Thursday, April 21, 2011

Orwell on Nutrition

The Economist has decided that George Orwell is a nutrition expert:
AT THE depths of the Great Depression, George Orwell wrote of the English working classes: “The basis of their diet is white bread and margarine, corned beef, sugared tea and potato—an appalling diet. Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like oranges and wholemeal bread?…Yes it would, but the point is, no human being would ever do such a thing.…A millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits; an unemployed man does not…When you are underfed, harassed, bored, and miserable, you don’t want to eat dull wholesome food. You want to eat something a little bit tasty.”
… When the Copenhagen Business School asked some Nobel-winning economists the best way to spend money to help the world, nutritional projects topped the poll. Vitamin A supplements cost just a dollar or two. Their benefits—preservation from fatal diseases, higher lifetime earnings—so massively outweigh the tiny costs that poor people ought to snap them up. Yet they don’t. Orwell put his finger on why. The poor want something tasty. They may not believe nutritional experts who promote special diets (rich Westerners have been known not to stick to diets, too). Or food itself may not be their priority. As Orwell said, “There is always some cheaply pleasant thing to tempt you.”
The Economist’s set of solutions is both simple and a little simplistic: food fortification (they don’t address whether adding micronutrients to junk food is really a good thing), biofortification (they don’t address cases where people refuse to eat the biofortified foods or the cost and time to get them to market), and public feeding for infants (they ignore household decision making and food reallocation). Closing with the tag “this depends on education and policy “nudges”, not cheap rice”, their article from just a few weeks ago on micronutrient deficiencies was much better thought out. Cheap rice itself is a mixed bag, with winners and losers among the poor – just see Haiti.

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