Indigenous African superfoods are critical for food and nutrition security

By Dr Samkelisiwe Hlophe-Ginindza

Africa is battling with poverty, food and nutrition insecurity and rapidly rising levels of lifestyle diseases.  South Africa is not exempt from these challenges.  Could this be a direct result of the food choices we have made in the past few decades and are still making?

In times gone by, our food systems were diverse, but, over the decades, South Africa has moved away from its ancient food wealth to embrace commercial crops introduced into the country.  As agricultural practices scaled up, most indigenous food crops were driven into internal "exile".

The world has over 300 000 plant species, about 10% of which are thought to be edible.  However, only 7 000 species have been cultivated or collected as food, and a mere 20 species provide 90% of the world's food requirements.  Wheat, maize and rice account for more than 70% of our calorific intake.  This means that there are tens of thousands of underutilised edible plant species that could help meet the rising food requirements of the global population.

The displacement of indigenous species by more commonly used crops, and the general reduction in genetic diversity underpinning agriculture – perhaps the result of a lack of information on production, socio-economic factors influencing food choices and limited research – are a concern.

It is time we realised that a move back to diverse diets and nutrient-rich foods is no longer a nice idea, but a necessity.  Levels of malnutrition are increasing.  People cannot access food in adequate quantities, or with enough nutrients to meet their dietary requirements.  It is time to give proper attention to indigenous crops, with their genetic diversity, nutritional density and resilience to harsh local conditions.  With staple crops currently becoming less resilient and increasingly at risk owing to climate change, indigenous crops are the way to go.

Research conducted by the Water Research Commission and its partners has shown that indigenous fruit trees and food crops are nutrient-dense, are produced using less water, and contribute to food and nutrition security.  There is also evidence that few households produce their own food, and that South Africans look down on indigenous food crops as being for poor people only.  However, in the developed world, indigenous crops are recognised as the food of the future, and are earmarked as vital to address food and water insecurity under climate change.

Indigenous crops not only enhance food and nutritional security, but also have great potential to stimulate the local economy and promote employment in poor rural communities.  Their economic and food security potential and their status as a subset of agricultural biodiversity means that these crops offer opportunities to address several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 1 (No Poverty), SDG 2 (Zero Hunger), SDG 3 (Good Health and Well-being), SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and SDG 15 (Life on Land).

Promoting underutilised crops as part of dryland and irrigated agriculture should play an important role in government efforts to reduce poverty and hunger through sustainable livelihoods.

Indigenous crops should be reintroduced alongside existing major crops, with the focus on mainstreaming.  They should not be viewed as replacement crops, but as a means to diversify the food basket, taking us back to a time when people had more options.

It is clear that our current food production practices are completely unsustainable.  We are degrading our soil, decimating our biodiversity and rapidly depleting our fragile underground water reserves, while becoming over-reliant on multinational agricultural input companies.  We are also destroying our own immune systems by eating the wrong types of food and an insufficiently varied diet.

Malnutrition is a growing problem, not just in terms of undernourishment, but also when it comes to eating foods that contain many calories but no significant nutrients.  These empty calories are leading to the rise in lifestyle diseases in the world today.

Studies have shown that indigenous crops are highly nutritious, containing many micro and macro-nutrients that are essential for health, often more than common staple crops.  Several traditional cereals, legumes and vegetables have high proportions of vitamins, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc than major crop species.

Additionally, many have health protection and medicinal properties, with potential protective effects against major chronic diseases.  For example, finger millet has a low glycaemic index and can be digested slowly, making it beneficial for people with diabetes.  Finger and pearl millets also have anti-cancer properties.

The contribution of these nutrient-dense indigenous crops to food security and sustainable livelihoods cannot be overemphasised.  South Africa needs to develop desirable new food products linked to our cultural heritage and rich biodiversity. Let us start to promote new must-try foods in local hotspots.

Dr Samkelisiwe Hlophe-Ginindza is an Assistant Research Manager at the Water Research Commission.


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