In the Nigerian city of Ibadan lie the head offices of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), which prides itself as one of the world’s leading research partners in finding solutions to hunger, malnutrition and poverty.
The 45-year-old non-profit organisation, which is supported by several countries, says its award-winning research for development (R4D) addresses the development needs of tropical countries.
That it works with a number of partners to enhance crop quality and productivity, reduce producer and consumer risks, and generate wealth from agriculture speaks volumes about how seriously developing countries like Tanzania ought to take its research findings.
IITA boasts years of conducted research on a wide array of food crops, among them cowpeas, soybeans, bananas/plantains, yams, cassava and maize, most of which are popular in Tanzanian households.
Most recently, the organisation has released alarming findings of research conducted in four regions in Tanzania: Iringa, Kilimanjaro, Ruvuma and Tabora. It says roundabout one-fifth of the maize and cassava sold and therefore consumed in the country contains poisonous chemicals which can cause cancer or result in stunting among children – and therefore pose serious health risks.
Tanzania’s own Agriculture, Food Security and Cooperatives ministry corroborates IITA’s findings, warning that millions of people in the country are unwittingly but dangerously exposed to the poisonous chemicals owing to the contamination of the food they commonly eat.
The Tanzania Food and Drugs Authority meanwhile says the risk of contamination is especially high in rural areas, where people routinely consume cassava, maize and various other crops straight from farms or from stores lying in similarly dangerously exposed places.
For those wondering whether there is nothing the government can do to put the situation under control, a TFDA official has bad news. He says it calls for at least USD65 to test whether a single cassava or maize plant contains chemicals that likely to render food at the end of the production chain poisonous – and the agency just can’t afford the screening cost!
But other sources suggest that the situation is not all that hopeless, and there are escape routes. For example, we are told that TFDA addresses the issue in question jointly with the Tanzania Bureau of Standards.
Should the collaboration really work, that is if TBS and law-enforcement agencies were sufficiently vigilant, the Tanzanian food market would witness much less contamination than we now see.
An expert from the Morogoro-based Sokoine University of Agriculture says that it is quite possible to rid rural areas of contaminated food crops, the recipe for success being practising modern farming methods.
The expert specifically advocated the use of approved fertilisers and seeds resistant to fungi associated with the spread of the poisonous chemicals as well as ensuring that the fungi do not entrench themselves in particular farms or areas.
Surely, this is not too big a problem for Tanzanians to surmount – just as no contaminated food crops and other items should be allowed to enter our country from outside.
Whatever the nature or magnitude of our development needs and challenges, heeding expert advice from the likes of IITA should see us through most of the problems our agriculture is grappling with.