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Sabah Benjelloun

Sabah 130 x 180I grew up in Casablanca, Morocco where I got a mathematics high school degree in 1974. I then entered the Institute of Agronomy and Veterinary Medicine in Rabat, where I obtained a bachelor’s degree in food technology engineering.

As I was not interested in working for the food industry and wanted a job involving contact with people, I was offered a position of teaching assistant in the department of human nutrition at the same institute. This enabled me to work with the people, especially with the rural population.

During the first years of my work, I took part in an international course on food science and nutrition in Ghent, Belgium. The central theme of this six-month intensive course was nutrition planning. This was my first real encounter with nutrition and I was overwhelmed by what I learnt about successes and failures in Africa, and Central and South America.

Among the teachers in the course, I was most impressed by Ivan Beghin, then professor at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium. Returning home, I took part in various research projects among which the ‘Ounayn project’, a socio-economic study of a remote area of the High Atlas mountains. I conducted a food consumption survey and learnt much about traditional food preparation and the difficulties related to dietary assessment in special settings – including people eating from the same plate. The leader of this research project was Paul Pascon, a leading professor and researcher in rural sociology in Morocco. I learnt much from him and he contributed to shaping my understanding of human nutrition in its strong relationship to sociology, economy and other non-laboratory related fields.

My early interests in studying human nutrition in general and socio-economic aspects of nutrition in particular has arisen from a life-long conviction of the essential importance of human rights in their global sense. In other words, the right to good nutrition and good health is an integral part of human rights. Seen like this, the integration of nutrition and public health is the only way to make the scientific advancements in food and nutritional sciences available and in the service of the population.

It is the right of the people fully to benefit from the scientific findings of research in food, nutrition, health and all related fields. This is only because these researches have been financed through peoples’ funds (public and private alike) but also because if they are not useful to enhancing the population well-being, they are useless.

My view entails also integration of the environmental considerations into the public health nutrition advocacy. More often than not, what’s detrimental to health and nutrition is detrimental to the environment. An example I often use in my advocacy is that of ‘sugar added sodas’ (cola drinks). Their consumption is detrimental to health (obesity and nutrition-related diseases) and their production is detrimental to the environment (waste of limited water and energy resources). The same analysis holds for the consumption and production of ultra-processed foods. Other examples include the advocacy to reduce red meats consumption (both to prevent chronic diseases and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions), and to increase plant-based foods (both to improve micronutrient status and to revive agricultural biodiversity).

For my master’s degree thesis (Iowa State University, 1983-1986), I worked on ‘Moroccan planners’ and professionals’ attitudes toward nutrition planning’, inspired by the previous worldwide survey by Claudio Shuftan whom I included in the questionnaire reviewing committee. This research was an opportunity for me to realise how poor were the attitudes of Moroccan planners toward nutrition; at the same time, the questionnaire itself helped improve the interviewed planners’ awareness about the importance of nutrition in national development.

My PhD thesis (Tufts University, 1989-1993) was on economic, dietary and nutritional impacts of an agricultural development project. I worked on an irrigation project in Morocco. This was again a good opportunity to understand how big development projects don’t always impact positively on the local rural populations, in particular in relation to their dietary intake and nutritional status. Among other negative effects, have been the decline in the consumption of milk and traditional dairy products, especially among small producers. This has been the result of the commercialisation of milk production when the processed products could not reach the rural population for lack of infrastructure (roads and electricity).

In parallel, I was frequently involved in the design and implementation of various schemes for the introduction of nutrition teaching and nutrition education (in the medical curriculum and among agricultural extension workers). I contributed also to the national strategy of nutrition in Morocco and contributed as well in other African countries through FAO consulting. I have contributed to the study of the status and role of rural women in development in general and in the management of natural resources in several regions of Morocco.

At the international level, apart from the above mentioned FAO consulting, I was involved in several research projects. These include work on food systems in the Mediterranean area with CIHEAM; on the nutrition and epidemiological transition with the IUNS Task Force headed by Barry Popkin and Carlos Monteiro; a whole food system approach to quality and safety in Mediterranean and East European countries with European Union; and also human security in Arab countries with UNDP.