World Food Day: Valuing our crops and history for sustainable food systems

Posted on October 23, 2020

Dr Marc Wegerif, lecturer in Development Studies at UP, reports on a recently held webinar to commemorate World Food Day (16 October), during which food science and archaeology experts discussed possible solutions to achieving a more sustainable food system.

UP’s Department of Anthropology and Archaeology along with the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Food Security recently convened a webinar in the build-up to World Food Day, which is observed annually on 16 October. The event featured archaeologist Dr Xander Antonites and Professor Naushad Emmambux, a professor of consumer and food science, and was moderated by Kefilwe Rammutloa, an archaeology PhD candidate at Yale University.

The common thread that ran through the discussion was the idea of finding endogenous solutions to the pressing challenge of moving to a more sustainable food system in order to achieve food and nutrition security.

“Archaeology is uniquely positioned to tell us about the long-term human interaction with food,” said Dr Antonites, who has carried out research on early farmers in Southern Africa, and on their foods and organisation around food. Archaeology has revealed that Africa was one of the historical nodes of early crop and animal domestication.

The archaeological record also shows ongoing change and dynamism, such as the shift in Southern Africa from sheep being the main domesticated animals to goats becoming more numerous, until cattle took over as the main source of meat in diets. Referring to the example of Mapungubwe, one of the first state-level societies we know of in the region, Dr Antonites explained how socially complex societies would not have emerged without large-scale agricultural intensification. The additional food produced enabled other specialisation, such as the famous gold working of Mapungubwe.

Prof Emmambux addressed the issue of the increasing rate of non-communicable diseases that are related to poor diets and lifestyles. To address these challenges, he is working to create healthy alternatives from indigenous crops such as bambara groundnuts, cowpea, moringa leaves and seeds, and marama plants, which have not yet been domesticated. Examples of products being developed include forms of quick-cooking pasta made from these indigenous plants.

The aim is to have SMART foods – Safe, Marketable, Affordable (and African), Ready-to-Eat and Tasty. These foods, like the indigenous plants they are based on, also need to be climate smart, using less water and energy to grow and prepare. “Twenty to 30 years ago, we started the Mediterranean diet, which is a very good and healthy diet,” said Prof Emmambux. “It is now time for us to also look at the African diet, especially the traditional African diet and how good and healthy it is.”

The historical perspective offered by Dr Antonites showed how food has always been central to our subsistence, how it touches on economics, politics, faith, gender, ethnicity, culture, and shapes society.

Both speakers confirmed the importance of a holistic food system approach if we are to sustainably meet food and nutrition needs as well as wider development goals. Prof Emmambux explained how healthier foods were required to improve diets, but how these also have to fit people’s tastes and budget. That, he said, is going to depend on changing production technology.

To watch the webinar, follow this link:

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