Food Insecurity is a major issue in the recent pandemic for people in countries throughout Africa and most of the world
In 2021 people in countries throughout Africa and most of the world face major challenges with COVID-19 infections, climate change and uncertain economic times. Together those challenges reduce food security in many countries. There are big differences in causes and severity of insecurity in various countries. Somalia is an example of extremes as they have had severe food challenges due to a combination of drought and flooding as well as devastation of crops caused by locust swarms in 2020. In 2019, 647,000 children younger than 5 years of age were considered severely malnourished in Somalia according to the USAID (www.usaid.gov/somalia/food-assistance). Political upheaval adds to the burden in many countries.
Population of Africa
The population of Africa is approximately 1,362 billion based on estimates from the United nations in March 2021. Individual country estimates in 2019 show Nigeria is the most populated at approximately 206 million, Ethiopia second at 115 million, Egypt third at 102 million and other countries markedly less (www.worldometers.info/population/countries-in-africa-by-population). But the population in most countries is growing and the number who are food insecure varies by county, regions and over time marked partly by urbanization with reduced local food production.
Agriculture in Africa
Food production in countries is not matching population growth, though accurate estimates are hard to find. The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the United Nations estimated potential for food production areas in Africa in 1986: cassava could be grown on 455 million hectares (mh), maize on 418mh, sweet potato on 406mh, soybean on 371mh and sorghum on 354mh. Other major food crops include millet, beans, rice, wheat, and white potatoes. In humid areas, fruits and vegetables are produced include banana, avocado, citrus, pineapple, papa, apple and plantain. Dates and oil palm, as well as cotton, are common cash crops in some areas. The climatic and water conditions vary markedly in different countries and regions, limiting production. Animal production varies across countries and with most coming from meat of sheep, goats, poultry, cattle, pigs and camels. Milk and eggs are important and efficient food sources. Fish production is from a mixture of ocean fisheries and freshwater sources. Agricultural production varies markedly across climate zones and countries but historically production in sub-Saharan Africa remains low compared to the rest of the world (Bjornlund et al. (2020).
Bjornlund et al. (2020) found that farm food production grew in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) between 1960-70, but sporadically since then. Their data shows that food production in SSA decreased on a per-capita basis from 1970 to 2005 while globally, in South Asia and in all developing countries production grew markedly over the same time span. Water availability through rain and irrigation are important variable factors that must considered along with soil types, sunlight and vegetation. Some areas receive little rain, others far too much and the variation markedly influences choices in selecting which food crops to grow (roots, tubers, legumes, plantains or cereals). Cash crops that have similar variables include cotton, coffee, palm oil, tea and cocoa, rubber tobacco and minerals. Regions and countries in Africa have different economic trade partners with choices influenced greatly by historical colonialism and different markets. Transportation of goods and services factor into choices and marketing that led to the development of railroad systems and port facilities channelling goods to market. Economics, land availability, water and labour are factored into the choices historically focused on European markets as well as Persia and India. The United States (USA) became deeply involved and influential in the 1960’s and beyond with educational programs from USAID and foundations including Rockefeller and the Gates Foundation. More recently China became involved in the development of agricultural markets and production in Zambia, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Burkina Faso, establishing technology demonstration centres and market systems.
Foreign markets generally require larger production units and bulk export, however, most food production for consumption within the local regions and within Africa is by small scale farms and entrepreneurs in local communities (Lokuruka 2020). Improved production and losses are the focus of the remainder of this paper.
What are the local issues and what can be improved?
Irrigation challenges. Availability of clean, safe water is a major issue globally and certainly for agricultural production, food processing and direct consumption by humans and farm animals. Efficient use of water is becoming a major focus in most countries globally as freshwater resources are shrinking. Climate change and diversion water for power production and industry has become a focus for conservation. Efficient irrigation is one of the important keys for increased food production in SSA (Cassman and Grassini, 2013). Water stored in the polar icecaps and mountain glaciers is shrinking because of global warming. Irrigation water must be free of chemical pollutants and sewage, so reusing of urban and industrial water is limited and expensive. Scientists and engineers are developing efficient ways to monitor water needs in agricultural fields with distance monitoring and artificial intelligence predictions to guide use in SSA by van Ittersum et al., 2016). The Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska is one of the groups working with other educators and with companies to provide guidance for Rwanda. Other entities are working in other areas.
Insect Pests. There are thousands of insects that consume food crops or alter safety by increasing the ability of bacteria and fungi to invade plants. Some insects are crop-specific including the Fall Armyworm (FAW) moth that was introduced in SSA by 2016 from the Caribbean or South or Central America. It spread rapidly across Africa and Asia and is a major pest for maize. Chemical pesticides may help control FAW but as discussed by Goodman and Huesing (2021) genetically engineered maize varieties approved for use in the Americas in the mid-1990’s express very low levels of a bacterial protein (Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt) are effective in combating the moth without chemical pesticides and with no environmental harm or risks. Two Bt proteins in the drought-tolerant TELA maize developed and managed by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) in Kenya are now approved for use in Kenya. Yet, multiple tools are needed to safely control this pest including some of the newer, safer chemical pesticides designed for backpack sprayers. Similar technologies with Bt protein have been developed for cowpea use to control the Maruca sp. pod borer. The Bt cowpea will be available to farmers in Nigeria where the majority of cowpeas are grown, to help control that important pest. (https://theconversation.com/nigeria-has-given-a-new-gm-cowpea-variety-the-go-ahead-why-it-matters-130304).
Plant disease. Crop plants may be infected by bacteria or fungi that damage or destroy the plant. And some fungi produce mycotoxins that adversely affect humans or farm animal health. Bananas can be infected by Xanthomonas sp. bacteria that causes wilt disease. The bacteria is spread by infected soils or farm tools. Farmers may use plants grown in the greenhouse in sterile conditions if they plant them in new soils using cleaned tools. Researchers at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nairobi led by Leena Tripathi engineered plants by transferring two genes from pepper plants that express proteins that kill the bacteria but do not harm the banana plant or human consumers (Jin et al., 2017). In another example, late blight disease of potatoes is caused Phytophthora infestans. The same organism that caused the Irish Potato Famine in 1845 infects potatoes in Africa in 2021. Researchers at the International Potato Center in Nairobi have transferred three resistance genes from wild type potatoes of the genus Solanum, into varieties of Solanum tuberosum that are grown for food in Africa. The combination of 3R genes protect the potato from infection without altering food safety or nutritional properties of the potato. Researchers in the Agricultural Research and Development Institute in Kabale, Uganda have been field-testing the plants and demonstrating their resistance and food qualities of tubers (Ghislain et al., 2019).
Regulatory framework for safety and acceptance of genetically engineered crops
Genetically engineered crops that are grown for food, feed and fiber must be evaluated for safety using guidelines developed by scientists and regulators between 1987 and 1992. In 2003 scientists at the FAO/WHO organizations of the United Nations produced a document for safety evaluation that was updated in 2009, as the CODEX Alimentarius Commission guideline. The safety characteristics that are evaluated include assessment and testing for risks of food allergenicity and toxicity as well as nutritional equivalence to similar varieties already used in food. A history of safe consumption of the unmodified plant and any gene donor organism is evaluated for allergenicity and toxicity. The sequence identity of protein amino acids of the new protein is compared to known allergens (www.AllergenOnline.org) and known toxins in NCBI Protein database. Published scientific literature is evaluated for evidence of safety or risks. Specific tests are performed of stability of the protein in the stomach enzyme pepsin in laboratory tests. Allergenicity is assessed primarily based on history of safety in humans and on the sequence comparison to a peer-reviewed allergen database and if appropriate a celiac database (Goodman et al., 2016; Jin et al. 2017). If there are indications of possible risks, further testing is required. Few proteins are toxic, a few are enzymes that produce toxins. An evaluation is based on similarity to toxins and toxin-producing enzymes. Toxicity tests are performed for those required based on regulatory authority guidance of the US Food and Drug Administration (Redbook 2000, revised 2007) and animal tests following protocols in the OECD for acute, sub-chronic and if necessary chronic studies.
Some African countries have joined together to develop safety assessments for genetically engineered crops and to consider potential issues for novel foods and proteins. Countries in the East African Community have formed a union for trade and agreement for food safety and cooperation. The African Union Commission of 55 countries to work on a Comprehensive Africa Agriculture and Development Program (CAADP) for food security and nutrition. Together they must follow a scientifically sound and balanced practice to allow trade and policies for safe food development and trade.
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