Unpacking changing diets, evolving food systems – sundaymail.co.zw

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The Sunday Mail


Professor Tafadzwanashe Mabhaudhi

WHEN I was growing up, sadza (pap) nemuriwo nenyama (meat and vegetables) was the daily staple.

We had a small vegetable garden outside, where my mother grew traditional leafy vegetables like tsunga (mustard), rugare (brassica spp), munyevhe (African spider flower) and derere (okra).

We would also have muboora (pumpkin leaves) as relish in summer.

This meant the vegetable portion would vary.

The sadza also varied — it could be zviyo (sorghum) or mhunga (millet).

Around this time of the year, food was bountiful.

We would snack on mapudzi (bottle gourd), mbambaira (sweet potato), nyemba (cowpeas), mutakura (cowpeas and maize) and nyimo (bambara groundnuts).

We would eat rice and chicken on Sunday afternoons, after church, and on select public holidays.

Add some coleslaw salad, and it would be a very special occasion.

Spaghetti and macaroni were a special treat.

Fast forward a few decades, and the food plate for the ordinary Zimbabwean family has changed significantly.

What is driving the nutrition transition?

So, what has changed over the years, and how have we moved away from our staples to the current diet?

Like other developing countries worldwide and in the region, Zimbabwe has been undergoing a nutrition transition.

This is when diet and food intake amongst the population changes as they go through social and economic development.

Drivers of the nutrition transition include changing incomes, urban-to-rural migration and changes in dietary preferences, much of which are a result of marketing and the availability of major commercial foods, as well as the development of negative perspectives about traditional African foods.

The globalisation of the food system, the liberalisation of agricultural markets and the rapidly growing importance of transnational food producers and trading groups mean food imports can be cheaper than locally produced and healthier foods.

For example, rice has gradually replaced maize meal and cheap broiler chicken imports have replaced other protein forms on food plates.

To an extent, food trends and intake are linked with income.

The more money people have, the more meat, sugar and high-caloric food containing starch and saturated fatty acids they consume.

Worldwide, food consumption and dietary patterns of developing and transitioning countries are fast converging with those of Western countries.

However, it is not always about having more money; the nutrition transition is also associated with lower-income groups.

Other factors include poverty, food and nutrition insecurity, inadequate infrastructure, poor access to healthcare facilities and low levels of awareness of healthy alternatives.

The current state of food and nutrition security has been attributed to the nutrition transition that has occurred post-independence.

In Zimbabwe, the nutrition transition is coupled with an increase in non-communicable diseases, mostly prevalent in adults, such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, obesity, undernutrition, and overweight and micronutrient deficiencies, which can be attributed, to a large scale, to people’s eating habits.

There is rising micronutrient deficiency (45 percent), overweight and obesity in children under five years and adolescents.

The proportion of households consuming healthy diets in 2023 was 55 percent rural and 79 percent urban.

As such, there is a need for a more positive shift towards sustainable and healthier diets that are good for both people and the planet.

How does climate change impact all of this?

Amidst the ongoing nutrition transition, we must contend with climate change’s realities.

Increasing drought, high temperatures and floods mean major staples such as maize will be impacted negatively by climate change, with yields set to decline in most production areas.

The ongoing El Niño phenomenon has already pushed Zimbabwe and other countries in the region to the brink of a food crisis.

With worsening drought, heat waves and flash floods, relying on a few mass-produced, climate-sensitive staple crops will become increasingly riskier.

Other than climate change, there is a growing consensus that the current global food system is no longer fit for purpose of both people and the planet.

Not only is it responsible for large greenhouse gas emissions, but it is also responsible for land degradation and the rise in malnutrition and non-communicable diseases.

Also, the reliance on a few internationally grown and traded staple crops has come under the spotlight due to climate change and other crises, such as the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and Covid-19 lockdowns, which exposed the fragility of this system.

Thus, there are now calls for diversifying the food system, promoting alternative crops and strengthening local food systems.

In Southern Africa, studies are being conducted to understand and transform the food system (including food environments), transforming agriculture under climate change to deliver more sustainable and healthy diets for all.

A major focus is on unlocking the potential of traditional and indigenous crops as alternative healthy and adapted crops.

What are the potential benefits associated with adopting alternative food crops? Sometimes, the answers to our future lie in our past.

As exemplified at the start, we have always had much abundance and diversity regarding our food sources and what we ate.

We have a wide range of nutritious traditional crops and wild fruits adapted to changing environments and can perform better under climate change.

Alternative crops such as bambara groundnuts, cowpeas, sweet potatoes, sorghum and millets have historically underpinned our household food and nutrition security and offer positive spinoffs for both people and the planet.

Importantly, they also provide a socio-cultural compass that connects our food with our history, culture, identities and sense of place.

Not only that; there are also positive socio-ecological benefits associated with growing and consuming such alternative crops, which bode well for people and the environment.

Most of these crops come packed with nutrients and micronutrients that promote sustainable diets and healthier lifestyles.

Tapping alternative crops and unlocking their value

Unfortunately, decades of neglect mean most of these alternative crops have been relegated to the sidelines of our mainstream diets.

Some of our children may not even know them, while others no longer remember how to cook them.

Against this background, we urge governments to review policies that govern food production and supply chain, food consumption behaviour, public awareness and institutions involved in food marketing, and nutrition labels and claims.

Deliberate action is needed to change the eating habits of citizens towards sustainable and healthy diets.

Better coordination and collaboration across agriculture, education, environment, health and trade ministries are needed to help change the narrative around these crops, increase their access and availability, and promote their consumption.

Importantly, it is about choices you and I can make — grow local, grow Africa!

Prof Tafadzwanashe Mabhaudhi is a professor of Climate Change, Food Systems and Health at the Centre on Climate Change and Planetary Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and director of the Institute of Natural Resources in South Africa. He wrote this article for The Sunday Mail.

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