The G8’s “Diet Coke Plus” Politics

This piece was originally posted at The Guardian.

Over centuries, modern agriculture has bred the nutrients out of our food. The G8 will next week try to go one further – within a generation, they want to squeeze the politics out of hunger. If they succeed, they’ll have licensed an army of development technicians who’ll be free of democracy, accountability or history.

A good place to see this power grab was at the nutrition for growth summit, held at Unilever’s London headquarters on Saturday. Watch the proceedings, and it all seems pretty benign. Rich countries and corporations will give a bit of cash. Bill Gates’ foundation will fix the problem of nutrition with supplements, breastfeeding classes and vitamin-enriched sweet potatoes, and all will live happily ever after. The only reason this hasn’t happened yet is a deficit of political will – measured in financial commitments to aid. (Big applause greeted Gates’ announcement of half a billion dollars in funding.)

Tackling poor nutrition is, of course, important. Malnutrition accounts for one third of deaths among children under five. Few can now dispute the lifelong importance of good nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life, from conception to age two.

One of the things about inadequate nutrition is that it generally affects people who are poor. Although many campaigners and epidemiologists have pointed this out, it was almost impossible to hear the connection between malnutrition and poverty at the summit. This isn’t an innocent omission. This is how nutrition becomes what anthropologist James Ferguson calls an anti-political device. It turns a symptom of poverty into the ends of policy.

It’s not easy to take a complex question – one that needs democratic debate, mechanisms of accountability, and principles of justice – and convince people that it’s a purely technical matter. But business and governments have been doing their best to “nutritionise” development.

Here, for example, is David Cameron explaining why Britain has taken aleadership role in international development spending: “It’s because of the kind of people we [the British] are – and the kind of country we are. We are the kind of people who believe in doing what is right.” Britannia’s children have unblemished souls. Except, of course, for the British empire, which caused India’s economic collapse, and left south Asia a legacy of more malnourished children than anywhere else. To rewrite the past and render malnutrition a simply technical problem is to dissolve history like a tooth in cola.

Speaking of which, corporations are doing their bit in service of the nutrition narrative too. In 2007, the Coca-Cola Company tried to address criticism from public health advocates that Coke isn’t very healthy. It launched Diet Coke Plus, a patent blend of Diet Coke plus a dusting of vitamins and minerals. The nutritional “plus” was so meagre that the drink earned an admonishment from the normally supine Food and Drug Administration for misleading the public.

Coke’s nutrition farce is being transformed into the answer to the tragedy of malnutrition. Diet Coke Plus is, after all, the perfect marriage of science and business, designed to increase growth and fight poor nutrition. It doesn’t involve the messiness of history or accountability or debt. All it needs is the level playing field being bulldozed by the G8’s policy initiatives.

The vision offered by G8 leaders will be one in which business needs to be free to “modernise” agriculture, particularly in Africa, by being able to buy land, sell chemicals, privatise genetic material. Dozens of African groups announced that they weren’t pleased about their children’s poverty being used as a pretext for “a new wave of colonialism”.

But remember that these interventions aren’t being sold as colonialism. They are the bold strokes of the new alliance for food security and nutrition. This alliance – between business and government – was launched when the US led the G8 last year. To restate: this is an alliance to end food insecurity tendered by the US, a country where one in six people – 50 million citizens – is food insecure.

Firms like Monsanto and Cargill have pledged $3bn and the UK has pledged £395m, with the justification that – Cameron again – we must “invest in countries before they are broken, we won’t have to end up spending money on the problems, whether they be mass migration or threats to our national security”. This is, incidentally, the justification for allowing development funding to bleed into military funding, as Cameron is keen to do.

This is how international nutritionism works. The problems of poverty, colonialism, democracy and reparations for imperialism are transformed into problems of corporations fortifying their food, and governments fortifying their development. This is how Cameron is able to jump from food security to national security without blushing.

This is why groups like La Via Campesina have no truck with answers to the problem of malnutrition that ignore the politics of the poor. They understand that the politics of malnutrition are too important to be dissolved in a Diet Coke Plus solution.

• Raj Patel will speak at the World Development Movement’s activist conference, “Not the G8”, in Leeds on Saturday 15 June

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