Why agricultural biodiversity is key for sustainable food systems

28Dec 2021
Geoffrey Nangai
The Guardian
Why agricultural biodiversity is key for sustainable food systems

SEVERAL studies have drawn a clear line between food choices and mortality with results indicating that unhealthy eating habits increase the risk of death associated with the chronic diseases, including heart complications, stroke and diabetes.

A woman in a sorghum plantation. Several studies have drawn a clear line between food choices and mortality. Photo/Library.

Many urban dwellers in Tanzania’s major cities including Dar es Salaam, Arusha, Mwanza and Dodoma have adopted a lifestyle of taking junk food and carbonated drinks because they are readily available without critically thinking of the health consequences.


While an occasional meal of fast food does little harm, eating junk food on a regular basis can lead to an increased risk of obesity and chronic illnesses like cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes and some cancers.


According to the 2021 Global Nutrition Report, Tanzania has shown limited progress towards achieving the diet-related non-communicable disease (NCD) targets but the country has shown no progress towards achieving the target for obesity, with an estimated 15.2 per cent of adult women  (aged 18 years and over) and 5 per cent of adult men living with obesity.


Tanzania's obesity prevalence is however lower than the regional average of 20.7 per cent for women and 9.2 per cent for men according to the report.


The report that provides a concise data-focused update on the state of diets and nutrition globally noted, that low income countries continue to have the lowest intakes of key health-promoting foods such as fruits and vegetables and the highest levels of underweight, while higher-income countries have the highest intakes of foods with high health and environmental impacts, including red meat, processed meat and dairy, and the highest levels of overweight and obesity.


The report noted that poor diets and malnutrition can be addressed holistically and sustainably to create a healthy future for all.


“Policy initiatives are urgently needed to transform food systems, increase intake of health-promoting foods, and reduce animal-based foods, to ensure diets are healthy and sustainable for people and the planet. Stakeholders and commitment-makers must give special attention to nutrition action that supports equitable, healthy and sustainable diets for all,” the report said.


In Tanzania, some progress has been made towards achieving the target of reducing anaemia among women of reproductive age, with 38.9 per cent of women aged 15 to 49 years now affected.


“Tanzania has made some progress towards achieving the target for stunting, but 31.8 per cent of children under 5 years of age are still affected, which is higher than the average for the Africa region (30.7 per cent),” reads the document.


On the flipside, Tanzania has a national Food and Nutrition Policy that among other things provides guidelines and techniques to combat food and nutrition problems and enable Tanzanians to produce and use food that can adequately meet nutritional needs.


Agricultural biodiversity is a vital component in the pursuit of food production from sustainable systems. Not only does it boost yields but also increase nutritional diversity and helps to maintain and drive a host of essential ecosystems.


It contributes to sustainable food systems by providing a set of resources that
help meet current food needs while maintaining healthy ecosystems that can also provide food for generations to come, with minimal negative impact to the environment thus reducing the need to rely upon high levels of often expensive and frequently environmentally damaging external inputs.


According to Bioversity International, a global research for development organization, there is an urgent need to increase the profile of agricultural biodiversity as a multi-pronged solution to several pressing issues in global agriculture.


“Sustainable agriculture and agricultural biodiversity feature in both the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Aichi Biodiversity Targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity (29), to differing extents, as a means to address environmental and social challenges,” according to Bioversity International.


Over the last few decades, crop yields per unit area in many (although, critically, not all) agricultural regions and systems around the world have greatly increased, due to agricultural intensification such as inorganic fertiliser application, synthetic pesticide use, crop specialization.


“Crop yields are projected to decline with climate change. At the same time, variability of year-to-year yields is likely to increase. This can have dramatic impacts on income risk, stability of supplies and food security.


But according to the Tanzania Alliance for Biodiversity (TABIO) Coordinator Abdallah Mkindi , there is a need to enact coherent and inclusive agriculture policies so as to address the mismatch between food and nutrition security needs in Tanzania.


Mkindi recently noted that this will help to mitigate health risks to people exposed to increased intake of conventionally produced foods that are prevalent in the market.


“ There is a need for establishing sustainable food policies to ensure safety and security of food production. These policies should put emphasis on the use of traditional species and farming practises to ensure that food products are safe for human consumption,” he said.


He noted that players in the agriculture sector should ensure that the entire food value chain is inline with the country’s traditions and values.


“ Many of the people engaged in agriculture are small-scale peasants who rely on traditional seeds for the next farming season, Government should make provisions for certifying traditional seed species to ensure food safety,” he said.


Mkindi said sensitisation of farmers on the dangers of overreliance on farm inputs that include pesticides and fertilisers is equally important as they pose serious health risks not only to people but the environment as well.


“We need to focus on sustainable agriculture practises to ensure food security without compromising our environment,” he added.


He called upon all players in the country’s agriculture value chain to play their part in ensuring sustainable agricultural practises.


“Achieving sustainable agriculture management practises is a long term goal so everyone needs to play their part,” he added.


Policies and enabling environment

For conservation of agricultural biodiversity to happen successfully and contribute to sustainable food systems, conservation actions need to be supported
by appropriate policies and mechanisms.


National programmes that involve different sectors
of government are a prerequisite for effective conservation and use of agricultural biodiversity
to support sustainable food systems.


A sustainable food system is ultimately dependent
on the availability of and access to a wide diversity of animals and crops, which represent the foundation of agriculture.


It is equally important for Tanzania to preserve traditional animal and crop species not only to save them from extinction in the future but also to ensure the safety of 
food and nutrition security.


This can only be possible if the country comes up with inclusive agriculture policies that cater for all players right from grass root level to ensure a win – win situation in the agriculture sector.


Various stakeholders including government, private sector, seed companies and small scale farmers however need to play their part to ensure healthy conservation systems necessary for sustaining the food system are always available for agricultural improvements.

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