Food and nutrition security
Brazil: How to abolish malnutrition
Conference speakers: Elisabetta Recine of CONSEA (left); and Flavio Valente of FIAN, the international Food First Information and Action Network (right)
Reports from meetings
Every month we will be publishing news stories by Fabio Gomes, often on meetings and other events in which he participates.
Salvador, Brazil. Fabio Gomes reports. I have just come from participating in a truly inspiring national conference, whose nature, purpose and work engaged all present as citizens and policy-makers as well as professionals. 'Brazil's and the world's future depend on the deepening of participatory and redistributive democracy'. These were the final words of the Political Declaration of the 4th CONSEA National Conference on Food and Nutrition Security, held between 7-10 November.
Food and nutrition quality and security remain a top national political priority in Brazil. While gross inequities originating in the period of Portuguese colonialism remain, great progress has been made since Brazil became fully democratic beginning in the late 1980s. Inspiration comes from pioneer activists in public life. These include the statesman Josué de Castro , who declared that hunger is 'a curse devised by men against other men' and 'a biological expression of sociological ills'; and the sociologist Herbert José de Sousa, who stated that 'whoever is hungry, is in a hurry', and that 'the soul of hunger is political'.
The conference was the climax of discussions held by thousands of people throughout the country during a one-year preparatory process. Conferences organised by CONSEA, the Brazilian national council on food and nutrition security (see Box 1), are not merely deliberative. They are political, and are held in order to determine, maintain, strengthen and protect Brazil's national food and nutrition security policies and actions. This 2011 conference mobilised the work of more than 75,000 people from 3,000 municipalities, who at the conference were represented by 1,626 delegates from all 26 Brazilian states. They also came to 'affirm that all the seven billion inhabitants of the planet have the right to a healthy and adequate food and nutrition every day, and to be protected against hunger and other forms of food and nutrition insecurity'. Over 400 observers from all continents also engaged.
CONSEA and CAISAN
The Brazilian National Council of Food and Nutrition Security (CONSEA) has a special construction, being made up from one-third government and two-thirds non-government executives and workers. It has special powers. It is housed in and reports to the office of the president of the republic. It is responsible for formulating and proposing public policies whose purpose is to guarantee the human right to healthy and adequate food. There are also CONSEAs at state and municipal levels that deal with specific issues, also responsible for organising CONSEA conferences at their levels. CONSEAs are charged to represent Brazilian social, regional, racial and cultural diversity at municipal, state or national level.
At national level CONSEA collaborates with the Interministerial Chamber of Food and Nutrition Security (CAISAN), to get its decisions implemented. CAISAN is made up from senior officials from many government ministries, ranging from social development to foreign relations. It is responsible for implementation of the national food and nutrition security policy and its related actions, following CONSEA's agreements and suggestions. CAISAN is also responsible for monitoring policies once these are translated into official actions.
The elected politicians in Brazil's parliament formally have the power to challenge and even overturn proposals made by CONSEA and developed by CAISAN. In practice it is most unlikely that any Brazilian government whether of the left or right would wish to do so, partly because of the constitutional status of the CONSEA and CAISAN system, and also because, being so carefully representative of all sectors and levels of society, it remains strong and popular.
Who was there, and why?
The conference delegates altogether expressed the great range of Brazilian social, regional, racial and cultural diversity. They included farmers and rural workers, urban and rural professionals, and people, executives and managers from municipal, state and federal government, indigenous and black people, and representatives of other traditional people and communities. Their task was to debate and then decide on proposals designed to protect, promote, respect and provide the human right to healthy and adequate food, which in Brazil has legal status (see Boxes 1 and 2).
Association member Denise Coitinho, executive secretary of the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition, and Flavio Valente (above, right), secretary-general of the Food First International Action Network (FIAN), invited as observers, engaged in discussions. Some of these were co-ordinated by Elisabetta Recine (above, left), of CONSEA, an Association member and part of the executive committee responsible for the coming Rio2012 conference. I was at the conference as the representative of the Brazilian official National Cancer Institute (INCA) and thus from the federal government. Rio2012 speaker-participants at the conference also included CONSEA president Renato Maluf; Patricia Jaime, who is in charge of Brazil's federal food and nutrition policy at the Ministry of Health; and Janine Coutinho of the Pan-American Health Organization in Brasília.
The right to food and nutrition security
In Brazil the law states that 'Food and nutrition security consists in the fulfilment of the right of all to regular and permanent access to high-quality foods, in enough quantity, that does not compromise access to other essential needs, taking as its base health-promoting eating practices that respect cultural diversity and that are environmentally, culturally, economically and socially sustainable.' (Article 3rd)
The law also states that 'adequate food and nutrition is a basic human right, inherent to human dignity'. It further specifies the objectives and composition of the national system of food and nutrition security. This embodies CONSEA and CAISAN (see Box 1), and the conferences outlined here.
The right to the right food
This year's conference Political Declaration affirmed that everybody has the right to proper meals everyday: 'All the seven billion inhabitants of the planet have the right to healthy and adequate food and nutrition every day, and to be protected against hunger and other forms of food and nutrition insecurity.'
Furthermore, as stated in Brazilian law, as well as proper access to food and to water, this includes preservation of biodiversity, sustainable use of resources, promotion of good health and nutrition, safety and quality of foods, and participatory public policies on food production, commercialisation and consumption. By law, it is the responsibility of government at all levels 'to respect, protect, promote, provide, inform, monitor, supervise and evaluate the achievement of the human right to food'. This means not any food, but healthy and adequate food, defined nutritionally and also in its social, economic and environmental dimensions.
During discussion at the conference, I proposed that the marketing of ultra-processed and other 'junk' products notably to children, and industry tactics that push such products, even expensive and inappropriate packaged weaning products, ice-cream and cookies into impoverished communities in the Amazon region, are violations of human rights. After discussion it was agreed that while lack of food in the most impoverished communities remains the first priority, policies and practices that degrade food supplies should be also considered as violations.
From knowledge to policy and action
Laws need action and protection, otherwise they are liable to become dust in the wind. In Brazil, the government also has the responsibility to provide and maintain capacity; hence the institution of CONSEA and CAISAN, and the national conference. Part of the responsibility of the conferences is to examine how the national food and nutrition security system is framed, financed, managed, and monitored, to ensure that it works as well as possible.
The conferences have far more weight than scientific meetings. They are not talking-shops. They are part of the legislative Brazilian system embodied in the country's constitution agreed in 1988 after emergence from the military regime, in common with its other systems governing health and social security. As indicated above, they are carefully representative of all levels and groups of society, and are an essential part of Brazil's executive and legislative system. They are, I believe, a model for the development and enactment of government policies and actions of all types at all levels in any country claiming to be democratic. They are entirely more reliable and representative than poorly advised decisions made by so-called democratic governments that so often are dictatorial or out of touch with electors or even with realities.
The Brazilian food and nutrition security system consists of its conferences, and its councils at municipal, state and national levels. By law, as mentioned above, two-thirds of the participants at all levels must come from civil society, which as well as professional and other formally qualified groups includes traditional communities such as Brazil's original indigenous people and its quilombolas, (see Box 3), and the general black population. The other one-third is comprised of municipal, state and federal government representatives.
For this year a product of the preparatory process was a document with 147 proposals, all subject to examination at the national conference. This had an opening ceremony in the night before its start, then in the first day two or three speeches in the morning and afternoon followed by vivid discussion. At the end of the first day, delegates chose among 30 interactive activities including workshops and debates, or the sharing of experiences. The second day was dedicated to working groups. The 2,000 delegates and observers were spread across 30 working groups, all engaged with specific topics, charged to reach agreements before the end of the day. These then moved to sub-plenary level. Finally, all the proposals in the base document developed at municipal and state level conferences, having been fully discussed, confirmed, amended or rejected, together with new proposals that emerged during the conference itself, were agreed.
Traditional Brazilian communities
Quilombos are communities descended from those originally founded by escaped slaves. They are one of many types of traditional communities and people in Brazil
In Brazil the law is designed to protect and assert the rights of traditional communities and people. These include quilombolas, who are blacks living in communities originally created by escaped slaves before the end of slavery in the 1880s. Over 1,000 quilombos are registered in Brazil (the main ones are shown left, above), some of which have their own schools and health services (right, above).
Other communities and groups identified as 'traditional' include the original Brazilians (still known as 'Indians' in Brazil), family farming, gathering and fishing communities, marsh, mangrove and semi-desert dwellers, rubber tappers, gypsies, and followers of African religions. All these groups, when organised, are entitled to representation at local and higher levels within the Brazilian food and nutrition security system.
The conference's Political Declaration ranged far beyond Brazil's national boundaries. It re-affirmed 'the need for profound changes in the international order responsible for food and nutritional security, by means of strengthening the United Nations system and multilateral actors, with the active participation of civil society organisations... All countries must seek and assure conditions for participatory national policies dedicated to the human right to healthy and adequate food and nutrition... The hegemonic model of production, trade and consumption of foods and the mechanisms that regulate them, have not ensured this human right, and must be changed'.
From my viewpoint as a Brazilian, it feels like the change to a more equitable world is being led from the South. Is any other country doing better? Let's hear from you! For me the Brazilian vision and energy is expressed in the verses of Xifronésia dos Santos, the quilombola who is president of CONSEA in the state of Sergipe. She sings: 'There must be changes in the entire society/ This fight is ours, it is the people's fight/ It is in the quilombos that we are building a new Brazil.'