Sifelani Tsiko Senior Writer
The genetic diversity of crops that are grown and eaten in Zimbabwe could be lost forever due to climate change, threatening the country's future food security, agricultural experts say. Experts at a one-day stakeholders' consultative workshop on food and nutrition security situation which was held this week in the capital, warned that the loss of biodiversity will have a major impact on Zimbabwe's ability to feed itself in the future as the population rises significantly by 2050.
"There is need for critical analysis, review and above all, concerted efforts to reform agricultural practices in the face of climate change, trade and food and nutrition security national requirements," says Dr Dahlia Garwe, head of the Tobacco Research Board.
"The country needs to be part of the global agenda where there is great emphasis on the utilisation of neglected and under-utilised crops and plants.
"These forgotten foods have multiple uses and value. It can enhance Zimbabwe's food security position in the long term."
The Community Technology Development Organisation (CTDO), a local NGO in partnership with the University of Aberdeen organised this workshops to explore ways to enhance food and nutrition security through the use of neglected and under-utilised crops and plants in the country.
Experts also analysed global policy trends related to food and nutrition security as well as the impact of climate change and its implications to agriculture.
CTDO executive director, Andrew Mushita said the use of plant genetic diversity is essential for ensuring an adequate and stable supply of diverse food crops as well as enhancing their nutritional quality.
"As an organisation, we have been working with farmers for the past 25 years to promote the use of these neglected crops to fight hunger and poverty and to improve livelihoods," he said.
"We are worried about the rapid loss of our crop genetic diversity and this has serious implications for the future of our food and nutrition security as a country. We need to build strategic collaborations with such institutions as the University of Aberdeen to explore ways to improve food and nutrition security."
The veteran CTDO agronomist said it was important to promote effective conservation, management and use of plant genetic resources to ensure the availability of a diverse range of nutritious food crops in the country in the wake of the devastating impact of climate change.
Dr Wendy Russell, a researcher at the University of Aberdeen expressed concern that fewer crop species are feeding the world than 50 years ago, something which she says has serious implications about the resilience of the global food system.
She warns that a loss of crop diversity meant more people were dependent on key crops, leaving them more exposed to harvest failures.
Zimbabwe and the world at large, she says, need to improve health and build resilient food supply chains through encouraging ago-biodiversity.
She notes that higher consumption of energy-dense crops is contributing to a global rise in heart disease, diabetes, cancer and other non-communicable diseases.
Dr Russell says the global protein demand had risen significantly from 45 billion kg of meat in 1950 with a global population of 2,7 billion to 229 billion kg by 2000 when the population surged to 6,0 billion.
It is projected that demand will rise sharply to 465 billion kg by 2050 when the global population is expected to hit 9,1 billion.
She says Zimbabwe and most other developing countries need to explore ways to develop sustainable protein sources from a variety of crops and animals to meet future demand.
Over the past 50 years, Dr Russell notes that the diets around the world are changing and are becoming more similar.
Food and nutrition experts say that the homogenisation of the global diet could be helping accelerate the rise in non-communicable diseases -- such as diabetes and heart disease -- which are becoming an increasing problem worldwide.
"Crop yields and crop outputs are growing slowly compared to the projected population growth and food production targets," says University of Zimbabwe agricultural meteorologist Prof Emmanuel Mashonjowa.
"There is a mismatch between supply and demand. We need to shift from the current crops to traditional food crops to help the country to cope with climate change."
He also says there is need to promote ecological agriculture on a bigger scale as part of efforts to build resilient food chain systems that respond effectively to climate change.
Prof Mashonjowa says heavy reliance on a narrow range of crops could spell disaster for the country's food security.
The danger of this more homogeneous global food diet, he says, is that it makes agriculture more vulnerable to major threats like drought, insect pests and diseases, which are likely to become worse in many parts of the world as a result of climate change.
"There is need to undertake research and development that strengthen the food and nutrition value of neglected under-utilised crops," says Mushita.
"It is important to develop supportive policy and legislative frameworks that stimulate increased use of good quality seed as a strategy to increase food production.
"There is need to support crop diversification in order to increase resilience and adaptation to climate change."
United Nations (UN) World Food Programme (WFP) head of Vulnerability Analysis Unit, Joao Manja says the underlying causes of food and nutrition insecurity in Zimbabwe and most other countries included limited livelihood options, high poverty rates, financial challenges (high unemployment, limited access to capital and credit, poor agricultural investment, poor asset base, unfavourable market prices for producers).
In addition, he says, poor agricultural productivity due to lack of irrigation, lack of inputs, poor production infrastructure and support systems is still a major problem.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that "the diversity of cultivated crops declined by 75 percent during the 20th Century and a third of today's diversity could disappear by 2050."
In numerous other studies, the UN agency warned that there was a risk that the severity of some maize and wheat disease epidemics may increase in coming decades as a result of the impacts of climate change.
The studies predicts that as much as 22 percent of the wild relatives of important food crops of peanut, potato and beans will disappear by 2050 because of the changing climate.
In order to improve the resilience of the global food system to future shocks, agricultural experts at the CTDO workshop say an expansion in the diversity of the globally important crops was needed.
Dr Russell says around 75 percent of the world's food is now being produced form 12 plants and 5 animals, something which she feared could affect global food and nutrition security by 2050.
All the agricultural experts at the meeting agreed that there was need to promote access to a wide diversity of food plants to ensure the availability of a broad range of nutrients that combine to constitute a more balanced diet.
Most traditional varieties and other wild species are being lost through genetic erosion, as farmers adopt Western varieties and cease growing the varieties they have nurtured for generations.
Eventually, they lose these varieties, leaving most crop and wild species threatened with extinction, as their habitats are destroyed by human disturbance.
CTDT and other partners are working to ensure the long-term preservation of crop seed biodiversity as a part of national, regional and global strategies for the conservation of crop genetic resources.
Zimbabwe and other African countries are losing plant genetic material. Experts say plant genetic materials facing extinction in the region include labour-intensive crops such as bambara, green gram, sesame, round potato (Zulu potato) and a wide range of indigenous maize, sorghum and millet varieties.
These crops which are disappearing can provide nutritious and healthy products for local communities and contribute to Zimbabwe and the global food security position.
Safeguarding the local varieties will add value and significance to the fight against hunger and poverty by 2050.