Enhancing food security in SA & continental Africa through broadening the food basket

Although South Africa has been recently ranked as the most food secured country in Africa there are still food security issues. South Africa is only food secure at national level, but there are many households that are food insecure. Food security in South Africa, just like in the rest of the world, is more than just the availability of sufficient food quantities through the agri-food production system. Quality and diversity are also important components of the phenomenon, especially given that the food security discourse should and does entail nutrition security. Nutrition security pertains to people not only getting adequate quantities of food daily, but also ensuring that they are getting sufficient nutrients in the food they eat.

Despite the wide crop diversity that Africa has, the continent still battles with achieving food and nutrition security. There is growing agreement that among the continents, Africa experiences the highest level of malnutrition-related disease. The problem of malnutrition is intertwined with climate change and environmental degradation that worsen the already poor dietary situation.

Africa, as a continent, has made meaningful strides in increasing the quantity of food availability through the agricultural production systems. However, this increased food production, hence increased availability, has not necessarily led to improvements in nutrition. Complementary approaches to improve dietary quality are needed urgently. These approaches include crop bio-fortification and diversification. Bio-fortification is based on the breeding of more nutritious varieties of crops, while diversification is founded on increasing the range of nutritious crops cultivated. Diversification spreads the risks posed by single crop failure thus recognized as pivotal in promoting food system resilience under variable and unreliable weather caused by anthropogenic climate change. Moreover, diversification supports synergies in production through crop nutrient cycling and other processes that help deal with and ameliorate environmental and soil degradation. The growing of different crops on the same soil helps promotes soil health through increased microorganisms population and diversity. Furthermore, a diversified cropping system approach reduces plant pests and diseases.

One approach to support food system diversification in Africa is through the greater inclusion of orphan crops. These crops, which include a range of fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, and roots, are often highly nutritious and can fit well into existing agricultural systems to support production synergies. These crops also have rich reservoirs of genetic diversity that can be used to genetically improve them. South Africa has one of the most extensive and elaborate collections of genetic material held under the South Africa’s Agricultural National Public Good Assets managed by the Agricultural Research Council (ARC). One cannot over-emphasize the importance of maintaining and expanding these collections for future food security through research and development, using the collections are as basic genetic material. However, there are insufficient resources allocated to the curator to adequately maintain and protect this invaluable resource. Policy makers in South Africa should be appraised of the importance of maintaining these Agricultural National Public Good Assets in order for appropriate allocation of resources to the curator institution.

Another reason to promote the cultivation of more orphaned crops is their adaptability to local conditions, which includes drought tolerance, resistance to prevalent pests and diseases and ability to thrive in marginal soils and limited external inputs situations. These characteristics lend these crops easily for production under smallholder farming conditions. Typical examples of orphan crops are jugo beans (Bambara groundnuts), indigenous leafy vegetables – such as amaranthus, taros (amadumbe), cowpeas, sorghum, etc.

These crops have come to be referred to as orphan crops because their production has largely been abandoned as farmers adopted new and commercial crops. Orphan crops, for purposes of this discussion, include both indigenous and crops that came from other localities but have been cultivated for a long time in the locality under question thus “indigenized”. However, the growing healthy eating trend and the popularity of consuming local produce bodes well for the re-introduction of orphan crops and broadening the food basket through diversification. This presents good opportunity for smallholder farmers in marginal areas to participate in the mainstream agri-food value chains. Furthermore, is growing recognition that he use of locally available resources such as orphan crops can contribute to adapting to climate variability and change while supporting sustainable diets and food systems.

In conclusion, orphan crops may offer “new” opportunities in the advent of climate change as they are uniquely suited and adapted to local harsh environments. Orphan crops also can provide nutritional diversity and enhance agro-biodiversity within farmer fields and home gardens, create niche markets in local economies and serve to simultaneously harness and protect local indigenous knowledge.

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Dr. Thulasizwe Mkhabela is an agricultural thought leader and policy analyst at-large with extensive experience on South African and African agricultural and development issues. He is a director at Outcome Mappping and freelance consultant:

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