Food security debate needs to include stronger focus on food safety

fruitsBy Andrew Emmott

The Guardian – We’ve all heard about the need for safe water in developing countries — campaigns and charities working in water sanitation have very successfully conveyed this message. What you may not have heard much about is the pressing issue of food safety in the developing world, a message that the London based ethical trading organization Twin is pushing in the run up to the G8 Summit, due to take place in the UK this June.

Through consuming unsafe food, communities in countries forty degrees north and south of the equator face an increased risk of developing childhood stunting, liver cancer and immune disorders. Yet most calls made in the food security debate centre around a sufficient food supply and nutrition, with no call for food safety.

Twin has been working with the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM) to look at the problem of contamination in staple foods such as maize, rice and peanuts, by a toxin called aflatoxin. Crops grown by smallholder farmers and stored in poor conditions in Malawi, Mozambique and many other countries create the ideal conditions for the mould which causes the poison to grow.

The Centre for Disease Control has estimated that 4.5 billion people across the developing world are chronically exposed to aflatoxin. Once ingested, aflatoxin can travel across the placenta and into mothers’ milk — 30% of mothers’ milk in Africa would not meet international food safety standards. Children weaned onto maize porridge are often exposed to even higher levels of the toxin.

Food that fails to reach safety standards of high-value international markets not only causes considerable economic losses to producers, but to the country of origin and neighboring countries the goods are sold in. The effects of stunting have been shown to last for at least three generations. Liver cancers, immune deficiency, hepatitis B, and other conditions are also contributed to it, along with an increased susceptibility to HIV infection and TB. This has serious economic consequences for the child, family, community and nation.

There are practical ways to keep crops safe, such as investing in crop drying, proper storage and safe processing so that moulds cannot grow. On top of this, education on the issue is vital in poor communities and the support of long-term ethical trading relationships can, among other things, prevent cash-strapped farmers from harvesting early — a desperate measure that makes the crop more vulnerable to mould.

In the 1960s, Sub-Saharan Africa was responsible for 90% of global peanut exports and today this figure has fallen to less than 5%, mainly due to strict import regulations on safe levels of aflatoxin in food. The aflatoxin problem needs an economically sustainable solution. Smallholders cannot bear the cost of dumping a contaminated harvest and families struggling to pay for food will continue to eat what they can afford, whatever the quality.

A key priority for Twin’s work in Malawi is to complement the country’s new National Export Strategy, which seeks to shift the economy away from its dependency on declining tobacco markets to a more diversified farming system. The government has highlighted groundnut oil as a key alternative product which could in time contribute to reducing reliance on oil imports.

The benefit of pressing nuts for oil is that toxins can be filtered out during the process, converting a dangerous product into a source of income. Nut pressing trials are already underway at Afri-Nut, a groundbreaking nut processing facility set up by Twin and NASFAM in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe, to enable processing to take place in-country with the economic benefits this brings.

Work is also being carried out to ensure the ‘groundnut cake’ – the bi-product of crushing for oil – can be treated so it is safe for use in animal feed, creating economic value from what may have traditionally been seen as waste. Initiatives like these are important, but more needs to be done to improve the quality and safety of peanuts that are being widely consumed in Malawi and elsewhere.

Twin is implementing a project funded by the Global Poverty Action Fund to develop new markets for the poor in Malawi and promote quality management as a central aspect of producing added-value products for export, as well as food safety at home. We are also working to promote access to, and the use of, hand-operated mechanical sellers. This simple technology prevents the fungus-friendly practice of wetting nuts to ease the arduous task of hand shelling, a labor intensive task mostly taken up by women in Africa.

It’s time to move the food security debate forward from demands for increased production and talk about the need for safe food. A key part of this is developing profitable uses of contaminated produce so dangerous food is taken out of people’s diets, together with investment in storage, processing and education. Through these simple measures, we can begin to unshackle communities from the economic and public health burden of unsafe food that is undermining progress across the developing world.

 Source and Photo: The Guardian, February, 2013-02-27
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2 responses to “Food security debate needs to include stronger focus on food safety

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