Prof Hettie Schönfeldt, Director of the African Research Universities Alliance Centre of Excellence for Food Security led by the University of Pretoria (UP), and an associate of the Institute of Food, Nutrition and Well-being, has won the bid for the first five-year cycle of the Department of Science and Technology (DST)/National Research Foundation (NRF) South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChl) in the National Development Plan Priority Area of Nutrition and Food Security.
The Research Chairs Initiative aims to improve the research and innovation capacity of public universities for producing high quality postgraduate students and research and innovation outputs. The Chairs are held by a university in partnership with a public research institution such as another university, a science council, a national research facility or an academic health complex.
Prof Schönfeldt, a NRF B-3- rated scientist, is interested in nutrition and food security because ‘it provides opportunities for finding practical solutions for society as food is an integral part of our daily lives’. She said the Chair in Nutrition and Food Security is aimed at significantly expanding the scientific research base on food and nutrition of South Africa in a way that supports implementation of the national research and development policies, translating into socio-economic benefits.
For Prof Schönfeldt, ‘the relationship between the causes and consequences of malnutrition is complex. Poverty and high food prices reduce consumer purchasing power and can leave the nutritionally vulnerable even more powerless when it comes to acquiring healthy foods. On the other hand, nutrition plays a fundamental role in the sustainable development of human capital. Malnutrition adversely affects both mental and physical development and significantly reduces the productivity and economic potential of an individual.’
She explained that the quadruple burden of disease in South Africa is a combination of four colliding epidemics: non-communicable diseases such as diabetes; maternal, newborn and child health; HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis (TB); and violence and injury. ‘Eleven of the seventeen underlying causes of premature mortality and morbidity are directly related to malnutrition, manifested in both under-nutrition and over-nutrition. Malnutrition contributes to a vicious cycle of poor health and depressed productivity, impaired ability to concentrate and learn, trapping families in poverty and eroding economic security,’ said Prof Schönfeldt. Increasing agricultural production, without understanding how this production should diversify to address malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, will furthermore simplify diets and increase obesity and malnutrition.
The Chair will follow an interdisciplinary approach, putting a nutrition lens on agricultural production, health and education. Education on important dietary choices, and better nutrition through diverse diets, will decrease ill health and improve learners’ ability to work and earn a sustainable living,’ Prof Schönfeldt explained.
She is an advocate for nutrition research, promoting excellence and impact through the creation, translation and dissemination of science-based information into policies and programmes both nationally and internationally. Her focus is on affordable food diversity, underpinned by nutrient composition and delivery. Internationally she has served as the Chief Rapporteur of the FAO/World Health Organisation Expert Working Group on Protein Requirements for Human Health in Auckland, New Zealand. She was the co-leader of the UP team appointed by the South African Presidency to support the development of a multisector comprehensive National Food and Nutrition Security Policy and Implementation Plan.