Food is Medicine

Coming direct from the Crawford Fund Conference, we recap Dr Lindiwe Sibanda’s inspiring John Crawford Memorial address about the importance of food quality and the interaction between agriculture, environment and health.

Lindiwe describes the “rainbow colours of maize, sweet sorghum, large mango trees, lemon trees, guavas” that shape her memory of agriculture growing up. Her Grandmother’s farm was a paradise where agriculture was not just the means of income, but a livelihood that contributed far more to her family. It was the meals that were consumed, the diversity of diets, the livelihood and the daily experience of participating in the growing of food. As Lindiwe says “that was the agriculture I experienced in Zimbabwe at the time”.

But now, agriculture in many developing regions has taken a change of course. The prior emphasis on quality and diversity of production has been sacrificed for quantity and intensification. This has not only changed farming in many regions, but diets, livelihoods and also the meaning of food security.

“The reverse is true now … we have to buy food” says Lindiwe as she describes the changed agricultural landscape that saw diverse crops replaced with a monoculture of crops, like maize, that would bring an income. But this “pushing up the development ladder” also saw yields halved, and diets became simple staple crops only – “most of the time its maize, maize, maize”, nothing like the enormous variation of produce Lindiwe recalls from her Grandmother’s farm.

A cruel irony is that the undernourished (where children consume enough calories, but not enough nutrients) have a higher risk of developing obesity and diabetes later in life. Yet the growing obesity epidemic in Africa, where the number of overweight and obese children has more than doubled from 5 million to 10.6 million in just 25 years, is often seen as evidence that development is working. As Lindiwe suggests, this trend needs to be reversed.

This calls into question what we mean by food security. Is food security having the quantity of food to feed a population, or is it also the quality of food to nourish people for a fit, healthy and active lifestyle?

The idea of food security originated in the 1970s. Attention at this time was on food supply. Measures concerned ensuring food availability at all times, and being able to expand and offset fluctuations in markets and supply. Yet, Lindiwe suggests that:

“…we need to change the way we define food security”.

Fast-forward to today, and over 200 definitions of food security exist. The commonly accepted definition is where all people at all times have sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets dietary needs of an active and healthy lifestyle. This definition encapsulates broader concepts of hidden hunger – giving weight to quality of food as well as simply quantity. Quality food involves access to a diverse range of foods in a diet, and leads to the idea of nutrition sensitive agriculture.

“Food is our medicine” says Lindiwe. “My grandmothers farm was her pharmacy”.

We are now in the decade for nutrition – the era of 2016-2025 which sees the intersection of health and agriculture. There is no longer room for agriculture that doesn’t deliver on nutrition. The two sectors are inextricably bound, and must continue to be shaped in partnership to produce a prosperous and fulfilling agricultural sector into the future.

A broader food systems approach enables us to see the broader perspective of how food security is reflected in terms of farmers, policy-makers and consumers. Furthermore, Lindiwe encourages that food must be personally and culturally acceptable. This is another dimension to food security that expands earlier narrow definition as was initially accepted.

So with a renewed definition of food security, and challenges to the intensification models that shaped the development agenda, we are left asking – what is the way forward?

Lindiwe suggests that “the combination of new technology and good policy” is essential for feeding the world.

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We cannot separate agriculture, health and the environment. They operate as an intrinsic co-existent network, and we now need evidence-based policies which recognise this co-dependence and mutual beneficiaries. Yet we so often separate the three and leave the final social step of implementing research to the wayside. Lindiwe realised this deficiency during her PhD aiming to improve the productivity of indigenous goats, commenting that “agriculture must have the culture of giving dignity to the people it feeds” and focus on where the productivity benefits will fall.

This calls Lindiwe to conclude that the new narrative for ending hunger is in the new partnerships of learning together for a healthy diet and a healthy planet. Poverty is “the lifelong sentence caused by bad agriculture”. The solution to this is a combination of both the quantity of food about which Lindiwe learnt at university, and also the quality of food that she knew from her Grandmother’s farm.

The AgriEducate team will be reporting in live from the CrawFord Fund Conference and providing more detailed analysis on keynote speakers in the weeks to come. So fire in questions and stay tuned!


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