I’d been in Bangladesh for three months before the first of my tummy troubles arrived. I still don’t know what it was that I ate or why I hadn’t been sick before then – but once the problems started, they didn’t leave until I left Bangladesh.
Before arriving, I’d heard rumours about “Bangla Belly” and the “Dhaka Dash”. Those euphemisms are as famous as India’s “Delhi Belly” or Myanmar’s “Rangoon Runs”, and it breaks my heart that countries with such delicious and diverse cuisines often get remembered for their diarrhoea-inducing curries before anything else.
The reason we foreigners make such a fuss about it is because in most developed countries, food poisoning is rare. It’s something you get once every few years after eating greasy chicken from the corner takeaway shop; it’s something you pretend to have to get out of work or school exams. But in Bangladesh it’s a very real problem. Every year, gastroenteritis and diarrhoeal diseases kill 110,000 children below the age of five.
In a country where so many already go hungry, it is even more offensive that much of the food available could be contaminated. Since returning to Australia, I’ve realised just how lucky I am to live in a country where I can take food safety for granted – I would never eye off a bowl of rice wondering if it’s safe to eat or not, and I don’t need to worry about whether today’s yogurt will be okay tomorrow because my fridge power never fails here.
When people talk about food security and the right to food, they focus on the accessibility and availability of food. For example, Jean Ziegler, the first UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food has defined the right to food as: “the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.”
All of these things are undeniably important, but what also needs to be emphasised is that people don’t just have a right to any food, they have a right to eat safe and nutritious food. Living with the ongoing risk of getting sick from a food- or water-borne disease violates that right to good food.
The matter of food safety in Bangladesh is complicated further by farming methods that are themselves unsafe to food producers. An annual government survey of Bangladesh’s health situation found that pesticide-related poisoning was a leading cause of death – in 2008, there were 7,438 pesticide-related poisoning deaths recorded at more than 400 hospitals nationwide among men and women aged 15-49. Significantly, the Health Bulletin also found that the use of chemicals for growing vegetables was a major factor behind pesticide-related deaths.
Direct pesticide poisoning (and the respiratory failure that often follows) accounted for a portion of the deaths, but usually it was a lack of education and awareness around chemical use that lead to indirect fatalities. Many farmers used empty chemical containers for food storage. Others used chemicals in dangerously higher concentrations than recommended. Since 75 per cent of Bangladesh’s labour force are involved directly or indirectly with the agriculture sector that is a large number of people who could potentially be affected by unsafe chemical use on food crops. Not to mention the unmeasured long-term health impacts of eating fruit and vegetables doused in too many chemicals.
Food safety also depends on water safety, since water is usually used in food preparation. In Bangladesh, where groundwater is one of the major sources of fresh water, the contamination of water with naturally occurring arsenic is a frightening reality that – if left unsolved – violates the peoples’ right to food. The World Health Organisation has described the arsenic crisis in Bangladesh as “the largest mass poisoning of a population in history”, affecting between 35 and 77 million people.
Ensuring the right to food requires taking a holistic approach that considers the food system, and not just the final product. Protecting everyone from producers to consumers is vital if Bangladesh hopes to reduce the number of people affected by food poisoning. Every day in Australia, 11,500 people come down with some kind of food-borne disease. That number is too high, but policies to ensure food safety are being enforced and endorsed by everyone from government to consumer advocacy groups. In Bangladesh, the movement is growing too, but it needs to be sooner rather than later that the dreaded Dhaka Dash gets relegated to Lonely Planet’s history section – lives depend on it.
By Jessica Carter, who recently returned to Australia after spending a year in Bangladesh working with an NGO called Hunger Free World. Now she’s living in Sydney again, volunteering with Oxfam’s GROW campaign.