Wednesday, October 20, 2021

SONA should at least have acknowledged nutrition security

Listening to President Ian Khama wax lyrical about the bumper harvest of the past year in his last state-of-the-nation address, one gets the distinct impression that the Ministry of Agricultural Development and Food Security is doing terrific job of executing the second mandate expressed in its name.

“Madam Speaker, there has been a corresponding improvement in the domestic food security. The harvest of major cereal crops (that is maize, millet and sorghum) was estimated at 175 000 metric tonnes in 2016/17, a notable improvement from 2015/16 harvest of 54,000 metric tonnes. The deficit in the sorghum supply is expected to decrease by around 80 percent, to 31 000 metric tonnes this year, while the shortfall in the domestic supply of maize is expected to decrease by 10 percent to 274,000 metric tonnes,” Khama said in his speech.

The term “food security” appears four times in the speech: as part of a section headline, as quoted above, as reference to a form of assistance afforded vulnerable groups and as one of the components of the National Spatial Plan. However, by leaving out a closely related concept, the president cast food security in its 20th century conception. Then food security was conceived in terms of a region or country’s ability to assure adequate food supply for its current and projected population. The aim was to ensure that population growth never exceeded the growth in food production. The World Food Summit in 1996 re-defined food security as a situation in which “all people, at all times, have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” This definition brings into focus the linkage between food, nutrition and health. In fairness to him, Khama spoke about all three but was less precise with regard to nutrition security, only mentioning it with regard to children and under a different topic.

Khama’s speech placed more emphasis on the quantity of food produced (food security) than on the quality of such food (nutrition security). Generally, Botswana hasn’t paid comprehensive attention to nutritional security and the National Nutrition Strategy th)at was put together by the Ministry of Health and Wellness that Khama referred to in his speech has been faulted for not cutting across all sectors. Adults, like children, also need nutrition security.

In the Botswana case, part of ensuring that the nutrient density of food is maintained at desirable levels would take the form of enforcing the laws in place and promulgating new ones. That is not happening. Some supermarkets in Botswana sell GMOs (what else would a green pepper the size of a water melon be?) and only the well-off who can afford to buy food at Woolworths and Spar stores, don’t have to worry about nutrition security. Food access is a component of nutrition security. The Botswana Police Service and public health departments of councils have never been able to fully enforce food safety laws. Taking advantage of this lapse, a Lobatse businessman sold recycled (and possibly carcinogenic) cooking oil to a mostly poor neighbourhood with virtually no hindrance. Indeed, stores across the country (including chain stores that political leaders have shareholding in) not only sell poor-quality food but also engage in dubious commercial practices. According to staff sources, one notorious supermarket chain switches off power at night to keep costs low. In the process, perishables go bad but remain on sale in refrigerators because of what the sell-by-date says.

Citizens themselves need a lot of education about food safety which, once compromised can adversely affect nutrition security. For example, the morogo wa dinawa, which is made from the leaves of the common cow peas, is almost always contaminated with sand pebbles, thorn, human hair and other foreign objects that compromise nutritional integrity. Village Development Committees (VDCs) would be useful in educating people about food hygiene but these structures are more oriented towards partisan politics than little annoyances such as public health and commerce.

This year, the government introduced a P450 million-a-year feeding scheme in terms of which such fresh fruits and vegetables as well as eggs have been added to the menu at government primary schools. However and despite recommendations of European Union consultants engaged under the Private Sector Development Programme, the appropriate nutritional standards are not being adhered to. While the Botswana Bureau of Standards has produced voluntary standards for grading fresh fruits and vegetables, these have generally not been ignored, leaving businesspeople to supervise themselves.

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