Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Bioethics of food in the DR Congo

An article in the New York Times about the Democratic Republic of Congo had me thinking about bioethics on a very basic level. As organisms, humans need food to survive. This is clear. So if a society has become incapable of providing conditions where its citizens -- even formally employed ones -- can reasonably gain access to food for themselves and their families, something has gone really terribly wrong. This situation is not something that gains much attention in bioethics, despite the known impacts of undernutrition on health. For sure, nutrition makes an appearance once in awhile, say when discussing laws to ban trans fats in restaurants or sweetened beverages in schools. And the obesity epidemic will raise the profile ethical questions surrounding food production and consumption in the coming years. But the New York Times piece is not about how to regulate the consumption certain kinds of foods in order to promote health; it is about people being forced to chose who can get anything to eat at all. Choosing which of your children can eat today: that is a bioethical dilemma in a very raw sense.

Tracking the bioethics of food in the Democratic Republic of Congo would require a truckload of philosophy, history, anthropology, and most of all, economics and geopolitics. The well-known irony of the DR Congo is that it is one of the world's worst-off countries with one of the greatest reserves of precious natural resources. But it is not really an irony: it is closer to a causal relationship. Since colonial times, the Congo's lucrative natural resources (cobalt, coltan, gold, uranium) have drawn the attention of local and foreign governments away from the Congolese people and towards their own gain. The end result at this point in history is a kind of reductio ad absurdum of libertarianism: a country where the average citizen does not pay taxes, and is subsequently free not to receive much help from the government at all, in terms of roads, sanitation, education, health care, agriculture or food security. The recent farcical election in the DR Congo and the shameful near-silence about it in the aftermath indicates that it is not in the interest of any major power to change the status quo. So there will be food dilemmas and empty stomachs in Kinshasa households for the foreseeable future.

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