Saturday, June 1, 2013

World Environment Day 2013: The reality of ‘reducing one’s foodprint’ in the Lake Victoria basin

Think. Eat. Save. Reduce your foodprint is the theme of World Environment Day 2013, to be celebrated on the 5th of June, 2013. The food-inspired global campaign focuses on the fact that over one billion tons of food are lost or wasted each year, according to the UN Environment Programme. National celebrations are in Kalangala Islands and Jomo Kenyatta grounds – Kisumu in Uganda and Kenya respectively (both in the Lake Victoria region)

The campaign, supported by the Food and Agriculture Organization and others, aims to reduce food loss along the entire chain of food production and consumption and specifically targets food wasted by consumers, retailers and the hospitality industry.

The relevance of this global campaign hinges on the message it generates, and what it brings on board for the Lake Victoria basin inhabitants (about 35 million people in Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda). One key overriding concern for this region is the increasing inequality among and within these countries, as well as between rural and urban populations. The impacts of poverty are reflected on among other factors, poor health and malnutrition (EAC/ LVBC, 2006).

Though the majority of people in the Lake Victoria basin are poor, the region’s population growth rate is one of the fastest in the world (EAC/ LVBC, 2006). This has serious socio-economic, political and environmental implications. One of these relates to strategies that are in place to feed the growing population in light of the declining environmental quality. Furthermore the region’s food security has been caught off guard by the crop diseases on major staple crops like bananas and cassava, while the transformation of the Lake Victoria fishery into an industrial and commercial venture has contributed to the food insecurity problem (FAO, 2005).

In light of the above scenario, as I see it, the Think. Eat. Save. Reduce your foodprint Campaign, raises critical context – specific issues and concerns from and for the Lake Victoria communities as follows.

With regard to ‘Think’, I would like to set off by noting that communities need options that can offset the current and emerging causes of food insecurity, malnutrition, famine and hunger. Among other questions on the ‘Think’ aspect, they would like to know: How can the stress from a rapidly growing population on the available land (with a declining per capita arable land) and natural resource base in many areas around Lake Victoria be contained?

With respect to ‘Eat’, Lake Victoria region communities are facing a spiraling trend in food insecurity as the region is particularly characterized by recurrent unpredictable droughts, crop failures and environmental degradation. For example several Lake zone districts in Tanzania on the list of those that have received substantive food handouts due to food shortages. Also, many of the local communities living dependent on the Lake Victoria fishery - the unique and vast natural food resource - are among the poorest and most food insecure (FAO, 2005).

These conditions are partly caused by declining land productivity, soil degradation, desertification, loss of biodiversity, livestock and crop diseases, declining fisheries, poor development and trade policies, land grabbing among other problems.

As it has become difficult to produce sufficient food, people are trapped in a vicious downward cycle of food insecurity while generating natural resource-related conflicts. Hence, ‘Eat’ in this context raises question: What alternative sustainable sources of food can be sought to reduce malnutrition amongst children, contain the increasing occurrence of famine and hunger, while avoiding such conflicts?

The dwindled role of Governments in agricultural education and extensions services (including fisheries, forestry and land management) has limited this important arm of agricultural development to those who can afford leaving out the majority poor smallholder farmers. Therefore, when it comes to ‘Save,’ communities are pondering: How far are the current agricultural policies supportive of small holder farmers that make the bulk of the food support base that feeds millions of inhabitants in a region with one of the fastest population growth in the world?

In light of the above ‘Reduce your foodprint’ points to a situation where food could be localized within geographical areas and seasons (‘boom’ harvests for food crops, fish among others). The ‘boom harvest’ is relative in that there are areas in dire need of this ‘excess’ harvest a few kilometers away. Hence, communities are pondering on: How far is support provided to store and add value to perishable crops like tomatoes, mangoes, onions, fish and others so as to reduce post-harvest losses while raising household incomes? What options / technology exist to support small scale sustainable farming to sustainably feed the growing population needs and make earnings? How can farmers fully tap into rain-fed agriculture (make use of the excessive water that goes off unused, only to be faced by severe drought conditions immediately afterwards)? What measures are in place to ensure that communities (at source) of the Nile Perch and Tilapia fish trade retain a fair share for domestic consumption rather than depending on ‘rejects and off-cuts’?