 200 or less that has skipped a meal in the last year rose from about 23% in 2014 to 37% in 2018. For households with earnings between R3 201 and R12 800 per month, this number doubled from 9% to 18%. According to Ledger, 80% of South African households do not spend enough to buy a nutritious basket of food. “According to dietary recommendations, a child should have at least half a litre of milk per day. That costs R210 per month, which is more than half the current childcare grant. What is the point of teaching people about nutrition if they cannot afford it?” she asks.

“The last time I read Section 27, nowhere did it guarantee the right to make a profit.”


Ledger believes poor nutrition is a problem for everyone, not just the hungry. Several thousand children literally starve every year, a quarter of South Africa’s children are classified as stunted, increasing numbers of children are both stunted and obese (this is possible when children eat too much food of very low nutritional value), and childhood malnutrition has been positively linked with an increased propensity for violence in adulthood. Society as a whole carries the resulting costs – and this in a world where we actually produce enough food for everybody; it is just not accessible to everybody. “If you look at our food systems from an economic point of view, things are going great. It is run smoothly and efficiently, and companies make profits. If you look at it from a social justice point of view, it is a disaster,” says Ledger.


Gillian Maree, Senior Researcher at the GCRO says that all the costs related to producing a nutritious plate of food have increased, pushing it out of reach for large numbers of Gauteng’s city residents. “The costs of transport, food, electricity and energy have all gone up hugely, and they all contribute to preparing a decent meal. If you consider then that a person who earns a minimum income and travels two hours to work a day, works eight hours and travels two hours back home, the chances that they would spend time preparing a decent meal – with scarce resources – are minimal,” she says. To add to that, our quest to mass-produce food has stripped it of nutritional value while increasing the levels of salt, sugar and fat in the products that are available and affordable. “Access to food is a clear indication of inequality,” says Maree. “You can clearly see a divide between the haves and have nots.” Ledger believes giving urgent attention to these issues is not just a moral obligation. “Ignoring these issues is putting enormous pressure on our social fabric,” she says. C


A HEALTHY MEAL in every neighbourhood

Few Johannesburg residents enjoy the right to food and even fewer are aware that they have such a right. Community Food Centres could help change that. BRITTANY KESSELMAN


he right to food is enshrined in Section 27 of the South African Constitution. Despite this, almost 15 million South Africans experience hunger and just over 16 million more are at risk, according to a study published in 2013. Like many developing countries, South Africa is experiencing a ‘double burden’ of disease. Hunger and under-nutrition co-exist with obesity and diet-related diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and hypertension.


In Johannesburg, estimates of food insecurity range from 27% citywide to up to 90% in the poorest wards. This is not due to a shortage of food – there is more than enough for everyone. Rather, it is the result of South Africa’s unjust food system. Food justice is a concept that recognises the structural racism and economic injustice in the food system, and strives for greater equity and fairness. Food justice is about placing more control over food-related decisions in the hands of farm workers, food sector workers and


marginalised communities. It goes well beyond the technical questions of food security and considers power relations in the food system. To date, food-related interventions in Johannesburg have tended to focus on either charitable food distribution (soup kitchens and food parcels) or support for urban agriculture (market-oriented or subsistence). While these may help some individuals, neither addresses the underlying structural issues that contribute to hunger and malnutrition – issues such as the concentration of the capitalist food system, the gendered distribution of household labour, or the impact of colonisation and apartheid on dietary preferences and practices. Without addressing these underlying issues, foodrelated interventions have limited impact and cannot make a long-term contribution to food justice.


There are examples from other parts of the world of policies and projects that have contributed towards a more just

food system. In the city of Belo Horizonte in Brazil, the food and nutrition security programme explicitly acknowledges the right to food and has made significant strides against hunger over the past 20 years. One innovation is the people’s restaurant (restaurant popular), which serves inexpensive healthy meals to thousands of people each day. These people’s restaurants are open to all, with meals designed by nutritionists. Meals are subsidised to varying degrees and free for people living on the streets. Combined with the other interventions of the municipal and federal government – such as the family grant (Bolsa Familia) and support for urban agriculture and peri-urban small farmers, subsidised fresh produce markets, the municipal food procurement programme, the school nutrition programme – the people’s restaurant has reduced food insecurity and improved nutrition. In Canada, the Community Food Centre (CFC) model, first developed at ‘The Stop’ in Toronto, uses food as an entry point to address poverty and hunger at the community and national level. The

Residents eat at a government-run restaurant, Restaurante Popular, in the Bangu neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

CFC is a non-governmental organisation, which provides emergency food assistance (through a food bank and drop-in meals) alongside educational, capacity-building and civic engagement programmes. The CFC is explicitly committed to social justice, which influences the form and content of all its programmes, educational and advocacy work.


Based on research on food production and consumption in Johannesburg, I believe community food centres could be a key component of solving the city’s food challenges. CFCs would enable people to access affordable, healthy meals; learn food production and preparation skills; and mobilise for food system change. A CFC has the potential to:

• i mprove access to healthy food, thereby combating hunger and malnutrition, • develop skills, in terms of food production (urban farming), preparation (healthy cooking), preservation and processing, • increase awareness of the right to food, food system injustices and food sovereignty alternatives, which leads to mobilisation on food issues, • provide a market for urban farmers, enabling them to improve incomes through stable sales of a more diverse range of produce, • generate new knowledge on the food system to underpin educational and advocacy activities, and • help build community, through joint activities in a community-oriented space. Ideally, there would be a CFC in every neighbourhood of Johannesburg, serving meals to the local community, buying produce from local farmers and helping to educate people around food system issues. C

Lianne Milton

Brittany Kesselman is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Society, Work and Development Institute at Wits. Her current research project uses participatory methods to investigate the potential for community food institutions to contribute to food justice in Johannesburg. Her PhD research at the University of KwaZuluNatal focused on the contribution of community food gardens to food sovereignty in Johannesburg. Outside of academia, Kesselman has over 10 years of practical experience in policy research, analysis and advocacy.


APPETITE FOR DIGNITY Despite efforts to address hunger at Wits, ad hoc food security interventions cannot keep pace with increasing numbers of hungry students. The Food Sovereignty Centre at Wits not only empowers and dignifies food-stressed Witsies but is also a model of how to shift beyond food security initiatives to food sovereignty alternatives. VISHWAS SATGAR AND JANE CHERRY


hile interventions such as feeding schemes on campus are necessary in the short term, they don’t offer sustainable solutions for food-stressed students. Add climate change to the mix, and the future for hungry students is even bleaker. Our natural food-producing systems are unravelling and hunger is increasing. Finding sustainable solutions to hunger, climate change, and environmental degradation involves tackling the root of the crises. Advocates of food sovereignty and climate justice identify systemic causes – and solutions lie not in existing ‘business as usual’ trajectories, but rather in community, ecological and people-based alternatives. The Food Sovereignty Centre at Wits provides a pathway for such alternatives on campus and the inner city of Johannesburg.



Food sovereignty refers to a food system in which the right to food is affirmed through control by small scale farmers and consumers to ensure agro-ecological food production, solidarity economy relations, healthy and culturally appropriate food. A series of factors and events culminated in what became the Food Sovereignty Centre at Wits. These include the formation of a student-led food sovereignty and climate justice forum, which students in the International Relations class at Wits organised. The forum was formalised as a student society, the Inala Forum, in 2015. Inala is isiZulu for ‘abundance’. Another factor was a march in 2016 against high food prices. Here Inala, the Co-operative and Policy Alternative Centre (COPAC – a grassroots NGO), and the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign (SAFSC) handed over a memorandum to

University management. The memorandum highlighted the plight of hunger in our universities and the need for Wits to support the call for a zero waste, zero hunger, and zero carbon institution. A central demand of the memorandum was a space of dignity for food-stressed students whom the Wits Community Citizenship and Outreach (WCCO) programme supports. The WCCO runs a feeding scheme, which provides more than 1 000 hot meals to students daily, and a food bank, which provides students with non-perishables. The University subsequently earmarked the Sanctuary Building on Braamfontein Campus East for a Food Sovereignty Centre.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT TOO Inala, the WCCO, and COPAC have since deepened their collaborative efforts to establish the Food Sovereignty Centre and its composite parts. A food garden that Inala initiated on campus in 2015 now

“COPAC and Wits signed a memorandum of agreement to bring about the first ecocentric university in South Africa” supplements the WCCO’s food bank with spinach, carrots, onions and cabbage. Earlier this year, COPAC and Wits signed a memorandum of agreement to bring about the first eco-centric university in South Africa. The Wits Food Sovereignty Centre is organising and enabling the food sovereignty pathway at Wits. The centre is a pilot to advance and model eco-centric practices for the University, other higher education institutions, and society. It comprises three spaces: • A community engagement and ecodemonstration space advances learning about climate justice and agro-ecology. The building is being renovated to embody the principles of eco-centric living and will model water harvesting, renewable energy, insulation, waste recycling and sustainable architectural design and building materials. Fruit orchards and agro-ecology gardens are being established and another 20 food gardens are planned.

• A space of dignity for food-stressed students, is managed by these students and includes a communal kitchen and culturally appropriate food preparation space. The first communal kitchen was launched this year and a student-led initiative to recover indigenous foods and local recipes is envisaged. There is already an outdoor communal eating space and fundraising initiatives are underway for modular kitchens and covered areas for students to eat. The communal kitchens and eating spaces represent a food sovereignty alternative to the fast food sold on campuses. • The purpose of the support space is to advance food sovereignty in society. A weekly Wits community market involving about 20 rooftop and inner city farmers is envisaged. An eco-centric building, including a seed bank, an indigenous and South African food archive, and a training space for agro-ecology is planned. The latter will be linked to the 20 other agroecology gardens mapped and planned for the University. C

Vishwas Satgar is an Associate Professor in International Relations at Wits. An activist for more than three decades, he is currently co-designing the food sovereignty space for food insecure Wits students in order to advance an eco-centric university. Jane Cherry is the Executive Manager at the Co-operative and Policy Alternative Centre (COPAC). She obtained her Master’s in Development Studies (Wits, 2015), which focussed on food sovereignty in South Africa. Through COPAC, Jane has been involved in the South African Food Sovereignty Campaign and the Wits Food Sovereignty Centre. She has worked on activist tools (seed saving, water sovereignty, a People’s Food Sovereignty Act, and sustainable land use), and has organised national events for food sovereignty and climate justice.




When John Lennon famously imagined a world with no need for greed or hunger, it was a political statement – also a pipedream. Nearly a half a century since the 1971 hit song became an anthem to imagine a better world, greed and hunger remain at the table even as the ideal of food commoning is yet to pull up a chair.


UFRIEDA HO gencies like the United Nations World Food Programme continue to highlight the fact that global food production sufficiently meets food demands. There is enough food, yet one in nine people (about 817 million individuals) go hungry and a much higher share do not get the minimally nutritious food required to live healthily. This perversion in our modern industrialised food systems is an unsettling truth. It is the reality of cityscapes dotted with fast-food joints and petrol station food stops, but hardly a traffic light without a beggar desperate for food or a few coins. It is also the occurance of people who are simultaneously obese and malnourished. In recent years, the idea of a ‘food commons’ has emerged as pushback to society’s warped structures. Food commons promote the idea of returning food (and access to it) to a place where food exists for the public good, rather than to benefit private, commercial interests. Food commoning seeks to dismantle the commodification of food and to make food and access to food, water, and fertile land more freely accessible. Food commoning initiatives can take various shapes. These include food co-operatives, urban food gardens, reducing food waste, finding markets for “ugly” produce, restaurants for the poor, food banks, and activism fighting for higher minimum wages and improved working conditions for the most vulnerable.


Commoning is inevitably political though, and comes with both pitfalls and potential, says Patrick Bond, Professor of Political Economy in the Wits School of Governance. Bond co-authored a chapter in the upcoming Routledge Handbook of Food as a Commons with Mary Galvin from the University of Johannesburg. They write in their chapter entitled, Water, Food and Climate Commoning in South African Cities: Contradictions and Prospects that “Commoning is not simply a matter of technicist collective resource management, but a political ideology in which socioecological contradictions inevitably emerge”. Modern humans are fighting to adapt to societal and environmental pressure and as some of these fights intersect and overlap, there is increasing fragmentation and competing agendas – even among activists themselves. It comes with a loss of ideology that goes against the grain of commoning. In Johannesburg, for example, Bond says property rights and ratepayers’ rights are defended to the exclusion of accommodating people who don’t fit the category of land owner and those with municipal bills in their names. “People as a result are locked out based on race and class. Finding well-located land to live on or to grow food on is almost impossible,” says Bond. He doesn’t believe cities need to be so exclusionary, pointing out that across our border in Harare, there is an enduring tradition of informal vegetable gardens on land commons throughout the Zimbabwean capital. Bond and Galvin write: “Given the history of land and food in South Africa, and the dominance of privately owned lands and commercial farming, land remains a struggle around which people


make demands for reparations … But food farming itself rarely moves past material concerns into ideological ones”.


But even if the ideology of commoning seems vaguely formed, the reality of a food crisis with its tangle of associated socioecological calamities is patently clear, says Jacklyn Cock, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology at Wits. “South African food systems serve the rich and powerful who engage in corrupt practices like price-fixing bread and ‘plumping’ [injecting water into chicken carcasses], even though bread and chicken are staple foods for 65% of our population, who are poor. This reflects a food system which is unjust, unsustainable due to climate change, and unsafe due to genetically modified organisms.” Cock echoes Bond’s point that the greatest challenge of food commoning is to reverse the “intense individualism of neoliberalism, which inhibits sharing". Cock calls it the “Me First” affliction.


Still, there are success stories, even if they may not tick all the ideological boxes. Professor Michael Rudolph, founder and director of the Siyakhana Initiative in Bez Valley, in Johannesburg’s eastern suburbs, says their urban food garden has grown over the last 13 years. It began in 2005 as a 5 metre by 5 metre vegetable patch and now it’s a one-hectare farm, with other sites being developed. “We are about growing healthy food and also about using research, advocacy, training and social entrepreneurship to fight the hunger and poverty crisis in the country,” says Rudolph, whose background is in community dentistry and he was previously director of the Wits Health Consortium. Rudolph adds that the project has been able to reach people through providing food for vulnerable families, education about water and energy conservation and raising awareness about ecology, health and nutrition. “Siyakhana has become a tangible platform to engage with farmers and growers and their families, school children who visit, researchers from universities across the world, corporate representatives, and local and provincial government policy makers,” says Rudolph. Siyakhana keeps evolving – even this is necessary adaptation and resilience. The next phase, says Rudolph, is to build their human capacity, increase their social media presence and streamline models for replication at different sites. The garden is a small example of food commoning, but its small multiple strands pulling together that weave a stronger humanenvironment web – exactly what growing the common good looks like. C The Wits Inala Forum, a student society that manages the garden together with the Wits Siyakhana Food Project, harvest crop from the garden in aid of hungry students. Lauren Mulligan



Preliminary findings in new research due for publication in 2019 indicate a link between the relative increase in food and beer prices with levels of crime and violent behaviour in South Africa. PEARL BOSHOMANE TSOTETSI


o say that South Africa is a country with high levels of violence is not new – the crime statistics shock us every year. It’s to be expected that our divided past would affect us but the reasons behind the nature of our society today are deeper than transgenerational trauma. While the causes of violence and the links between poverty and mental illness have been researched globally, and to an extent locally, a new paper has found that relative increases in food and beer prices can be linked to crime levels and violent behaviour in South Africa. Authored by Dr Gareth Roberts, Professor Tendai Gwatidzo and Dr Dambala Kutela in the Department of Economics, School of Economic and Business Sciences at Wits, the paper, The Effects of the Price of Food and Beer on Crime in South Africa is due to be published early in 2019. The researchers looked at the South African Police Service’s crime statistics in every province for each month between January 2008 and March 2012. They combined those with data released by Statistics South Africa of the consumer price indices of different goods and service categories in these provinces. This allowed them to estimate the impact of food and beer prices on crime. However, methodological constraints make it difficult to determine in which provinces the impact was the highest. “We can show the correlation between food prices and crime in different provinces – but correlation is not causation. What we try to do in the paper is identify the causal effect and to do that, we have to exploit differences in these prices in different provinces at different times,” says Roberts. While Roberts acknowledges that it is difficult to identify causality in applied


“A relative increase of food prices leads to an increase in certain types of crime.”

microeconomics, a key finding from the study is that a relative increase of food prices leads to an increase in certain types of crime. Conversely, an increase in the relative price of beer resulted in a decrease in some crimes.


“Consumers now have only one beer instead of two and are less likely to become aggressive.”

Lauren Mulligan

“We show that an increase in the relative price of food leads to an increase in many types of violent crime and theft, while an increase in the price of beer generally does the opposite, including for crimes of a sexual nature. This tells us that there is a socioeconomic component to the high level of crime in South Africa. It also tells us that the availability of alcohol plays a role,” says Roberts. However, it’s almost impossible to know exactly why the increase in beer prices leads to a decrease in the numbers of crimes of sexual violence. “One possible explanation is that the consumption of alcohol is sometimes associated with aggression and with people not being as alert as they normally would be. If the price of beer goes up and a person has one less beer, this may reduce their chances of becoming more aggressive, or of being less alert,” says Roberts. The research also touches on the topic of hunger. The authors hypothesise that a possible explanation for rising food prices and corresponding increased levels of theft is that hungry poor people may have to steal to feed themselves. “In the case of beer, we suspect that a relative increase in the price of beer reduces consumption at the margin – that is, consumers now have only one beer instead of two and are less likely to become aggressive and less likely to be exposed to theft. That said, this is only an overall net effect – it’s possible people could steal to afford beer.” The study may have implications for policy, as it’s possible that the VAT zero rating on certain items of food, and sin taxes, reduce crime. Policy-makers should also plan for a possible spike in crime when food prices increase. “This may happen if domestic production of food becomes constrained in some way. However, it’s difficult to generalise beyond the main findings at this stage,” says Roberts. C



Vino Tinto

THE TRUTH ABOUT MIELIES Most Africans consider maize (corn) to be their staple food but few are aware that this cereal grain carries a history of slavery, colonisation, modernisation and globalisation. KARABO KGOLENG


he origins of corn are not explicitly clear but scholars widely agree that it originated in the Mexican highlands around 1500 BC and was established in Africa around 1500 AD. Before the introduction of maize, African staple diets consisted of sorghum, rapoko, millet, manioc and yam. How did maize come to dominate the dishes of billions, what has been its societal and environmental impact, and is it a viable option for food security?


According to Professor Mucha Musemwa, Head of the School of Social Sciences at Wits, an American environmental historian, Alfred Crosby coined the phrase ‘ecological imperialism’, a theory about the “biological expansion of Europe from 900 to 1900”.


It began with Christopher Columbus who left Spain on several voyages financed by the Crown. In the year 1492, the territories now known as Latin America were conquered. “When he left Spain, Columbus took a boat full of plants, flowers, animals, people and bacteria. When he landed in the Americas, he unleashed all of these on the new terrain, which lead to the destruction of indigenous plants and animals, and the spread of disease. The people of Meso America, the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru succumbed to the conquistadors’ weaponry, which was also biological. About six million died of smallpox”, says Musemwa. The political empire-building that took hold in Latin America also transformed the local ecology. The Spaniards drove the social and environmental reproduction of Europe in this New World, having brought all the goods that make up European life with them across the ocean. They returned to Europe, taking with them

“The long-term effects of genetically modified maize on the health of humans have yet to be realised.” foods such as corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, cassava, groundnut and tomatoes, and this came to be known as the Columbian Exchange, the genesis of globalisation. “This was not an equal exchange,” says Musemwa. “Diseases and invasive species from Europe dominated and obliterated much of the indigenous flora and fauna in Latin America, although not everything was affected. The imperialists were also exposed to the coca plant, which was being consumed as part of indigenous culture. After experimentation, they developed cocaine, which led to the development of the narcotics trade.”


Mexican anthropologist Arturo Warman describes in Corn and Capitalism: How a Botanical Bastard Grew to Global Dominance how maize was central to the world economy and politics since 1492. Although corn is not as drought resistant as other staple foods, it matures early, is high in calories, easy to prepare, highly storable and easy to process. These characteristics enabled rapid population growth and maize became established as the main food source for the poor and powerless across the world. This is also how maize facilitated the trans-Atlantic slave trade, colonialism in Africa and the overthrow of feudalism in Europe.

Warman calls maize a ‘botanical bastard’ because its impact on the world is paradoxical. On the one hand, it has increased populations and life expectancy among the poor. On the other, it “generated wealth for European landowners, shopkeepers and money lenders, overlords, and the new middle class”. Corn is a global agricultural success yet it is entirely dependent on humans for its propagation because it cannot reseed itself. A lecture by Musemwa, Seeds of Change: How Food Crops Connected and Altered the History of the World references ‘maize’s historical encounter with the landscapes of Africa’ from introduction to its current status as Africa’s dominant food crop. The 20th Century saw a marked increase in the crop’s area, to the point that it provided more than half of the food calories in several African states.


The environmental impact of maize production on African soil is significant. If not managed properly, it causes soil degradation and erosion, destruction of wildlife and plant biodiversity, loss of food crop diversity, and climate change. Its dependence on irrigation and its low tolerance for drought is a concern in water scarce regions. Maize is contentious from a food security and safety perspective. While advances in technology have brought successful hybrids, the issue of genetic modification remains controversial. The long-term effects of genetically modified maize on the health of humans have yet to be realised and people cannot be used as test cases. For rural populations with access to land, the Old World farming methods of crop rotation and permaculture can reduce the reliance on maize as a staple. However, mass migration to cities will increasingly challenge urban populations who are reliant on commercial agriculture for affordable food. This means that maize will continue to dominate the plates and palates of billions for the foreseeable future. C


Termites and Mopane worms offer a good alternative source of protein. Lauren Mulligan


Entomophagy is the human practice of eating insects. Not only is the word a mouthful, but the practice holds a potential solution to food insecurity in South Africa and presents possibilities for eco-tourism.


n the hills of Venda, an elusive quarry is the target of a hunt in the pre-dawn of winter. The hunters are on the prowl for clumps of insects that gather in the morning cold for warmth. Known as edible stinkbugs, some consider these insects a delicacy, for which they are willing to pay good money. By winter they are full of fat, which turns them tasty when fried with a bit of salt.


Most people have never heard of edible stinkbugs, but Dr Cathy Dzerefos wants to change this. The former Wits PhD student believes that edible stinkbugs could be good for tourism. The idea is that tourists would come along on one of those predawn insect hunts, and later – if they are brave enough – feast on what they have collected. While entomophagy seems to be a slightly radical form of eco-tourism, it could assist poorer communities and aid conservation. For many city-dwelling South Africans, chomping down on a bug is more of a novelty they might experience at a science fair, or in a restaurant. But for others, insects are a staple and an important source of protein when meat is unaffordable. “There are insects out there that people are eating, that we don’t even know about,” says Dzerefos, who is now a researcher at the University of the North West. Recently scientists discovered four more species of insects that local residents in the far north of Limpopo province eat.


South Africans are not the only ones with a taste for creepy-crawlies. An estimated two

billion people regularly munch on as many as 1 900 different species of insects around the world. With so many in the world already eating bugs, scientists are starting to see these potential sources of protein as a solution to global food insecurity. But there’s a hitch, says Professor Wayne Twine in the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at Wits. Besides some South Africans being squeamish about chowing down on something with more than four legs, insects also have an image problem. “The challenge remains in mainstreaming these cultural uses,” says Twine. “Popularising [entomophagy] with the emerging middle class is a challenge, as there is a stigma attached to edible insects – they are seen as old-fashioned or as poor people’s food.”


Working near Acornhoek in Mpumalanga in 2004, Twine and his colleagues found that insects were an important source of protein for families facing hardship. After losing the passing away of the breadwinner, some households turned to insects – mainly locusts – to substitute meat to maintain their protein intake. “Insects would be a more sustainable source of protein than cattle feed lots with their methane (emissions),” says Twine. “The use of edible insects could also be intensified, but with a smaller environmental impact.”


The insects that might lend themselves to farming in South Africa include mopane worms, termites, and locusts. Edible stinkbugs are more localised, which is why Dzerefos feels going the tourism route

might be a money-spinner. These small shield-shaped bugs are usually found near Thohoyandou and Ga-Modjadji in Limpopo and Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga, but they are traded widely. “We know of people who will phone in their orders from the cities,” says Dzerefos. Sacks of dried edible stinkbugs are transported to market on mini bus taxis. In Thohoyandou, a teacup filled with dried stinkbugs can cost R20. “They are said to be good for a hangover,” laughs Bianca Mkhize, who works with Dzerefos and is studying the use of edible insects in tourism. There is concern that habitat loss could threaten these bugs and in Zimbabwe, villagers use ‘caretakers’ to protect the critters. In the Jiri forest, these caretakers ensure ethical and sustainable harvesting practices, and Dzerefos believes that making stinkbugs a tourism commodity would help their conservation. “Look, people come to see butterflies. Why won’t they come to see edible stinkbugs?” asks Mkhize.


There is a skill to harvesting insects and cooking them, and this worries Mkhize. Take the edible stinkbug, for example. It gets its name from an unpleasant smelling chemical that stains hands yellow and can even cause temporary blindness. The stinkbug is only edible if this chemical is removed. This is done by beheading the stinkbug and squeezing the chemical out, or by putting the bug in warm water. This kind of knowledge, passed down from one generation to the next, is disappearing. “This is why there is still a lot of indigenous knowledge that still needs to come out,” says Mkhize.



what not to eat


Although eating insects might stave off starvation in a survival situation, chowing down on foam grasshoppers or red-yellow-black bugs could be fatal.


any people find the idea of eating bugs repulsive. The half worm found after biting an apple is seldom celebrated as extra nutrition – rather it may leave a person horrified and nauseated. What a contrast between a Western attitude to consuming bugs and that of many cultures, particularly in tropical areas where, at certain times of the year, insects form a very important part of the diet. The list of species of arthropods eaten worldwide is now around 1 900, an impressive number. In a survival situation, eating bugs could save one from starvation, but what should one avoid? With so many different species eaten, it is not a simple matter knowing which not to consume. Scorpions, bees and wasps have venom yet scorpions are eaten in Thailand and bees in China. Some wasps are said to be tasty. The UK Independent of 16 August 2018 reports a lost hiker in the pacific northwest of the USA who survived a week eating bees and berries. Clearly venomous and inedible are not linked! Another way to decide which bugs to avoid could be those with warning colouration – red and yellow often combined with black as a contrast. This colour combination warning would save

you from eating blister beetles, which contain a toxin, cantharidin, which can be fatal. Foam grasshoppers resemble edible locusts in shape and size but often have brightly coloured bodies, or red wings which they open when threatened. Deaths have been reported from eating some species. Regrettably, avoiding warning colouration would deny you Mopane caterpillars, which have red and yellow markings and look quite intimidating. But not only are they safe to eat, they are very nutritious with a high protein content. Avoiding bugs from plants that you suspect or know are toxic is wise. Foam grasshoppers and the caterpillars of the African Monarch butterfly are poisonous as a result of storing the poisons from milkweeds such as Gomphocarpus. Pest species of cockroach are known to eat almost anything, and could well contain pathogens, however, cockroaches that live in the veld and woodland would be fine to eat – they have a better diet! Given that it is difficult to decide which arthropods should not be eaten it may be easier to know which are likely to be safe to eat. Termites would be one such insect. They are widely distributed, relatively easy to find and present in large numbers. With little effort many can be caught using a piece of grass or by throwing a piece of

material over a place where flying ants are emerging. Dried termites have from 25% to over 50% protein and around 2% fat – not at all bad for free food! Crickets are probably also a good choice as a number of species are eaten in different parts of the world, and not too difficult to recognise. Locusts are often abundant, but care needs to be taken to distinguish them from foam grasshoppers. A number of different emperor moth caterpillars are eaten in various parts of Africa, and many of these are found in large numbers on their host plants. In a pinch, I would risk eating any caterpillars in the baby finger or larger size range. C

Donald McCallum is a botanist in the C.E. Moss Herbarium in the Wits Life Sciences Museum, School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences (APES). In addition to his work with plants, he has a strong interest in informal teaching through displays, gardens and exhibitions. His interest in insects as a food source developed from having edible insects to taste at the annual Yebo Gogga Yebo amaBlomo exhibition at Wits.

Lauren Mulligan



towards obesity

International junk food corporations, the marketing of sweets and sugary drinks to children, the fast food generation – all of these have trapped us into an “obesogenic environment”. To get out of the trap, we need some out of the box thinking, including looking for answers in traditional medicinal plants.


amburgers, a side of chips, and a doughnut for dessert, all washed down with a sweetened carbonated drink. If the young rats in the Endocrinology and Metabolism Research Lab in the School of Physiology at Wits were the human children they were modelled on, this might have been

a typical meal. But these lab rats had consumed a high-calorie fructose [fruit sugar] solution designed to mimic the sugar-enriched Western diet behind the obesity pandemic that is hitting South Africa hard. The rats were fed a high-fructose diet to test: a possible new weapon in the arsenal against obesity and the metabolic diseases associated with it. Surprisingly, it

is a weapon that humanity has known for millennia – it’s the Terminalia sericea, the silver cluster-leaf tree, widely distributed in southern Africa. Traditionally this plant has been used to treat a host of ailments, including intestinal infections, hypertension and diabetes. Studies have shown that the silver cluster-leaf contains chemical compounds that break down fat.



Intrigued by the plants’ ability to break down fat, Dr Busisani Lembede was interested to see whether it could be used to fight the development of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), the number one liver disease in the world. Fatty liver disease refers to a range of diseases related to a build-up of fat in the liver cells, and the risk of developing it is increased by obesity. “We speculate that some of these chemicals in the silver cluster-leaf tree may also prevent the deposit of excessive fats in the liver,” says Professor Eliton Chivandi in the School of Physiology at Wits. NAFLD is a growing problem globally and a leading cause of liver damage. An estimated 30 to 40% of the global population has NAFLD. In the United States, 17.3% of children between the ages of 15 and 19 years old have non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. “There are so many causes of obesity, but in South Africa it is the lifestyle – particularly the dietary component of it that seems to be the main cause,” says Chivandi. “People are consuming a lot of sweetened foods with fructose and high in saturated fats, and this contributes to the production of excess calories.” In the lab, some of the rat pups consumed a control (normal) diet, while others consumed the high-fructose diet of either fenofibrate (a conventional pharmacological agent) or extracts from the silver cluster-leaf tree. The scientists found that the extracts from the silver cluster-leaf suppressed fructose-induced liver lipid accumulation and fatty liver disease.


The silver cluster-leaf tree is not the only traditional plant-derived medicine potentially with properties to tackle

“Nine and 10 year olds in South Africa are the highest consumers of sugary beverages in the world” 28

obesity. Countries like India and Italy are taking a serious look at plants to see if they can fight fat. “There are plants such as the Moringa oleifera Lam tree [Moringa tree], garlic, and the common fig with potential health beneficial properties,” says Chivandi. Research has shown that people across the globe are more willing to use natural remedies rather than Western medicines, which they perceive as having side effects. “About 80% of the global population uses traditional medicine. In fact, the World Health Organization says that: more research should be carried out into traditional medicines, as this would reduce the pressure on health facilities,” says Lembede. However, even if the silver cluster-leaf tree proves to be a cure for fatty liver disease, it won’t be enough to curtail the obesogenic environment in which we find ourselves. An obesogenic environment is an environment where external influences, opportunities and conditions impact our lifestyles to cause obesity.


“We have an obesity problem and a food security problem,” says Wits Professor Karen Hofman, Director of PRICELESS SA (Priority Cost Effective Lessons for Systems Strengthening SA) who co-authored a study on obesogenic environments. “We must not forget that we have 20% of children in South Africa who are still stunted. Yes, we do have an obesity epidemic and it is increasing by the day. But we can't turn back the clock, because the deed is done.” Obesity does not differentiate between the rich and poor. The poor get their fix of the high calorie diet that causes obesity from cheap, processed foods, as healthier food is often more expensive, and out of reach for more vulnerable groups. “This is not an individual lifestyle choice – it is caused by a concerted effort driven by profit to ensure that countries that can provide a growth target for these companies are subjected to processed foods and beverages that contain often high levels of sugar. This is all about marketing and particularly marketing to children and teenagers,” says Hofman. The majority of South Africans got a taste of this new diet with the dawn of democracy. Twenty years later and South Africa is the most obese country in subSaharan Africa. With this weight-gain has come the highest prevalence of diabetes on the continent. However, it is difficult to work out just how many people have diabetes, as half of sufferers have yet to be diagnosed. “In 2013, the prevalence of diabetes was 26 cases per 1 000. In the public health sector in 2014, there were 5 000 new diabetes cases a month. By 2016, that was

close to 15 000,” says Hofman. It is not just processed foods and sugary drinks that are expanding our waistlines. South Africans, like so many others worldwide, are becoming increasingly sedentary. Chinvandi, who is also a warden at one of the Wits residences, is regularly shocked to see how many delivery bikes deliver fast foods such as pizzas and chicken to students. “Our students won’t walk. They would rather order it. So that shows how sedentary our population has become,” says Chivandi. But exercise alone is not enough to beat the epidemic. “As they say, you can’t exercise your way out of a bad diet. And all it does is confuse people,” says Hofman, who believes fighting obesity comes down to a holistic approach, with the state taking the lead.

“A study found that 50% of schools had Coca-Cola signs on their grounds” SUGAR AND THE STATE

The South African government’s introduction of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in April 2018 was a small victory in the fight against obesity. This ‘sugar tax’ – officially the health promotion levy – applies a tax of 2,1c for every gram of sugar per 100ml above a 4 gram threshold. Similar fiscal measures applied in other countries have worked. A 2016 study published in the peer-reviewed BMJ reported that annual sales of sodas in Mexico declined by 6% in 2014 after the introduction of a similar tax. Sugar tax in South Africa could make an enormous difference. “Nine and 10 year olds in South Africa are the highest consumers of sugary beverages in the world,” Hofman says. Although it is too early to assess the effect of the health promotion levy in South Africa on the sale of sugarsweetened beverages, Hofman says there has already been one positive effect. In October, Treasury announced that it had collected just over R1 billion in sugar tax revenue between 1 April and 31 August – a significant income considering

R1.64 billion was expected for the entire 2018-2019 fiscal year.


Research shows that unhealthy food preferences are established at an early age. Another measure Hofman advocates is preventing corporates from marketing to children. The way that corporations target children can be seen in how supermarkets often place sweets and junk food within eye level of children. Low-placed shelves at checkout aisles are packed tight with chocolates and other sweets.

“Children are repeatedly exposed to marketing [which] portrays unhealthy foods as fun, ‘cool’, exciting and positive. [Marketers] use promotional packaging, they use celebrities and athletes to endorse their products, they have kidfriendly animations, use child actors, and video games. Billions are spent on targeted marketing to children,” says Hofman. A study found that 50% of schools had Coca-Cola signs on their grounds. This, Hofman points out, was five years after Coca-Cola said it would no longer market to children. Hofman says schools should remove all unhealthy food from their tuck shops.

LABELLED FOR LOSING Another measure that could help in the fight against obesity is to improve food labelling. “Labelling will guide us with choices, as most consumers take less than 10 seconds to select a food item,” says Hofman. She believes labels need to be bold and to the point – like the in-yourface warnings on cigarette packets. There is already labelling on some food items but the problem, says Hofman, is that it is often designed to bamboozle customers. “The global experience tells us that negative, clear warnings are very effective. You need something that tells you, ‘this is very high in sugar’. Period. That is all.” C




not to shrink

There are almost 10 billion people on Earth and possibly 9 billion ideas of the perfect diet but there is no scientific proof that your latest fad diet will do the trick! SHANTHINI NAIDOO


ood has evolved from a means of survival and metabolising energy into an undefined entity. It comes from all over the globe, in fashionable phases, and innumerable forms and culinary permutations. Our ancestors would be scratching their heads if they came across a multi-coloured quinoa Buddha bowl – although that wouldn’t be a bad lunch option. Food as the key to being healthy, slim, satiated and to achieve longevity is even more of a conundrum, but Wits University experts agree – fad diets are not the answer. Intermittent fasting, prehistoric diets, nano-level blood diets, Banting and ketone counting are not only ineffective for long-term health, they may do more harm than good. There is evidence that fad diets may be harmful, and eliminating foods (such as carbs) from a balanced diet can possibly cause apoptosis or cell death. Professor Gavin Norton, Co-Director of the Cardiovascular Pathophysiology and Genomic Research Unit at Wits, says, “I believe very little in fad diets as by their very nature there is no evidence that they save lives. Even more established diets, such as low-salt diets, have never


been shown to save lives and more evidence shows that they may in fact kill us. The only diet ever to show benefit is a Mediterranean diet. The safest thing to do is eat a balanced diet with all the nutrients recommended by professional nutritionists who, if trained properly, would never recommend a fad diet to begin with.” Dr Sandra Pretorius, who deals with noncommunicable diseases at the Centre for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine at Wits, says human beings should avoid any diet that eliminates or severely restricts entire food groups, such as carbohydrates. “Even if you take a multivitamin, you’ll still miss out on some of the crucial macro- and micronutrients or vitamins and minerals,” she says. “Also, avoid diets that allow unlimited quantities of any food, such as grapefruit and cabbage soup. It’s boring to eat the same thing over and over and hard to stick with monotonous plans.” Pretorius adds any diet that excludes exercise is unlikely to work for weight loss.

WHAT ABOUT THE WEIGHT? “Given our individual uniqueness there is no universal diet which fits all,” says Associate Professor Kennedy Erlwanger

from the School of Physiology in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Wits, whose research explores food and nutrition and its impacts on metabolic health. “Generally, one considers diets as a means to accomplishing weight loss, with the target nutrient culprits being fat and sugar or carbohydrates. It is important to note that these are normal dietary requirements, which have specific important roles in our well-being. The various iterations of diets revolve around the source, type, quantity and frequency of intake as well as the quality of these nutrients,” he says. Instead, says Erlwanger, focus on the point of nutrition, which is “to produce healthy outcomes which include appropriate growth, disease-free states, physical and emotional well-being”. Remembering that some people need specific diets for unique situations, such as post-surgical recovery or muscle building for athletes, Erlwanger says there is a type of diet that should work for most of us to live long, healthy (and hopefully moderately sized) lives. In simple terms, it is the Mediterranean diet – and for no other reason than the science has shown results.


“Studies on populations where a larger proportion than that of the rest of the world’s population is characterised by longevity, low incidence of metabolic diseases, hypertension and cancers, show that the food consumed is unrefined, plant-based, relatively meat free, high in seeds and nuts – Mediterranean,” says Erlwanger. But it isn’t just about the food. It is how you consume it and what goes along with the lifestyle. “Familial closeness and physical activity are key components of lifestyle in these healthy populations,” he says. And don’t forget your gut. Increasingly, the microflora and fauna in the gut has been proven to affect everything from our digestion to mental health. The next step to healthier diets is personalised nutrition says Erlwanger. This is a tailor-made approach “based on physical, biochemical and genetic profiles, amongst other biological factors” and another reason you can’t turn to a fad diet, because what may work for a friend, might not work for you.


While we may see evidence of weight-loss in those who follow fad diets, and that menus cater more frequently for those who want to leave the buns off a burger, Professor Demitri Constantinou, Director of the Centre for Exercise Science and Sports Medicine says the evidence should be more reliable than “popularity”. “People are all different and have different pathology, which may mean they may in fact react differently to similar diets. Very often, fads are driven by popularity and certain industries,” says Constantinou. “What we know about good nutrition and diet is that even within the scientific sphere there is a lot of controversy. The American Heart Association removed saturated fats and replaced them with polyunsaturated fats, for instance, but if you look at the evidence, this may not

reduce your risk of heart disease. Lots of the advice we see is not evidence-based. In the absence of very obvious choices, like too much sugar being unhealthy, the average person has a problem making decisions because even scientists are not convinced one way or another!” However, Constantinou says that what evidence has showed does lean toward the Mediterranean diet, because it is supported by research. This means moderation, and portions of fruit, vegetables and legumes. “It is largely plant-based meals with a moderate intake of meat, using things like herbs instead of salt. Obviously in the Mediterranean, butter and margarine don’t feature, and olive oil is preferred.”


But at the heart of the matter is that old human conditioning towards the ‘quick fix’. Constantinou says he has seen extreme dieting in patients, one who ate only grapes for a week or two. “It’s a component of the Mediterranean diet but that is not sensible. It is about desperation. People seek to have something that is going to give them the most benefit the quickest - 'if you do this, this is what is going to happen' - that isn’t how it works,” he said.

“People don’t always want to do the right thing to get healthy and fit. We are a generation of immediate satiety. As a whole, the lifestyle should be about diet but also about being physically active. It is the most crucial factor for the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Smoking, the excessive consumption of alcohol and the less tangible influence like the stress hormone add to it. Genetics play a role, but one can influence that to a degree with lifestyle. We can modify the expression of those genes to be healthier, which may not link to weight loss. The feeling is that if you are fat and fit, you are better off than being thin and unfit. Weigh up the odds,” says Constantinou. C

“It isn’t just about the food. It is how you consume it and what goes along with the lifestyle”


BODY CRAVINGS Adolescent South Africans increasingly struggle with eating disorders, unhealthy eating attitudes and body image issues, in both city and rural settings. Delia du Toit looks at what can be done to promote a healthy body image.


norexia has traditionally been seen as a disease of the privileged. Most people believed that if you have anorexia, it meant you had an obsession with designer clothes that required a whittled waist. Who would shun food, after all, when they didn’t even have enough of it to eat? More recent research has shown that eating disorders are a much more complex issue that have very little to do with vanity – quite the opposite. But, in South Africa at least, it remained an affliction of an urban life. As the country transitioned into democracy in the early 1990s, and racial integration increased across society, research indicated that there would be increasing numbers of eating disorder sufferers within the black community.



Professor Christopher Szabo, Head of Psychiatry at Wits, conducted a crosscultural study of eating attitudes in adolescent South African girls in 1996. The aim was to demonstrate that setting, and not race or ethnic group, has an important influence on eating attitudes. “Within the South African context such data is important in terms of dispelling notions of racial exclusivity regarding the risk for the development of eating disorders,” said Szabo at the time. The study was conducted among 1 353 learners from all-girl private schools, as privately funded schools were one specific area of racial integration at the time, but were viewed as institutions dominated by Western values. 37.5% of

the black girls who took part in the study showed potentially pathological eating attitudes, which suggested an emerging phenomenon. “Today, there is an increasing awareness of the impact of urbanisation on mental illness. Earlier data demonstrated an urban-rural distinction in eating attitudes and this remains as relevant today as in our 1996 study,” says Szabo.

COUNTRY-LIVING CULTURE CLASH A 2016 study by Lisa Micklesfield from the South African Medical Research Council/Wits Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit (DPHRU), among adolescent girls and boys in rural South Africa, showed that 83% of girls in rural settings are dissatisfied with their bodies.

READ THE RESEARCH Cross-cultural eating attitudes Eating habbits that impact obesity

In contrast with urban attitudes, the girls in the rural study wanted to be either thinner or fatter. Although the majority wanted to be thinner, those who were overweight wanted to be fatter. This shows how the adoption of Western ideals is in conflict with traditional norms. “Culturally, bigger is better in this demographic,” says Professor Shane Norris, Director of the DPHRU and founder of ACTION, (the African Centre for Obesity Prevention), who worked on this study. “For some of these young women, bigger remains the ideal. But several studies have shown that eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are increasing among black females as they acculturate Western messages and ideals of thinness.” This study confirmed that eating disorders and disordered eating attitudes, but also obesity, are increasing among black women and girls – in both urban and rural settings. This was also the first local study to look into both female and male adolescents’ attitude towards different body shapes. The majority of both boys and girls chose words like “unhappy” and “weak” to describe underweight silhouettes. For the

overweight silhouettes, the results were much more conflicting and included “more respect”, “strongest” and “happiest” – but also “worst” and “less respect”. Interestingly, the overweight females chose silhouettes with a lower Body Mass Index (BMI) than theirs even when they wanted to be fatter. “Body image concerns are central to eating disorders,” says Szabo. “Eating disorders are powerful indicators of distress that go beyond food and body issues alone. Every sufferer has an individual story. Hence, eating disorders are complex conditions to both understand and treat.”


All the studies point to a need for policy intervention, such as school-based nutrition and physical activity programmes, to address a healthy body size among South African adolescents. Norris says young black females are in a particularly vulnerable position now when it comes to eating attitudes. “In rural areas, older generations value a larger shape, but younger generations have a

different view. Unfortunately, they’re reliant on the family decision makers. And even when they want to live healthy lifestyles, their ability to do so is determined by other factors, like income.” Family factors also affect eating and attitudes to food. Norris worked on another study, published in 2018, which showed that eating the main meal with family, whether on some days or almost every day, and irregular breakfasts on weekdays, were all associated with an increased risk of overweight and obesity in this group. “There’s no silver bullet to make everyone desire a healthy body shape,” says Norris. “In the end, it comes down to increasing awareness and enabling people to live healthier lives. We need to get the message out there that either extreme – whether too thin or too fat – is unhealthy. But being healthy doesn’t have to mean a drastic, expensive change. It’s about small changes, like being less sedentary, consuming fewer sugar-sweetened beverages and energy-dense convenient snacks and food, and eating more vegetables. Every little bit helps.” C


Lauren Mulligan

“Young black females are in a particularly vulnerable position now when it comes to eating attitudes”

Lauren Mulligan

You are what your Ouma ate

Lauren Mulligan


The health of your mother when you were born is a known indicator of your prospects in future, but new research shows that you inherit your health even earlier.


BETH AMATO n the UK in 1911, Ethel Burnside, the Lady Inspector of Midwives in Hertfordshire was tasked with improving children’s health. There was widespread concern at the time that the health of the general population was very poor. In meticulously recorded ledgers, midwives documented each baby’s birth weight and, on subsequent visits, their illnesses, methods of infant feeding, and weights as one-year-olds. This data, which ultimately led to the hypothesis of the developmental origins of health and disease, proved seminal in understanding the link between a mother’s pre- and postnatal health and her child’s health, and then, especially, the child’s health in its adult years. The Hertfordshire research study revealed that a low birth weight was associated with an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease and type two diabetes, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, osteoporosis and sarcopenia [degenerative loss of skeletal muscle mass] in later life. Further studies conducted around the world have suggested that the nourishment a baby

receives from its mother during pregnancy, as well as its nutrition and illnesses in infancy and early childhood, determine susceptibility to disease in later life. In South Africa, data from the Birth to Twenty Plus (Bt20+) cohort study at Wits, which is Africa’s longest-running longitudinal cohort study, confirms that the first 1 000 days of a child’s life are critical for later health. What makes the Bt20+ findings so significant is the discovery that not only is a mother’s nutrition critical during pregnancy, but a grandmother’s antenatal nutrition is too. Research shows that a mother’s nutritional status (which uses height as an indicator) and her infant daughter’s birth size are significantly linked with the birth size of that daughter’s own baby (when she has given birth herself later on). This suggests that the nutritional status of the grandmother affects the grandchild’s risk profile for cardiovascular, metabolic, immune and neurological morbidities via her programming influence on the mother during the foetal period. Professor Shane Norris, Co-Principal Investigator of the Bt20+ study at

the Medical Research Council/Wits Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit, has confirmed that the impact of under-nutrition persists across generations. Therefore, interventions aimed at improving nutrition for pregnant women and for children in the first 1 000 days of life are key. But your grandma might get off the hook. Other factors also contribute to your health trajectory throughout your life. “While pregnancy and infancy are crucial periods, new research suggests that the next 7 000 days until a child hits official adulthood are also important and sensitive times in terms of health outcomes,” says Norris. A child with a high risk of developing diabetes as an adult – because of inherited nutritional deficiency – may not necessarily get diabetes if there were appropriate nutritional and environmental interventions during childhood and adolescence, particularly not gaining rapid or excess weight as a child. Yes, we are profoundly affected by the diets of our ancestors, but there are potentially opportunities to change health trajectories. C

Lauren Mulligan



advances society Breastfed babies are healthier and smarter than formula-fed babies yet these benefits still do not translate into policy and practice. DELIA DU TOIT



reastmilk makes the world healthier, smarter, and more equal. These were the findings of The Lancet Series on Breastfeeding (2016), the most in-depth analysis to date into the health and economic benefits of breastfeeding, which Professor Linda Richter in the DST/ NRF Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Human Development at Wits co-authored. “The deaths of 823 000 children and 20 000 mothers each year could be averted through universal breastfeeding, along with economic savings of US$300 billion. [Breastfeeding results in] fewer infections, increased intelligence, probable protection against overweight and diabetes, and cancer prevention for mothers,” reads the Lancet report.

“The 2011 Tshwane Declaration made breastfeeding promotion national policy” KEEPING ABREAST OF POLICY

However, exclusive breastfeeding (EBF) remains the exception rather than the norm in South Africa, says Wits Lecturer Sara Nieuwoudt, who coordinates the Social and Behaviour Change Communication field of study in the Wits School of Public Health. Nieuwoudt was the lead author on the Infant feeding practices in Soweto, South Africa: Implications for healthcare providers study (September 2018).

“EBF is increasing, from less than 10% to about 32%, in large part due to the removal of free formula from public clinics and increased breastfeeding promotion by health workers. But our study suggests that some frontline health workers are still reluctant to abandon formula as an option for HIV-exposed infants,” says Nieuwoudt – this despite the 2011 Tshwane Declaration for the Promotion of Breastfeeding, which made breastfeeding promotion national healthcare policy. Although the Tshwane Declaration was an important step, it hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of the challenge to increase breastfeeding uptake, says Patricia Martin-Wiesner, attorney, senior policy analyst and author of a breastfeeding policy review commissioned by the CoE in Human Development. “The problem can be seen in the enormity of the gap between EBF and other feeding practices in South Africa: 25% of children are not breastfed at all, 45% are fed using a bottle, and nearly 20% of mothers introduce solid food in the first month of the child’s life. Solid food is not recommended for the first six months of life,” says Martin-Wiesner.


The results of the South African workplaces surveyed for the policy review were in stark relief to policy goals. In most instances, there was an absence of informal or formal policies to support breastfeeding when mothers return to work. “What struck me was the big knowledge vacuum in the corporate and NGO sector on the responsibilities created by law – internationally and nationally – to provide a supportive environment by providing breastfeeding breaks and a hygienic space to do so,” says Martin-Wiesner. “Many businesses are not doing much because they don’t know they have to. There is no education on or monitoring of the Code of Good Practice on the Protection of Employees During Pregnancy and After Birth of a Child law, which is part of the national Basic Conditions of Employment Act. Similarly, women do not know about it and so do not use it to enforce their rights through our labour protection framework and structures. There is also a reluctance to incur the costs and possible inconvenience of providing a supportive workplace.” Nieuwoudt says breastfeeding is often seen as a “women’s issue” instead of the countrywide developmental issue that it is. This perception makes it hard to mobilise the private sector, trade, and labour to support breastfeeding proactively. “Resources are hard to

secure for health promotion. The formula industry, which has a commercial interest in pushing their products, actively undermines efforts to make breastfeeding the norm. And many women simply don’t feel comfortable breastfeeding in public spaces at present.”


One of the first steps towards improvement would be for workplaces to recognise the economic benefits of supporting EBF. While the cost is relatively small – one only needs a clean and private space for pumping – breastfeeding support is a sound financial investment. “The biggest reason why women give up breastfeeding is because they have to go back to work where there is little, if any, support. If companies support breastfeeding, jobs can be saved rather than lost,” says Martin-Wiesner. Should companies support breastfeeding, new mothers (in whom the company has already invested) will come back to work and be motivated and loyal. Mothers will also not take as much leave for sick children suffering from common problems associated with bottle-feeding. “In the longer term, it contributes to healthy early childhood development, which is the bedrock of sustainable social and economic development. Indeed, for the most vulnerable and marginalised babies, breastfeeding is recognised as one of the key equalisers to afford them equal opportunities to develop to their full potential and ultimately escape the traps of poverty.” At a family-level, breastfeeding saves time and money compared to formula feeding. Breastfed infants are sick less, particularly in contexts like South Africa where access to clean water and sanitation remains an issue for many households. This translates into fewer sick leave days, higher productivity for working mothers, and fewer burdens on the health system. In addition to lower infant mortality, breastfed infants enjoy fewer diarrhoeal and respiratory illnesses, because breastmilk contains healthy bacteria, antibodies and nutrients that are not in formula. If a mother is using antiretrovirals, the risk of transmitting HIV through breastfeeding is less than 1%. But simply passing new laws won’t be enough. Resolving the problem requires a nationwide response at a policy, resource and system-level, from trade and industry, labour, the corporate sector, and the health sector. Breastfeeding support must not be seen as a health issue, but as a development issue that concerns the entire country. C



Beware the monster IN YOUR ENERGY

DRINK There’s a buzz around energy drinks. Advertisers sell heightened mental alertness, zest and invigoration to those desperate for a boost in their energy levels. But what are energy-hungry individuals really consuming, and could the energy drink “kick” compromise health? Refilwe Mabula asked Dr Aviva Tugendhaft, Deputy Director of PRICELESS SA in the School of Public Health at Wits.


PEOPLE SEEM TO BE DRINKING ENERGY DRINKS FOR REFRESHMENT AND NOT JUST FOR ENERGY. CAN YOU EXPLAIN THIS? Energy drinks are available at all beverage retailers across the city. Over the years, there has also been a steady increase in the advertising and marketing of energy drinks as competitors fight for their stake in the marketplace. Marketers have created a misconception that energy drinks are healthier than other beverages and allege that they provide improvement in mental or physical performance.

TEETOTALLERS TEND TO DRINK ENERGY DRINKS AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO ALCOHOL. IS THIS ADVISABLE? AND COULD THIS BE BECAUSE THE COLOUR OF SOME ENERGY DRINKS IS SIMILAR TO SOME ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES? Energy drinks are widely available and due to intensive, robust marketing campaigns, they have been popularised. I therefore do not suspect that the colour of the energy drink has anything to do with it being an alternative non-alcoholic drink for teetotallers, but rather that energy drinks are available in places where alcohol is consumed. There is also a “buzz” created by consuming energy drinks, which teetotallers seek as an alternative to alcohol. However, energy drinks come with their own negative health implications, which last longer than the extra kick they promise.


The two ingredients that are the most harmful in energy drinks are sugar and caffeine. Excess caffeine intake can result in a number of health issues including hypertension, nausea, vomiting, convulsions and kidney damage, amongst others. A high intake of caffeine also poses a risk to particular groups, specifically pregnant women and children. The high sugar content in energy drinks can lead to obesity-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, and cancer. To put it in context, in one single 250ml serving of an energy drink, there are seven teaspoons of sugar. This is far more than the World Health Organization’s (WHO) daily limit on sugar. People who are almost dependent on energy drinks for a boost often consume more than one serving a day.


For added sugar, there is no recommended daily allowance but there is a recommended daily limit. In other words, we do not need to consume added sugar, but the WHO recommends limiting this consumption to no more than 6 teaspoons a day. There is also no recommended daily allowance for caffeine.


Yes, water! Or a handful of nuts with a banana for energy. These come without the caffeine and sugar crash that energy drinks cause. Most importantly, they have no negative health implications and are recommended for a healthy diet. C



Although information on food labels is often incomprehensible, misleading and detrimental, there is a limited amount of legislation to inform and protect us about what we consume. 40


n the back of a cereal box, sugar as an ingredient is hidden in plain sight. Indeed, the cereals many South Africans eat for breakfast and consider “healthy”, on closer inspection, have a significant amount of sugar masquerading as sucrose, barley malt, and high fructose corn syrup. Another of the ingredients – Penta sodium triphosphate – seems to be a thinning agent, but a Google search yields a variety of definitions. The daily allowances for fat, sugar, proteins and carbohydrates appear on the label as do recommended serving sizes, but with grams and percentages involved, it’s hard for even the most literate, health conscious calorie-counter to determine the ‘right’ amount to eat.


Being unable to decipher what we’re eating is one of the reasons why PRICELESS SA, a research-to-policy unit in the Wits School of Public Health conducted research into food labelling. PRICELESS SA, the Priority Cost Effective Lessons for System Strengthening South Africa, investigates smart decisions about health investments in the country. PRICELESS SA’s pioneering paper, Nutrition labelling: a review of research on consumer and industry response in the global South (2015) advocates healthier eating – particularly in developing countries where obesity is increasing – and reveals a number of important food-buying behaviours. • F irst, consumers in the global South prioritise other information on the food label before nutrition information, such as expiration date, manufacturer information and storage information. • Second, while shoppers want to see nutrition labelling, the comprehensibility of the information is quite poor. • Third, back of package (BOP) is where all the vague information is found and consumers would prefer governmentendorsed information that is clear, visible, standardised and includes symbols or pictures. These labelling standards are in line with the front of package (FOP) labelling system.


Professor Karen Hofman, Director of PRICELESS SA and senior author of Nutrition labelling, says that easy-to-understand labelling is a transparency and accountability issue. “The increase of obesity, for example, is not only because we don’t exercise enough, but because ‘Big Food’ [multinational food companies] obscure nutritional information on processed food and sugary drinks, keeping consumers in

Food labels in Chile clearly indicate foods high in sugar fat and salt in a “stop sign” shape.

the dark about what they’re really eating,” she says. Processed foods and sugary drinks are relatively cheap and easy to access, hence their ubiquity across South Africa and increasingly the continent. Nutrition-related non-communicable diseases (NCDs), like cancer, diabetes and hypertension, are on the rise in South Africa. Research shows that NCDs are now the top causes of death, with 700 people dying each day. The World Health Organization projects that by 2030, NCDs will be the biggest cause of death in subSaharan Africa.


Hofman notes that, despite the horrifying statistics, 87% of countries in Africa do not have mandatory food labelling. The Food Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization established the Codex Alimentarius [“Food Code”] Commission to develop standards for nutrition guidelines on food products. Some developing countries have revised their nutrition regulations in response to this and as a means to “not only meet food safety requirements but also as a government best practice for tackling nutrition-related NCDs,” according to the Nutrition labelling paper. The tax on sugary drinks is one strategy that the South African government adopted to address the NCD epidemic. Most importantly, it is expected that the country will adopt some form of FOP labelling regulations. Chile has done so and Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand have followed suit.


Front of package label information helps the consumer to assess a product’s overall nutrition information. Label formats

include the ‘traffic light system’ (red, yellow and green), guideline daily amounts, or nationally endorsed health symbols, such as the Choices logo system and the ‘seal of approval’. For example, if an average size fizzy drink or fruit juice had transparent FOP label information, it would receive a ‘red light’ label, owing to the fact that these products each contain between eight and 12 teaspoons of sugar per serving. “Shoppers spend only a few seconds looking at a product. Indeed, the research shows that consumers don’t use the nutrition information on the back of the pack because they don’t have the time. This is in addition to having difficulty locating and understanding the complex information on the back. This is why clearer FOP labelling is needed,” says Hofman. But some FOP labelling techniques are better than others. Hofman notes that the traffic light system and the guideline daily amounts have not worked as well as anticipated. She says the Chilean labelling system has yielded better results. Food in Chile has clear warnings. On the front of the item, shoppers are told whether something is high in sugar, saturated fat and salt. The wording is in black and white in a ‘stop sign’ shape. “There are three ways to curb nutritionrelated NCDs in South Africa: tax on unhealthy foods, halting of marketing of unhealthy foods and transparency about what people are eating,” says Hofman. Regrettably, FOP labelling is only voluntary in the global North and is a long way from implementation in South Africa. Big Food is sure to push back. But the PRICELESS SA team is putting its weight behind revealing what’s in our food. C READ MORE za/scielo.php?script=sci_ arttext&pid=S0256-95742016000500013




magic moringa Professor Luke Chimuka in the School of Chemistry at Wits developed a method to produce an extract from the moringa plant that is used as a dietary supplement and as an additive in foods and beverages. BETH AMATO


ambian native Professor Luke Chimuka learnt to play the jazz piano while completing his PhD in analytical chemistry at Lund University in Sweden. He fell in love with the way famous jazz pianist Chick Corea explored the keys, and the beauty and coherence of the pianist’s improvisation. Jazz isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but Chimuka finds order in the apparent chaos. Similarly, the Universe is chaos and science is its order – its anchor. “As a child, I wondered how the Universe was made … how things connected, and why they did,” says Chimuka.


It was the smaller things that caught his attention too: “I wanted to know how seeds germinated and how cells divided. I was interested in the ‘building blocks’ of my world,” he says. As a first-year university student, his friends called him Avogadro, named after scientist Amedeo Avogadro whose ‘constant’ is the number of atoms and molecules contained in a substance. “They knew I was a scientist from a young age. I was always quiet and very focused, and interested in the world around me,” he says. Chimuka’s background is in liquid chromatography – a technique used to separate mixtures of different compounds into its individual parts. Initially discovered by a Russian botanist to separate plant compounds, Chimuka’s early academic work involved analysing


“I wanted to know how seeds germinated and how cells divided. I was interested in the ‘building blocks’ of my world” drugs and environmental chemicals with this method. Later, he used it to analyse the moringa tree’s leaves, mainly to see how much vitamin C and antioxidants were present. It wasn’t merely to analyse the moringa that was Chimuka’s aim, but to see how it could change the world and improve people’s lives.


The moringa tree originates in the Himalayas and grows in many parts of Africa and the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, moringa shrubs and

trees have multiple uses. Its leaves, roots and immature pods are consumed as a vegetable, and its bark, pods, leaves, nuts, seeds, tubers, roots and flowers are edible. Chimuka sees the moringa as magical, especially in South Africa, where nutritious food is expensive and food security is tenuous. The moringa tree is fast growing, ubiquitous, drought tolerant and is an excellent source of vitamins A, B and C. The leaves are rich in protein and have antibiotic effects. Its products are recommended for pregnant and nursing mothers as well as young children. “The moringa has all the essential compounds and is an excellent antidote to malnutrition in poor communities,” he says. Chimuka pioneered a method to extract a moringa liquid concentrate, which can be added to food and drinks and used as a dietary supplement, but doesn’t have the bitter taste usually found in moringa powder. The liquid concentrate is drawn from a pressurised hot water extraction technology. This technology, unlike other extraction techniques, doesn’t require high solvent concentrations and is environmentally friendly. The method is commonly used to extract chemicals from soil, but Chimuka adapted and perfected it.


In partnership with the Phedisanang community outside Pretoria, the Department of Science and Technology and Wits Enterprise, a business – Green Ex – was born. The business, says Chimuka, was a nice surprise and has the potential to

grow. Green Ex products that have the moringa liquid concentrate include an energy drink, yoghurts, mageu, ice tea and mineral water. “We’ve compared our energy drinks to a few others, and the Moringa Energy Drink has high nutritional value but without caffeine and significant amounts of sugar,” he says. “I think it’s an exciting time being an African scientist. We’ve shown how science solves local issues and that technology advances humanity. I think African scientists must focus on simple solutions that have immediate and far-reaching impacts, just like the flushing toilet did,” says Chimuka. At 52 years old, Chimuka says he has so much more to achieve. “I don’t want to think I have all this time left and that I can slow down. I may only live until I am 72 years old.” His time, therefore, will be spent continuing his own research, rallying behind the Phedisanang community, and growing an excellent crop of top-rated African scientists. Currently, Chimuka’s research is in the plant biosciences, looking at how to extract the chemicals and the bitter taste out of stevia – a natural sweetener. The concentrate from the stevia plant offers an intense flavour, which puts consumers off this healthy sugar alternative. Stevia has no effect on blood sugar levels, which fares well for those living with diabetes. In South Africa, where nutrition-related non-communicable diseases like obesity, diabetes and hypertension are on the rise, Chimuka’s research could be life-saving. Chimuka’s research interests, he says, are guided by his being an activist to the core. “When I work with communities, the people really touch my heart and I become very attached to them.” When Chimuka is not tinkering with chemicals or in the field improving people’s lives, he’s practicing the piano, hoping to compose a simple, yet strong solo. C

“We’ve compared our energy drinks to a few others, and the Moringa Energy Drink has high nutritional value but without caffeine and significant amounts of sugar”

Lauren Mulligan




Sauerkraut. That is how I start my day. Fermented cabbage leaves served with two boiled eggs and a slice of juicy cucumber on the side. When it comes to food, I am my own man. I eat what I like … and I like to eat what my wife tells me to eat.


y new philosophy on food started eight years ago, when I moved in with my wife. Within the first six months, I lost 20kg. I was proud of myself. I paddled and ran regularly, and had supernatural self-control when it came to food. Naturally, then, it came as a surprise when, three years later, my wife casually dropped into conversation that, unknown to me, she had put me on a Weigh-Less diet. A diet! What the Fungi! Never in my life would I ever have considered going on a diet! What a load of nonsense. I would rather eat bugs and die. Slowly, but surely the wheel turned. It crept in, like a stray kitten found outside your front door on a cold rainy night that ultimately makes its way into your bedroom and then pushes you off the bed. The food I ate became unrecognisable. No longer the McDonald’s double-thick chocolate milkshake on a Friday night. Visions of a greasy corner café Russian and chips for lunch faded slowly. Then, one day, I had forgotten how warm, freshly baked bread with strawberry jam smells. Does Woolies still sell Sticky Toffee pudding? A constant tension surrounds eating habits in our household. In short, my wife would say we are “Banters”. I am still


under the impression that I eat what I like. Every now and then, my wife declares a “100-day challenge” to “eat only from the Green List” and, on the nights when I order a chocolate brownie for dessert at a restaurant, the cat has no competition for my side of the bed.


Food has become complicated. Gone are the days when a good meal consisted of a simple slice (or eight) of freshly baked Spar bread with margarine (butter was a poison) and a thick layer of peanut butter and Lyle’s Golden Syrup. What should you eat? What do you avoid? Is this on the Green List? Can we use coconut oil to cook with or is it poisonous? High carbs, low fat? Vegan or “clean” foods? Should you eat food that grows above the ground or below? Is it butter or margarine – or both – that was concocted in the cauldrons of hell? Eating has become big business. Everybody has either an agenda or a book to sell. Nothing is what it seems anymore. In the past, you trusted either a doctor or the You magazine for your nutritional information. These days, everyone with a Facebook account is an expert. You don’t know who or what to believe. All I

know for sure is that – at least for now – my peanut butter and syrup sandwich is something that will stay locked up in the sweet distant memories of a fat and happy teenager.


Growing up in a single-parent household, my brothers and I were left to fend for ourselves when it came to food. Except for dinner, what and when we ate was left up to us. So we didn’t eat breakfast or pack school lunches, but then wolfed down a loaf of the now dearly departed peanut butter and syrup sandwiches at lunchtime after school. We quickly became the fatties in primary school, and while I managed to control my weight through taking up sports in high school, my brother became morbidly obese. Throughout his life, he was the target of constant ridicule and incredulous stares. He was always uncomfortable. At the age of 12, he outgrew his school uniform (later, I did too). After numerous diet attempts, my brother decided on bariatric surgery two years ago. He lost 150kg and now weighs a normal 90ish kilograms. Not believing in quick fixes, I was deeply sceptical

when I heard he was going for a surgical intervention. But seeing him now, in his mid-40s, enjoying a new life as if he were 25 years younger, makes it all worthwhile. Regaining his ideal weight, and his life, cost him close to R1,5 million. The pain he went through was hell, and he now has to stick to literally bite-sized portions, as overeating could be fatal. (Read his story alongside). Had we been taught to eat better, our lives might have turned out differently. Not for a second am I blaming my mother. She cooked wonderfully sweet and greasy meals and did a great job raising her sons, but she had no idea about the importance of good nutrition. There was never anything close to nutritional education. Only now, with the help of a spoonful of sauerkraut each day, do I realise how critical it is to eat right and, more importantly, to teach our children to eat right. The handful of multinational corporations that monopolise the global food system love the fact that there is so much confusion. They gorge on our perplexity, sucking up the profits while whittling the quality of our food and force-feeding us carefully constructed half-truths. For over 40 years, we have been sold the “low-fat” fad. But to supplement the natural fats stripped from food, it was loaded with all kinds of hidden sugars. Since the ‘80s, when the American Government’s Dietary Guidelines began recommending low-fat diets, obesity has skyrocketed globally. It has cost children like my brother and I dearly.


The basis for the low-fat diet was the Seven Countries Study in the ‘70s by American scientist Ancel Keys, who went out to prove that saturated fat caused heart disease. At the same time, British nutritionist John Yudkin opposed this, saying in his book Pure, White and Deadly, that sugar was the poison, not fat. But while Yudkin was a traditional scholar, quietly going about his science and research in a reserved and gentlemanly manner, Keys promoted his ideas aggressively and shouted down anyone who opposed him. Yudkin was buried. Sugar won the fight. This confusion over nutrition makes a strong case for responsible scientists to raise their voices over the noise of Big Food. Scientists, communicators, journalists, politicians and teachers all have a responsibility – to kids like my brother and I and millions more – to stand up, communicate effectively, teach our children – and their parents – to eat right. C For an informative guide on good nutrition see: https://www.hsph.harvard. edu/nutritionsource/

INSIDE BARIATRIC SURGERY FOR OBESITY HANNES MOUTON “Studla”, “Oros”, “Fridge”, “Michelin Man”, “Vetgat” – just some of the names I’ve been called my entire life. Imagine walking down the aisle of a mall and being the centre of attention – toddlers stare, they stop, point and say, “Mom, look at that fat man!” Worse is walking past people and you feel them staring – confirmed when you turn around. I have been obese for 43 years of my life. For the most part, the term “morbidly” was attached to it. Weighing in at 250kg and being 1,83m tall, I had a body mass index (BMI) of 76. Normal males should maintain a BMI of approximately 25! Coupled with obesity, I had other complexities: hypertension, gout, and sleep apnea. Clothing was an issue. Since third grade, I could not fit into any standard school uniform. I had to make do with a regular shirt and grey pants, when all the other children wore “safari pakkies” [safari suits]. I was the centre point on the class photograph. As an adult, I had to purchase clothes at Big & Tall (10XL shirts) tailored to fit me.


A multitude of reasons: Slow metabolism; over-eating; lack of exercise; incorrect eating habits; and psychological reasons. You get to a point where you feel that you are so far over the edge in terms of your weight, you might as well continue to enjoy the next doughnut (Come on, feed your face!). This lifestyle was hell. I tried everything to lose weight, every diet – Banting, blood type, etc. I took hormone injections at 16 and lost some weight but gained more back the moment it stopped. At 35, I went on a stringent calorie intake diet with strenuous exercise. I lost 70kg, but without changing the diet, I regained the weight. Five years later, I tried it again, cutting back more on calories and this time losing 50kg. Again, two years later, the weight was back.


The last straw was a December holiday going down to the coast. Again, I suffered the annual oedema – swelling of the legs due to water retention from travelling. This time, it was so bad I could not stand up. I realised that continuing down this road, I would surely end up dead. My worst fear:

How will I fit in a coffin? And how will they carry my coffin? I had seen it happen at my aunt’s funeral. I didn’t want to do that to my children! At the age of 43, I opted for bariatric surgery. Only when I enrolled in the programme did I become aware of the importance of nutrition. This changed my outlook on food and exercise. Food provides energy and vitamins to the body to function, as opposed to my original view that it was there to enjoy! I learned this from a dietitian and psychiatrist in my middle-age. Reflecting on my life (and without blaming my parents), I think they could have done a better job managing the situation when they noticed their boy ballooning in grade 3!


The other fact I learned while preparing for the bariatric surgery was the function and working of the thyroid gland, which manages metabolism. If a person has maintained a particular weight, the thyroid registers this weight as a set point. Once the diet begins and the person starts losing weight, when 10% of weight is shed, the thyroid gland thinks the person is ill and starts slowing the metabolism to maintain the set point. Thus, the weight increases again. To lower the thyroid’s set point, excess weight must first be lost and maintained for three years. But if there is more weight to be lost than the 10% trigger necessary for the thyroid to act, then you have a problem! Thus, if one exceeds a certain point of obesity, one will never be able to shed the weight with a normal dietary intervention.


Since my bariatric surgery, I have lost 160kg in two years, experiencing a new life! I can enjoy all the things “normal” people do. I have extended my life and all those abnormalities coupled with being morbidly obese have magically disappeared. I walk past people who look like I used to and my heart goes out to them – they don’t deserve the hell they experience. Note that bariatric surgery is not a magic wand that makes the weight disappear. It is a long and difficult process that requires serious lifestyle changes, and the commitment and dedication to maintain a healthy lifestyle.




A ROYAL APPOINTMENT: Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by Minister of Agriculture, JGN Strauss, in the arena where the prize bulls stand by for judging, at the 1946 Rand Show. Princess Elizabeth (the current British monarch) is far right. Rand Show and City Buzz

The annual Rand Easter Show in Nasrec, Gauteng, has endured for decades but it originated in the 1890s as the Witwatersrand Agricultural Society Annual Exhibition and took place on Wits grounds.


DEBORAH MINORS stablished in 1894, the objective of the Witwatersrand Agricultural Society was to encourage better farming in the Transvaal and, most particularly after the Anglo Boer war, encourage reinvestment in agricultural and more scientific farming, led by mining and agricultural figures. The Society held its first (mainly agricultural) show in 1894, which President Paul Kruger opened. In 1903, Lord Milner persuaded the Transvaal government to allocate land for development to Johannesburg. This space, named Milner Park, became the new site for the Society to host its annual show. The Sun & Agricultural Journal of SA hailed the “1923 Easter Show – a great cattle show – all breeds represented – unique array of trophies”. The article points out that “cattle from other Provinces of the Union and from Rhodesia can compete at the Rand Show” and hints at “a tempting display” expected on March 28. “They are well distributed over both the beef breeds and the dairy breeds, and, as will be noted from page 31 of the catalogue, the first of the beef breeds mentioned in alphabetical order is the Africander.” In 1947, the Royal Family, King George VI, his wife Queen Elizabeth, and their daughters, Princess Elizabeth and Princess


Margaret, visited South Africa. The family attended the show and inspected the cattle. The Society survived many financial and political vicissitudes and never had enough money to cover its expansionary plans. The weather sometimes wreaked havoc with attendance numbers and there were no shows during World War II, as the Union Defence Force occupied Milner Park from 1941 to 1945. The Witwatersrand Agricultural Society finally folded in 2001 when the West Trust liquidated its assets. The third exhibition area, the Nasrec Expo Centre, passed into the ownership of Kagiso Exhibitions, which todays hosts an entirely different type of exhibition, the Rand Easter Show. Although there are no longer cattle on West Campus, ducks, geese, and koi abound down by the Cape Dutch cottages (est. 1936 and modelled on a wine farm in Paarl to showcase Cape agriculture), Witsies today enjoy fine dining (and sirloin steak) at the elegant Wits Club. C Sources: • WITS Review October 2008, pgs. 30 -35, The West Campus at Wits, Honorary Associate Professor Katherine Munro • The Sun & Agricultural Journal of S.A, Witwatersrand Agricultural Society, Feb. 1923, pg. 87

“1923 Easter Show – a great cattle show – all breeds represented – unique array of trophies”

BITTER-SWEET 12 8 SUGAR FACTS A child who drinks one soft drink every day Iced Soft is 55% moredrink likely tea to be overweight

8 Soft drink


12 Iced tea

5 Fruit juice

9 Energy drink




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