Let’s talk about food

Ms Tezira Lore, the writer. Photo/ Courtesy

In mid-April 2011, the World Bank held an open forum on its website to invite questions, ideas and solutions from readers worldwide on how to overcome the global food crisis and ensure that the world’s 1 billion hungry people get the food and nourishment they so badly need.

I was among the over 500 people from over 90 countries who took part in the forum (see http://live.worldbank.org/open-forum-food-crisis/solutions). Reproduced below is the comment I posted on the site:

Part of the solution to the food crisis problem lies in a change of attitude towards what we refer to as ‘food’. In Kenya, often during times of failed rains and the drought that follows, we hear people saying “there is a food shortage” when they actually mean “there is a shortage of maize [the staple food]”. But what about cassava, sweet potato, yams, arrow roots… the so-called ‘orphan crops’? Are these not also ‘food’? Can they not also be consumed as alternative sources of energy? Plus, they have the added advantage of being drought-tolerant. And with the help of biotechnology and plant breeding technology, we can boost their nutritive value (as in the case of Vitamin A enriched orange-fleshed sweet potato) and pest resistance. Similarly, Africa is blessed with a diversity of species of green leafy vegetables, packed with beta-carotene and micronutrients, but many Kenyans would consider ‘greens’ to comprise just spinach, cabbage and ‘sukuma wiki’ (kale/collard greens). The traditional/indigenous foods need to reclaim their rightful place on the National Menu.

While the World Bank food crisis forum is now closed, I wish to continue the debate on the MESHA blog, specifically in the Kenyan context in light of the looming shortage of maize on account of the failed long rains.

To set the ball rolling, here are some questions to consider:

Do you agree that Kenyans need to diversify their diets to reduce dependence on maize as a staple? If so, what strategies can we adopt to raise the status of the ‘orphan crops’?  How would we go about changing the mind-sets of Kenyans towards embracing traditional foods in their diets? What is the role of agri-biotechnology in improving the quality of our staple foods? Is genetic modification of our food crops the way to go or should we restrict ourselves to conventional plant breeding technology? How can we bring indigenous knowledge to bear on preservation of crop biodiversity?

What do you think? Post your comments and let’s engage on this salient topic.

Tezira Lore is a Nairobi-based food scientist. She works at the International Livestock Research Institute as a Communications Specialist. The views in this article are personal.

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About meshakenya

Media for Environment, Science, Health and Agriculture in Kenya (MESHA) is an association of communicators who are specialized in science, environment, agriculture, health, technology and development reporting.
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8 Responses to Let’s talk about food

  1. Butunyi says:

    The first step perhaps would be dealing with the myth amongst smallholder farmers that a growing season is not complete unless maize features on their farms. They need to be educated that sweet potatoes or even cassava is just good enough. But the challenge is how to go about this. Changing attitudes is a huge task!

    • Tezira says:

      Agree. Changing mindsets isn’t easy but a well-planned national public awareness campaign on the value of these alternative food sources could be a useful starting point. Admittedly, easier said than done. . .

  2. Amina says:

    I think traders should also make a step towards this change of mind-sets by re-introducing some of these traditional foods in the market. Imagin going to your local grocer one day and only finding mnavu, terere, mchunga, mkunde, Osuga, or……… name it, instead of cabbage, spinach and Kale. As the older generation smiles from sweet memories of their bare-foot days and embraces the change positively, the younger ones would be introduced and they will finally realize what they have really been missing…. food for thought

    • Tezira says:

      Indeed, food for thought! We also need to safeguard the indigenous knowledge of our traditional food crops with regard to cultivation, post-harvest storage, and methods of food preparation.

  3. James Karuga says:

    Personally I think what Tezia is proposing is a part of the collective solutions available. From my point of view even as we diversify, we need to change regional mentality. I know a case in arid drought prone Eastern Kenya where nothing grows (well something grows) in the form of dry land species like acacia shrubs. Surprisingly from these dry land species the people there are able to sell gums and resins to commercial companies from these trees and feed themselves. The pastoralists there are also making serious cash from camel milk. So what that basically means is for every region in Kenya something can come out of it that increases food security. On the controversial GM crops the jury is still hung among some scientific pundits on their viability. They argue there are toxins in them and we should go organic. I say we go the traditional way adopt orphan crops with the current, regenerate our soils via conservation agriculture and even our environment will be enhanced. But much of it rests on whether we are willing to embrace +ve change through our mentality. Nonetheless I believe even with orphans foods and good value chains Kenya can survive without GM and Cash Crops.

    • Tezira says:

      You raise an important point — value chains. Ultimately, markets must work for the farmer otherwise there’s little incentive to increase agricultural productivity.

  4. Martha says:

    True, there is need to change diets, but consider that most of this greens- managu, terere… actually go down well with a plate of Ugali .
    The issue of pricing is another , cassavas ,sweet potaoes, yams are a bit expensive compared to the green vegis like sukumawiki, cabbage or spinanch .
    The way forward, is to ensure that biotech actually promotes availability and accessibility in terms of pricing .

    • Tezira says:

      Yes. Cost of food is the bottom line. That is, indeed, the challenge of agri-biotech solutions — ensuring that the improved food crops are actually affordable by the intended beneficiaries!

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