Bill Carter

The Shift to a Nutrient Economy

In South Africa, a highly respected mining engineer is asked by his wife to come up with a solution to a grave problem she’s facing at the hospices at which she works – HIV/AIDS patients are wasting away in spite of the availability of ARVs and of high carbohydrate, high sugar food supplements available through foreign aid programs.

In Zambia, a conservationist is sent to solve a problem during the “season of hunger” – people are poaching elephants, because their own efforts to farm no longer produce the calories they need to feed themselves.

In Belgium, a recently graduated pharmacist responds to pleas from her customers – they’re asking about the kinds of foods they should eat, what preparatory steps to take and how they can band together as a community to promote their wellness and improve the quality of their lives.

Basil Kransdorff, Dale Lewis and Genevieve Moreau didn’t know each other or know of each other’s work when Ashoka found them as part of its continuous global search for social entrepreneurs with system changing new ideas. What we saw as a common thread in the work of these Fellows and others is a drilling down – going beyond what we commonly refer to as “nutrition,” beyond the current level of debate around “food security,” and beyond the ongoing debate about organic vs. nonorganic food.

What each of them is drilling down to (the bedrock on which they build their solutions) is the nutrients themselves. It is the “breakthrough” how -tos around delivering bio-available nutrients, not stomach filling food, that is at the heart of Basil’s solution. It is fixing nutrients in the surrounding ecosystem, using tree planting on valley walls to prevent soil erosion to ensure appropriate nutrient flow from ecosystem to farm and from farm boundary to seed and planting that’s the necessary “natural variable” for Dale. And for Genevieve, it is creating for her consumers an understanding of the importance of this “nutrient secure” value chain, because it provides doctors and public health workers the knowledge needed to talk to their patients about nutrient rich food and how to properly prepare and serve it.

There is a terrible urgency in addressing the issue of nutrition and human health. In India nearly 47% of all children are judged to be stunted in some way, mentally or physically, by the time they reach the age of two. Similar extreme results have been recorded in villages adjacent to the main transportation corridors that link inland cities to port cities in Mozambique.

Given the status quo, what do we know and where exactly are we heading? Today, we know that nutrients in their natural state are not just good but even more vitally necessary than food by itself. We also know that access to bio-available nutrients is the key to wellness. Now we need to bring the private sector onside, and Information Technology will play a critical role.

We need to revalue natural assets – farms and surrounding ecosystems – and reflect these revaluations on corporate balance sheets. Corporations that invest in banking nutrients are creating an asset that speaks to sustainability of the enterprise, the attractiveness of their products to a generation of sophisticated consumers across the world. The banks, insurance companies and financial intermediaries each have a role to play in creating the financial architecture for the Nutrient Economy.

We need a set of IT tools to transform small farmers into knowledge entrepreneurs. Farmers need to become knowledge entrepreneurs, for example taking on more of the responsibility for “Nutrient Flow Management.” I am not simply hypothesizing; in Ireland Ashoka Fellow Brendan Dunford is doing this, and it is attracting attention from government, business and the citizen sector.

We need to create simple, low cost ways to measure nutrient sufficiency at the level of people, plants, animals and soil. And we need to create the databases and rapid learning networks that allows us to easily and inexpensively record and cross-correlate nutrient content – a mother’s milk and the soil from which she is taking her food.

There is a role for everyone to be a changemaker in the global shift to a Nutrient Economy. From the IT company to the integrated food producer to the banker to the restaurant owner, to the insurer to the parent and to everyone who needs access to bio-available nutrients to reach their full human potential.

Editor’s note: this post was originally published on Ashoka Changemakers’ website as part of its Nutrients for All campaign. It is cross-posted with permission.

Agriculture, Health Care
nutrition, public health