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close this bookFood and Nutrition Bulletin Volume 03, Number 3, 1981 (UNU Food and Nutrition Bulletin, 1981, 64 pages)
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A workshop on Methodological Issues in Nutritional Anthropology was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, 17-20 November 1980, under the sponsorship of the International Union of Nutrition Sciences (IUNS), the International Commission on the Anthropology of Food (ICAF), the US Department of Agriculture, and the United Nations University. The objective of the workshop, which brought together 24 participants from a range of disciplinary backgrounds, including cultural and physical anthropology, nutrition, and health care, was to engage in a critical analysis of anthropological methodology as it relates and is applied to research on nutrition and food problems and issues.

As a starting point, the participants outlined major features of the theoretical research framework that characterizes much of the work in nutritional anthropology as the focus on communities and regions, the linkage between macro-, intermediate-, and micro-level contexts, the use of an ecological framework, the treatment of households and individuals as data units, and the recognition that culture and belief structures are not the principal causal forces in food use.

In discussing the priorities for methodological development within this general framework, the group considered the exploration of new approaches to operationalizing micro-level-macro-level linkages to be of particular importance. It was proposed that food production and distribution statistics and economic-expenditure and census data be aggregated and disaggregated in order to examine the statistical specifics as they apply to given sub-populations. Other proposals were that the political and economic structures that reach from national to intermediate and local levels be explored and that key macro-level influences be linked systematically and qualitatively to local-level differentials in food production and food availability.

Insofar as available statistical methods demand more rigorous measurement than is common in anthropological field-work, the workshop participants considered that refinement of the most effective combinations of statistical analysis for particular types of research problems is still lacking, and therefore the development of appropriated quantitative strategies should be given high priority. However, although multiple statistical procedures were given importance, so too were qualitative descriptive modes of research, and close articulation of the two at every stage of the research process.

Focusing on the links between socio-cultural and biological research, and noting that the main point of articulation between the two is the individual person, the group outlined a number of conditions under which nutritional anthropologists can foster cooperation with researchers of other disciplines.

The main issues and priorities at the micro-level of research were considered to be the analysis of emic perspectives, understanding of description and intracultural diversity, recognition of levels and combinations in cultural patterns, differentiation between schedules and cycles of food behaviour, examination of histories and traditions of food use, and recognition of the relationship of "real" behaviour to reported behaviour.

Participants considered that the general ethnography of nutritional anthropology should be relevant to specific food use and nutrition issues and should permit the refinement of locally appropriate variables.

The general problems of precision and estimation of error were examined, and the recognition of the differential presence and differential effects of error factors in various kinds of research was considered a first step towards the management of error.

Short chronological scope was considered to be a major methodological flaw in field research concerning food use, nutrition problems, food production systems, and related elements; and the need for longitudinal data strategies was stressed.

Other methodological issues were also discussed at the workshop but were considered problems that need to be recognized and suggestions for new types of research activities rather than priorities for methodological development.

A workshop on Farm-Level Post-harvest Technology for Prevention of Food Losses was held in New Delhi, India, 27-30 January 1981, under the sponsorship of the United Nations University and the German Agency for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), organized by the Department of Food, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India; the Department of Agricultural Economics, Indian Agricultural Research Institute (ICAR); and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), University of Sussex, UK.

In six technical sessions over three days, the participants, the majority of whom were from India, discussed and evaluated the research and policy implications of 36 papers that dealt with a wide range of issues, reflecting the depth and scope of Indian research on farm-level post-harvest technology of cereals and pulses. The written presentations included results of studies on the size and source of farm-level losses for different crops and different regions, on technological design work in progress at research stations on drying, storage, and milling, descriptions of extension activities in food-loss prevention programmes in the private and public sectors, and broader analyses of the nature of Indian post-harvest problems and the economic and social aspects of farm-level technology during agricultural growth.

Although by no means reaching a consensus on them ail, the workshop made a substantial contribution to the understanding of three important and interrelated post-harvest research and policy issues: the size and distribution of farm-level losses, the requirements for and implications of loss-prevention programmes, and the potential contribution of an efficient farm-and village-level post-harvest system to reducing the costs of food stock management.

On the subject of losses, there remained some adherents to the belief that cereal losses averaging 30 per cent occur in traditional farm-level post-harvest operations, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. All the scientific evidence presented on farm-level storage indicated loss figures of 5 per cent (of value per weight of grain initially stored) and below. The figures confirmed long-established, as well as more recent, evidence that cereals stored and processed at farm- and village-level primarily for on-farm consumption are not wasted by poor and hungry small farmers. As several papers discussed, some problems of defining and measuring losses remain - notably, of including various types of qualitative deterioration, though even here the evidence is that earlier estimates of both incidence and risk in cereals have been exaggerated-and there is not reliable evidence from all regions. However, the overall picture emerging for cereals under ordinary farm management is one of low averge levels-due largely to rapid movement from production to consumption-of farm level losses. There are exceptions among farmers (generally larger ones, for whom losses have a lower marginal cost), stores (unlined underground pits in some areas), and varieties where losses are not generally as low, and there is seasonal and regional variation. However, evidence from the workshop confirms that massive increases in food-grain availability cannot result from new and improved post-harvest technology. This was not in any sense a denial of opportunities for beneficial technical change, but it was a refutation of the belief that farm-level loss prevention is some sort of soft option for increasing world food supplies.

This evidence further supported the view that cost reduction rather than loss reduction is the motivating force behind farmer adoption of new techniques. Overall, it was apparent that selective intervention, which recognizes regional and crop differences in loss rates and the income constraints faced by small farmers, will produce positive social benefit-cost ratios and result in risk- and effort-reducing technical change. However, it was recognized that cost-reducing technical change in storage, threshing, and milling, though of overall net benefit, sometimes has adverse income-distribution effects through labour displacement that threatens the livelihoods of poor, often female, wage labourers and village artisans. These changes reduce the share of labour in value added, and hence income, from processing; this, perversely, means that "modern" and allegedly food-saving innovations at times result in increasing hunger amongst the poorest. Planned intervention is necessary to promote alternative sustainable income-generating activities for those groups.

The potential role of farm-level storage in improving the management of national food stocks was discussed in light of the demonstrated capacity of farmers to use post-harvest methods that minimize losses and to respond to cost-effective innovations, and in recognition of the Green Revolution's deleterious effects on post-harvest efforts generally but in particular on the marketed surplus public sector operations. Consideration was given to the idea that central marketing authorities or private merchants could take out liens, paid for at harvest time, on grain stored at the farm level, which could then be called for when required. While acknowledging that this idea is not new, the participants considered that the problems of acute scarcity of stocks, procurement aversion, and the belief that farm-level losses were high had diminished to the extent that initiatives of this sort could offer a significant opportunity to improve both the total availability and distribution of food.

When the full report of this workshop is available, an announcement giving details of how it can be obtained will be made in the Food and Nutrition Bulletin.

A workshop on the Practical Implications of the Interactions between Maternal Diet during Lactation, Breast-feeding, and the Duration of Lactational Infertility was held in Cambridge, UK, 9-11 March 1981, under the sponsorship of the United Nations University, the World Health Organization, and the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

Considering breast-feeding as crucial to infant health, particularly in the developing world, the workshop reviewed potential nutritional and non-nutritional factors responsible for poor milk production and lactational performance under differing socio-economic circumstances. The metabolic and endocrine responses to under-nutrition during lactation were also studied, with particular emphasis being placed on prolactin. This hormone is involved both in milk production and in the contraceptive effect of lactation. Existing data on the response of mothers to dietary supplementation during pregnancy and lactation were examined as was the overall importance of maternal as well as child health programmes. The main conclusions of the workshop are summarized below.

Whilst mothers clearly have a large capacity for metabolic adaptation during pregnancy and lactation-which enables them to produce babies of normal birth weight and very respectable amounts of milk on levels of energy and nutrient intake of only 40 to 60 per cent of the recommended dietary amount-this is frequently at the expense of the health and well-being of the mother. Particularly low dietary intakes, especially when coupled with heavy manual labour, do result in a fall in the average birth weight, an increase in the proportion of babies that are small for their age, and a fall in milk production. Existing scientific information indicates that maternal dietary supplementation can reverse the low-birth-weight problem, but the low milk output is more resistant to improvement, perhaps because of the effects of additional adverse factors. A major quandary, however, is how much breast milk a mother can reasonably be expected to produce. In most industrialized countries the averge totally lactating mother produces a maximum of around 750 ml per day. Only when milk output is substantially lower than this can nutritional supplementation be expected to produce a significant effect. However, the extra food does improve the nutritional status, health, and well-being of the mother both during pregnancy and lactation, and for that reason, even if no other, a concern for maternal nutrition is essential. It was considered that a more long-term supplementation programme will be necessary before a completely beneficial effect both on milk output and maternal health is achieved, and long-term prospective longitudinal studies on this subject are urgently required in selected centres throughout the developing world.

The main stimulus for prolactin is infant suckling. The workshop concluded that an undernourished mother has greater difficulty in producing milk than a well-nourished one, and only by suckling intensively for prolonged periods does the child obtain enough milk. This enhanced suckling was the major factor causing the prolonged elevated prolactin levels seen among women of low socio-economic status in the developing world and explains why they are less likely to become pregnant again after a short time interval. A number of workers, however, have observed that lactational infertility is dependent upon the nutritional status of the mother, and it has been confirmed by direct intervention that base-line prolactin levels fall more quickly when dietary intake is improved, presumably because the mother is able to make milk more easily and thus less suckling is required. This important finding needs to be confirmed in other centres, but in the meantime health workers must be made aware that improving the health and nutritional status of mothers during lactation probably does enhance the return of their fertility. Community relevant family planning procedures need, therefore, to be identified and offered in conjunction with the rest of the maternal health package.

The broad conclusion of the workshop was that primary health centres must cater for the nutritional health of both the mother and the pre-school child. Doctors and nurses, as well as health assistants, need to be trained in the appropriate aspects of maternal and child care and not in obstetric or paediatric aspects as separate entities.