What’s the matter with … Tim Noakes

This July it was announced that Tim Noakes,who rose to prominence as a respected sports scientist as the University of Cape Town, is in talks with Derek Carstens, former First Rand Bank executive and now Karoo farmer, about improving the diets of farm workers. Noakes, who has a following in Cape Town, has recently gained a certain notoriety – or, depending on your point of view, wild popularity – for advocating a high fat, low carbohydrate diet. Local newspaper, The Cape Times reported:

Once the project begins, the families on the farm will be monitored for five to 10 years. With a diet high in offal – which is readily available in the farmlands of the Karoo – the families will stop consuming carbohydrates, which Noakes says are of no benefit to the human body.

‘This is an ideal set-up,’ said Noakes. ‘And it would be much harder to do research of this nature in a place like Cape Town.’

Since the emergence of nutrition as a field of scientific enquiry in the early twentieth century, the poor, the hungry, and the socially and politically disenfranchised have often been the subjects of research into diet and malnutrition. Last year, University of Guelph-based food historian Ian Mosby published evidence that during the 1940s and 1950s, scientists working for the Canadian government conducted a series of experiments on malnourished residents of rural Aboriginal communities and residential schools.

Rural impoverishment in the 1930s – brought about by the decline in the fur trade and cuts to government provision of poor relief – meant that First Nations people struggled to find enough to eat. They could not, in other words, afford to eat, and this knowledge informed the advice they provided to researchers for eradicating malnutrition. In his article ‘Administering Colonial Science: Nutrition Research and Human Biomedical Experimentation in Aboriginal Communities and Residential Schools, 1942–1952,’ published in the May 2014 edition of Histoire Sociale/Social History, Mosby writes:

Representatives of the various First Nations visited by the research team proposed a number of practical suggestions for ending the hunger and malnutrition in their communities. In addition to more generous relief during times of extreme hardship, these included increased rations for the old and destitute, timber reserves to be set aside for the building and repairing of houses, and additional fur conservation efforts by the federal government, as well as a request that they be given fishing reserves ‘so that they could get fish both for themselves and for dog feed, free from competition with the large commercial fisheries.’

However, researchers decided to set up an experiment in which First Nations peoples were provided with vitamin supplements to gauge their relative effectiveness in combating the side effects of hunger. Crucially, researchers were well aware that ‘vitamin deficiencies constituted just one among many nutritional problems.’ In fact, they calculated that the average diet in these communities provided only 1,470 calories per person during much of the year.’ First Nations people needed food supplies, not vitamin supplements. Mosby concludes:

The experiment therefore seems to have been driven, at least in part, by the nutrition experts’ desire to test their theories on a ready-made ‘laboratory’ populated with already malnourished human ‘experimental subjects.’

In other areas, researchers regulated what kinds of food Aboriginals could purchase with their welfare grants (the Family Allowance):

These included canned tomatoes (or grapefruit juice), rolled oats, Pablum [baby food], pork luncheon meat (such as Spork, Klick, or Prem), dried prunes or apricots, and cheese or canned butter.

This experiment was also an attempt to persuade First Nations people to choose ‘country’ over ‘store’ foods. They were to hunt and to gather instead of relying on shops. To these ends, some officials tried to prevent some families from buying flour:

In Great Whale River, the consequence of this policy during late 1949 and early 1950 was that many Inuit families were forced to go on their annual winter hunt with insufficient flour to last for the entire season. Within a few months, some went hungry and were forced to resort to eating their sled dogs and boiled seal skin.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is little or no evidence to suggest that the subjects of these research projects consented to being part of them.

These Canadian research projects were by no means the only nutrition experiments conducted on oppressed peoples in the (former) empire. They were all produced by a similar set of concerns: by an interest in civilising indigenous people, but also because, in the case of Canada, ‘it [was their] belief that the Indian [sic] can become an economic asset to the nation.’

Noakes is correct when he says that conducting the research he proposes to do on rural farm workers would be almost impossible in a city. Although he insists that he will seek ethics approval, I wonder how he and other researchers will go about winning the informed consent of a group of people who are dependent on their employer – Noakes’s collaborator – for their livelihoods, and who have, historically, very low levels of education.

Also, Noakes seems to believe that only carbohydrates are at the root of farm labourers’ poor diets. As the First Nations people referred to above argued, malnutrition is caused by an inability to access good, nutritious food – and usually because of low wages. Instead of feeding Carstens’s employees offal (and it’s interesting that Noakes advises his largely white, middle-class readership to eat the more expensive fatty cuts of meat, while reserving cheap offal for poor farmworkers), it would make better sense to investigate how much they are paid, and how easy it is for them to afford transport to shops selling healthy food.

Noakes argues that ‘We can’t build this nation in the absence of sufficient protein and fat.’ To what extent is this project purely for the benefit of Karoo farm workers? And to what extent to prove a controversial theory proposed by a prominent researcher?

Image Credit: Twitter.

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