May the 28th, 2004

Sister LUCI MORREN, a nun from Leuven in Begium, graduated in Home Economics & Nutrition.

Her life is devoted to the advancement of some of the poorest in Central America, particularly those in Nicaragua, with the Association SOYNICA. This heartfelt cry is provoked by her outrage at their miseries.

For years we have been assisting women with the prevention of the malnutrition and anaemia that afflict those people who, poor and ignorant of “nutrition”, have suffered chronic malnutrition for generations.

For even longer we have studied all the traditional food habits and remedies, ancient and modern.

Most peoples have a wealth of traditional knowledge on the subject of nourishment even though, for historical reasons, some are short on good habits – thus losing their connection with the Nature that provides us with everything needed for life and health.

We made a list of existing solutions, trying to understand their customs and getting to the heart of their ways of thinking about food so that, when necessary, we might intervene and put things right.

Customs, including food habits, are traditional everywhere; while no-one wants to upset them, one must emphasise what is good, correct mistakes, introduce novelties and always explain what is poorly understood.

Thus, in Guatemala, a company launched ‘Incaparina’, a cereal fortified with cottonseed, and ‘Protemas’, based on treated soya. The results recorded were fine but the treated soya was too costly for poor families. In Mexico people learnt to cook the soya beans themselves, much more sensible; cheaper and easy for rural families to grow for themselves.

When I came to Nicaragua in 1979 I introduced the cottage industry technique for safely preparing soya beans and we began growing soya in the fields, a crop previously unknown there.

Ever since, thousands of children have survived thanks to what their mothers learnt about nutrition, improving the family diet with traditional foods and plants that had fallen out of fashion and getting used to cooking soya beans.

From now on, thousands of children will be less malnourished thanks to the soya beans in their diet and thousands of families are finding the beginning of a remedy for their poverty in spite of the monotony of their diet.

No-one can any longer question the value of soya. I also worked in Guatamalan refugee camps in Chiapas, Mexico, where soya, both as beans and flour, rapidly helped children and young women to better health.

Then, one day, we discovered the principle of extracting Leaf Concentrate (LC)……Something completely different from what had gone before !!

This was the start of a new era, both from the nutritional viewpoint and for SOYNICA’s work. Not at the desk, but on the ground. In 1989 the English Charity, ‘Find Your Feet’ (FYF), had arrived in Nicaragua to teach the simple, “Village Unit”, process for getting the good nutritional elements out of green leaves.

SOYNICA learnt the process and immediately added it in their training workshops programmes for the domestic method of preparing soya beans.

In this way they could show the people how to extract from the green leaves of local plants their richest components.

But the extracted concentrate made thus, by hand, had a moisture content too high to allow it to be kept for more than a day or so.

So SOYNICA set up a “cottage industry” unit with a mechanical pulper to increase the amount of leaf handled from cowpea (Vigna unguiculata).

Now we got 20 – 30 kg of moist LC a day and in the summer were able to dry this in a solar dryer, yielding 5 – 8 kg of dry LC. Consumption went up by a factor of 3: the mothers and the SOYNICA staff quickly saw the great improvement in those who had been anaemic.

Nobody had ever seen such a rapid recovery. With a ‘good diet’ including soya it had taken months for the same result. We invited officials and doctors to come and see, but most of them thought the simple idea of eating LC far too risky and daring.

Once more, SOYNICA was a voice crying in the wilderness !

It was an exact reproduction of the reaction, a decade earlier, to the introduction of the soya bean.

In 1994 FYF and APEF (l’Association pour la Promotion des Extraits Foliaires en nutrition) met and decided to co-operate.

APEF sent dried LC made from Lucerne (LLC), to SOYNICA for use in families’ diets; a growing number of individuals was thus to have access to it.

At APEF’s request we began a trial, run by a doctor, of its effectiveness on 200 children and anaemic mothers from poor families.

In 3 months more than 85% of those supplemented became non-anaemic, with normal haemoglobin (Hb) levels.

After that, SOYNICA arranged distribution of LLC to the pre-school and community education centres to verify, there also, the increase in the Hb level in 2,000 children aged 3 – 6 years.

The result was, indeed, the same.

Meanwhile we were able to observe in the children better performance in school and a drop in absenteeism thanks to the lowered incidence and duration of childhood ailments.

With LLC, SOYNICA now had a way to cure in a month the anaemia of malnourished children.

However, not a single doctor was prepared to try it on his patients; no medical authority would dare to discuss it or even come and see it.

Fortunately, both rural and urban families eating LCs, especially LLC, became themselves the evidence of the result.

The word began to get around: with LLC appetite improved, people were less tired, more energetic; their Hb level rose; skin problems subsided; sometimes their vision improved; coughs cleared up, as did headaches and insomnia, while their other ailments, particularly respiratory infections, became less severe and less frequent. Mothers testified to being less fatigued in pregnancy, to giving birth to bigger, heavier babies and to recovering more quickly after their confinement.

Those who breastfed had more milk and so were able adequately to feed until weaning, while their children grew and gained weight normally. The grapevine told of many other examples of benefit to peoples’ general condition in all sorts of cases: and LLC, some said, was helpful also for those with ‘flu, tonsillitis, diabetes, arthritis, bronchitis, pneumonia, allergies, asthma and tuberculosis.

It is certain that a well balanced diet restores the immune system and the organism’s resistance.

SOYNICA has therefore promoted a trial distribution of LLC to children with leukaemia who were undergoing chemotherapy at the Children’s Hospital in Managua. This experiment was conducted with the agreement of the Head of Department of Haematology and Oncology.

The LLC boosted their Hb level, their appetite and their resistance to infectious illnesses.

Thousands of poor, undernourished children being treated for leukaemia could benefit from LLC.

These reports are important, but I always worry when people think of LC as a medicine rather than a food complement. For the vast majority of poor families – especially those in rural or suburban surroundings – LC is an easy and cheaper solution than medicine.

However, for people who have the idea that LC = Medicine, the taking of it stops as soon as they feel better !

As for me – what does my experience suggest and oblige me to do as a nutritionist ?

Faced with the dietary deficiencies of most Nicaraguan families, SOYNICA brandishes LC as a tool against poverty.

Anaemia destroys lives. It prevents learning, it prevents mental concentration, analysis and reasoning; it makes of a person a living corpse.

SOYNICA’s measurement of the levels of Hb in the children coming into their care showed that between 40 and 60% of them were below par.

Those children who take LLC regularly rapidly get to a proper Hb level and stay there. The macro- and micronutrients missing from their customary diet due to poverty are supplied by their daily 6 – 10 g of LC.

Certainly these children are poor but they are intelligent, with brains undamaged by bad and deficient diet.

Hence our response to a Mexican visitor who, seeing youngsters in school, said “These children, surely, aren’t poor !” – “No, sir, they’re not poor in health, nor in energy, nor knowledge, nor fun, nor happiness. Their houses, their clothes, their shoes are poor; they have no money, but they have all their faculties and are ready to tackle life.”

These children are lively and whole, having henceforth a great variety of opportunities for their future lives with, in particular, the ability to absorb all sorts of teaching and training. They will not become, later, the playthings of ‘development’ and ‘foreign aid’: they will be the agents of their own development.

SOYNICA is building up human capital. It is applying much of its resources to bring up human beings free from malnutrition and anaemia.

Thanks to the consumption of LC or LLC many rural families have been able to break through the barrier of hunger and inertia and get out of the vicious circle of poverty.

In particular, the savings on medicines and visits to the doctor leave them more to spend on food, education and housing.

THE QUESTION IS: What is to become of the thousands and thousands of children here and in other countries who are malnourished and anaemic ?

Who cares that these thousands and thousands grow up with brains damaged due to dietary deficiency, to anaemia and a lack of due care ?

This news is broadcast nowhere on earth, much less at the heart of the World Organisations who are supposed to be responsible for drawing attention to diet and Public Health and for finding solutions for regions with poor Food Security.

It is of no concern to an economist. Has anyone worked out –

– the economic cost of malnutrition and anaemia ?
– to what extent illness affects the budgets of the poor ?
– how peasant families are impoverished by asthma, respiratory infections and diarrhoea ?

Isn’t it common sense that chronic malnutrition, particularly with anaemia, reduces people to total inertia ?

How can we speak of “development” when over half the population, malnourished and anaemic, is prevented from sharing society’s progress ?

A balanced and adequate diet is essential for the development and the blossoming of a human being.
SOYNICA’s policy is “the prevention of malnutrition and anaemia”. It’s first a matter of reaching out to the pregnant and nursing women, the young children, and then the whole family.

Leaf Concentrate, from Lucerne or from other plants, is far and away better than any other existing solution.

Green leaves can be grown almost anywhere. If seeds of suitable species are sown, after 5 or 6 weeks their leaves can be harvested and processed into a highly nutritious food. The leaves re-grow, they are cheap and are there for all families who want to improve their diet.

In a civilisation where the eating of leaves has almost vanished and where green colour is almost as much disliked as is a hint of bitterness, the promotion of LC is not too easy !

The green leaf has neither prestige nor acknowledged merit. We have faith, though, in the recognition by users of its value as evidenced by their health and in the ensuing spread of information and awareness.

But who, in authority, takes any notice ? Nobody. For the politicians the improvement of public health by including LC in the food supply seems too easy, too simple by far.

Such a solution scarcely fits in with the vast Food Programmes financed by the millions of dollars from the World Bank or International Monetary Fund. No, it is not worth bothering about !

Meanwhile, the number suffering brain damage, the weakening of their faculties and inability to help in their country’s development goes on growing…….not only here in Nicaragua, but in more than a third of the world.

We are fighting to reverse this otherwise inevitable decline !

Soeur Luci Morren
soynica@sdnnic.org.ni

N.B. : SOYNICA has now had 15 years’experience of using LC; from 1989 to 2003 prepared by the English ‘village unit’ method; and from1994 to 2004 with LLC made in France.

Since 1994 APEF has worked with SOYNICA to see the effect of LLC on a large scale. So far 132 tonnes have come, i.e. >15 million daily portions.