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FOOD SECURITY IN HOTTER, DRIER WORLD

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WE are in the middle of a South African heatwave. The northern hemisphere has just completed a very uncomfortable summer, with July being the hottest in recorded history. The start of the southern hemisphere spring appears to be completing this year’s weather cycle in competition with the north – promising a hot, dry summer with short intervals of intense rainfall. In other words, presenting more threats to our food security.


World Food Day, celebrated on October 16, continued to leave us uncomfortable. While considerable progress has been made in various parts of the world, we still have 821 million people who suffer from chronic undernourishment. That’s more than 10 per cent of the world’s population. The outlook is dimmed by the prospect of an even more difficult environment on the back of climate change and increased frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts and floods.
Hungry


The number in South Africa, according to Stats SA, is 6.8 million people who are chronically hungry, meaning they go to bed on an empty stomach daily. In this mix are 500 000 households with children who are subject to hunger pangs. Add to this the growing global epidemic of obesity and malnutrition to complete the ticking time bomb of the global nutrition challenge of the 21st century.


Adequate nutrition is critical in the first 90 days of a child’s life and, in general, if under-nutrition persists for the first four years, the damage is largely irreversible. We know that under-nutrition is a central pillar of the poverty trap. Poverty restricts access to food, which leads to restricted physical and cognitive development.


Limits


This in turn limits economic activity and productivity, which perpetuates the poverty. And the cycle continues inter-generationally. The outlook is dimmed by the prospect of an even more difficult environment on the back of climate change and increased frequency of extreme weather events such as droughts and floods.
How do we organise for future food security to enable the next generation to successfully escape the poverty trap in South Africa and the world? But these interventions might prove ineffective against the vagaries of heatwaves and extreme weather events catalysed by the climate crisis. There is the matter of obesity and malnutrition epidemic.


Key to food security is resilience in the diversity of staples. If these new staple crops have the added benefits of higher nutrition levels and greater tolerance to drier conditions, then we truly have a winning solution. The third intervention is underutilised and orphan crops. They are sometimes also referred to as traditional crops because our wise ancestors had an important handle on food security, albeit on a smaller scale, and are in most cases indigenous.


The number in South Africa, according to Stats SA, is 6.8 million people who are chronically hungry, meaning they go to bed on an empty stomach daily. Research has shown that in general these crops use much less water than their exotic mainstream monoculture cousins, making them more resilient to drought conditions.


They are also more nutritious and, with higher levels of iron and trace elements, becoming an important bastion against malnutrition. Examples include well-known sweet potato, Bambara groundnut, cowpeas, spider plant and indigenous spinach – amaranthus or morogo. The super resilient include sorghum, which is both drought tolerant and is tolerant to waterlogging.


The green revolution of the 1950s and 1960s massified agriculture in a monoculture paradigm to stave off mass hunger and was highly successful. The 21st century agricultural revolution lies in new diversification in a resource efficient and resilient agricultural model enabled by the innovations of the fourth industrial revolution.

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