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Small-Holder Farmers in Africa Are Key to Food Sustainability

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Kim Lewis
World leaders are set to assemble in Northern Ireland next month for the 39th G-8 summit.  Food security is expected to be one of the topics high on the agenda.  Two new agricultural reports released ahead of the conference look at some of the food security challenges experienced by Africa’s small farmers.

The studies are published by Agriculture for Impact, an independent advocacy initiative based at the Centre for Environment Policy at Imperial College London.   The reports are based on findings from case-studies in Africa.   One of the participants of the studies is Andrew Emott, senior manager of Twin Trading of London.  Emott will also be one of the presenters for the food security studies at the G8 summit. 

He said a major issue involving food security, but which hasn’t received as much attention as droughts and floods, is food waste.

“Estimates say that between 35 and 50 percent of food is wasted because of poor storage, and that also affects food safety. So not only are people food insecure, but, they are potentially eating food that is not safe, that we wouldn’t consider safe to eat,” explained Emott.

One of the key challenges that small-holder farmers face involves food storage.

“Many farmers don’t sell into formal value chains, and they don’t have the infrastructure needed to look after their crops that they produce.  So, the drying of the crops is not very good, and as a consequence, farmers tend to sell their crops early when prices are low, and when they need food later on in the year, they’ll buy back when the prices are high,” Emott pointed out. 

He also said that studies on groundnuts in Malawi identified food safety as a key problem, and farmers are starting to recognize that the public health of their communities is affected.

One major threat that occurs when it comes to improperly stored food is the development of mold and a contaminant called aflatoxin.

“The Centers for Disease Control estimates that there are over 4.5 billion people chronically exposed to aflatoxin, and there is an urgent need to address this huge public health issue,” said Emott.  He also noted, “aflatoxin is one of the major causes of liver cancer around the world. It contributes to under-nutrition so its affects childhood stunting, and in fact that can last three or four generations. 

He said the mold is also an immunosuppressant and therefore can be implicated in a number of other diseases affecting people who eat food that was poorly stored.

In order to tackle this huge health threat and other challenges of food waste, Emott said there needs to be a broad consensus that food safety is a key component of food security. 

He hopes international leaders at the G8 summit will take the issue seriously enough to support some of the simple solutions that are readily available now for drying and storing food in smallholder communities.  Also, he said the funding for these solutions should come through agribusiness value chains as a public health intervention.

“The way that we see it is that food safety should be treated in the same way as safe water,” said Emott.

He added that while the focus has been on investing in boreholes and wells,  there should also be more attention paid to small scale storage and drying and primary processing of small-holder farmers’ crops.

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