Climate change: the need to move away from a maize-based diet

Mar 27, 2011

by Chido Makunike

Sadza may become a luxury food that only a very few wealthy people can afford. For the rest of us it may become a food that we only eat on special occasions. Given the centrality of sadza in the Zimbabwean diet, this would be a development of potentially calamitous dietary and social implications.

How did this developing disaster arise?

It does so from the now indisputable fact that maize is increasingly a failed crop in Africa. Dry spells and outright droughts are becoming so common that they can no longer be considered surprising or out of the ordinary. Scientific projections indicate that this trend will continue and worsen. The empirical evidence over many years gives credence to these projections even to those who are not scientists.

Our soils are becoming too tired to consistently support good harvests of a nutrient-hungry crop like maize. Heavier applications of fertilizer are required each year to compensate for this, but almost everywhere fertilizer is expensive and not always reliably available. To these existing challenges now must be added the even bigger one of a maize-growing climate that is drier and no longer as predictable as before.

For nations like Zimbabwe, most of whose maize cultivation is done by smallholder farmers relying on rainfall, this is disastrous. This cropping

season’s initially widely good rains raised hopes of the country achieving the first maize bumper harvest in many years. However, the prolonged dry spell in many parts of the country has dashed those hopes. Many farmers will lose many months of hard work and investment. The country will continue to need foreign food aid handouts, supplemented by paid imports from those neighbouring countries like Malawi and Zambia who are currently enjoying maize surpluses.

Those countries are not immune to the climate changes that threaten the predictable reliability of growing maize. Malawi has for several years had an inputs-subsidy scheme that has been very successful in boosting maize production because it has also coincided with good rains. When drought comes, cheaper access to fertilizer will make relatively little difference. Ditto for Zambia, although it has more accessible water for potential irrigation than Zimbabwe does.

What this means is that at any given time a few of Africa's maize-dependent countries will have surpluses while many others have deficits. It is merely the composition of each of the two groups that will shift from year to year depending on that year's regional distribution of rain.

No matter how well each or all of those countries prepare for a cropping season, climate is the one variable they have no control over. The need for more irrigation is talked about perennially in all these countries, but would have to be done on a scale which we are not likely to see in any country any time soon.

South Africa is the one maize-dependent country whose staple crop is grown by large-scale commercial farmers, with access to irrigation as least as backup in drier than normal rain seasons. All other maize-dependent African countries rely on small-scale rain fed farmers for cultivation of the majority of the staple crop. The food security of most African countries that depend on maize as their dietary starch is therefore greatly endangered.

There are numerous efforts to counter this threat. Among them are on-going researches into shorter season maize varieties, varieties that need less water or use it more efficiently, farming methods to increase soil water retention and reduce evaporation, and so on. It is still quite possible, and even likely, that in most cases all these interventions put together will not be sufficient to overcome the climate impediments to African countries consistently growing enough maize for their growing populations.

In any country the agriculture ministry is supposed to be the main repository of planning for basic food security, even if the actual farming is in private farmers’ hands. In Zimbabwe we have become accustomed to the agriculture ministry mainly being ever more creative in giving excuses why each season there is a deficit of the country's main food item, maize.

'Drought' is now a favoured, much loved and relied on excuse by the politicians. But that is no longer good enough because of all the evidence that drought may no longer be unusual, but may actually be the new 'normal.' It is therefore now necessary to begin to earnestly think through what this means not only for the country's agriculture, but for what and how we eat. Re-evaluating our maize-heavy diet must be part of the mix of coping strategies.

Measures that are being tried to coax maize to thrive in the new, less favourable climatic and agronomic conditions should continue and be accelerated. But it is also necessary to think ahead and out of the box by questioning whether it is really necessary for us to be so dependent on maize as our source of starch anyway.

To some it will sound heretical because of how deeply embedded maize/sadza has become in the culture of many African countries. Yet maize is a fairly recently introduced crop, widely eaten in Africa for no more than a few centuries. In the overly politicized rhetoric that we are so fond of in Zimbabwe, it is in a very real sense a 'colonial crop.' Its successful introduction into the African diet was taught/learned behaviour that can be replaced by new, different behaviour better suited to a changing agricultural climate.

I am not trying to cause alarm and despondency by suggesting that Zimbabweans give up their beloved sadza. I fully realise the mythic, almost religious hold that sadza has on the Zimbabwean mind, palate and stomach. But as a source of dietary starch, sadza is no better than many other potential sources. Its ‘tastefulness’ is highly debatable, and may merely be another example of learned behaviour. We could significantly cut down on sadza or even eliminate it from our diet in favour of more agriculturally/climatically sustainable starches and actually still survive, although I know for some people the idea is unthinkable, perhaps even treasonous and ‘counter-revolutionary!’

Traditional grain starches like millet and sorghum have been out competed over the decades by maize for many reasons. They now need renewed attention because of their superior-than-maize drought-coping properties.

This need not mean going back to exclusive reliance on them. Dieticians and nutritionists should be working on how to cook and market new types of sadza that combine millet and/or starch with maize. This would be one way of reducing the nation’s maize needs, in addition to making our dull cuisine a little more lively and innovative.

Cassava is also an excellent dry conditions-tolerant crop and source of dietary starch. Its flour can be very effectively and interestingly mixed with maize flour, as is done in many countries in central and West Africa. In Nigeria it is a requirement that bread flour contain a percentage of cassava. The idea is to help to reduce the country's wheat import bill, while also increasing the market and value-addition possibilities for cassava, a long-established but commercially neglected traditional crop.

In efforts to introduce new products there will inevitably be complaints about how they do not taste like the 'real thing' (100 percent maize sadza) but it is a process to change peoples' thinking and adjust their palates.

There is little choice but to begin to think of alternatives to a maize-based staple starch. The days of the easy, widespread availability of maize in many parts of Africa including Zimbabwe are numbered. Shortages inevitably mean higher prices so it may no longer remain a food that is seen as widely affordable.

It is time to begin to shift our thinking to alternatives before maize shortages become entrenched and perennial, as is arguably already happening. We need to adjust to the reality of climate change by adjusting both our farming as well as what we eat and how, before sadza becomes a luxury food for the wealthy!


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