Food Safety and Security in Sub-Saharan Africa: "Are We There Yet ?"
Donald G. Mercer
"Food security" can have different meanings to various people. To some, it means having an adequate supply of food material to feed the population of a country or region from one harvest period until the next. To others, the definition may vary somewhat and include safety and quality aspects such as the absence of physical, chemical, and biological contamination. There is also the fear of deliberate malicious acts involving a nation's food supply.
The United Nations Millennium Development Goals include reduction of hunger and poverty in developing countries of the world. Food safety and security are key components in this admirable quest.
The following is a brief examination of a number of aspects that contribute to food security, safety, and quality problems in developing countries, based on personal experience gained while on several assignments in sub-Saharan Africa.
Lack of Hygiene
A general lack of hygiene and overall cleanliness throughout the food supply chain has created conditions that can contribute to food spoilage and contamination. There is an awareness of HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) among trained individuals within the agri-food sector, but there is little, if any, evidence of quality management programs being put in place at the farm level. It is not until food enters the commercial retail food chain that safety and quality seem to be a concern. Commercial food processors are making dedicated efforts to provide safe, high-quality products to their customers. However, the majority of the processed foods sold at retail are imported from countries with a more highly developed food industry. Since the majority of domestic food sales are done through local markets and at roadside stands, only a small portion of the food supply is influenced by these measures.
Contamination of food may take place by physical, chemical, and/or biological means. There are ample opportunities for all of these to take place within the agri-food sector in sub-Saharan Africa. It is at the local markets and at the on-farm level where there is a tremendous need for improvement. It is not uncommon to see vendors spreading grain and other produce to dry on the bare earth or paved surfaces. The use of plastic sheeting placed under the food has been a major step forward in some areas as shown in Figure 1.
On the farms, improper storage of chemical pesticides and herbicides in close proximity to finished products or animal feed can lead to chemical contamination of foods. The use of pesticides to kill rodents such as mice and rats provides another threat to human safety since the mice are often eaten and sold on skewers along the roadside. Physical contamination of food products with foreign materials may also occur due to lax storage conditions on the farm and throughout the supply chain.
Insects are also a major problem. Flies gather around roadside fruit and vegetable stands. They cluster on animal carcasses hung from wooden frames in the open-air where merchants cut off slabs of meat with machetes for customers (Figure 2). In addition to insects, it does not take the visitor long to begin wondering about the threats of food-borne diseases such as trichinosis in pork.
The lack of a developed food transportation network and food handling system complicates the situation further. There is an alarming absence of refrigerated storage in many developing countries. There are few, if any, refrigerated trucks to deliver perishable products to retail outlets which in turn lack refrigeration capabilities. In many cases, products are transported from the farm to area markets by bicycle or even by bus.
Food security also includes the loss of products due to spoilage. In the late 1980s, it was estimated by the World Health Organization that one-quarter to one-third of the world's food supply was lost due to spoilage before it reached the consumer. In tropical regions, losses were as high as 50% (FAO 1987, 1989). Now, more than twenty years later, sources are still reporting postharvest losses of up to 50% (Aworh 2008). Cutting losses by half would have a significant impact on the ability of nations to feed themselves while reducing the dependence on food imports. Purchases of domestic products would also keep much-needed currency within a country to support the local economy rather than leaving the country to purchase imported foods.
Improved food processing and preservation facilities would go a long way in addressing such spoilage issues. In countries such as Equatorial Guinea, there are two growing seasons for tomatoes each year. During the "off-season", tomatoes are imported at a substantial cost. However, when the tomatoes are harvested, there are such large quantities available at such low prices that farmers receive a very poor return for their efforts. Within a few weeks, tomatoes are literally rotting on the vines in the fields and within a few more weeks, imported tomatoes are once again appearing in the markets. Due to a poorly developed infrastructure, abundant, reliable, and affordable electrical energy is unavailable to permit the establishment of a local food processing industry to produce shelf-stable tomato-based products.
Inadequate transportation networks including poor roads and bridges (Figure 3), and an absence of specialty vehicles creates a serious problem moving food products to distant commercial centers. The effects of vibration from poor roads, overloading of vehicles, and improper packing of loads is quite evident as vehicles deliver food products to local markets. The overall impact of spoilage and waste on a nation's food security cannot and should not be ignored.
Waste handling and disposal is not a very sophisticated process in many developing countries. Often spoiled fruits and vegetables and other unusable or unsaleable products are simply dumped into a ravine or down the side of a hill. The garbage is then washed away by the rain and carried into streams and rivers, or contaminants are leached out of the refuse as the rainwater permeates through it. The net result is contamination of groundwater and drinking water sources, which creates additional health issues.
Waste heaps provide breeding grounds for vermin such as mice and rats, which in turn damage crops and stored food products, often rendering them unsafe for human consumption. Rotting garbage piles are also sources of disease spread by insects and rodents. Often the garbage is set on fire which creates an air pollution problem and a constant unpleasant odor. It is rather ironic that the food spoiled by rodents and insects gets discarded irresponsibly and itself becomes a source of further contamination by rodents and insects. There is a need to break into this vicious circle and address the rodent and insect problem. However, without proper waste handling facilities and other necessary infrastructure, this is not happening in many areas.
Theft of food products from production facilities, warehouses, and primary production areas is a costly problem in terms of economic loss, but it also points to the vulnerability of food materials along the food supply chain. If food is not secure from theft, it is not secure from potential acts of malice. Such thefts also threaten the economic viability of farming and processing operations in countries which can ill-afford such losses. Countries with scarce food resources are especially vulnerable to the effects of food theft on their citizens. In addition, conditions to which stolen food products are subjected before being illegally sold cannot be assumed to be the best for product quality and overall safety. Purchasers of these products are, therefore, putting themselves at risk.
At a cooperative in Malawi, thieves stole a large metal handle from the pump on the domestic water supply, rendering the pump unusable. This illustrates the deficiencies in security for both the water supply and the crops in some areas. Thefts from fields and orchards are also surprisingly frequent. There was one report of thieves entering macadamia nut plantations during the night and stealing large quantities of this high-value product. The scale of these thefts would require a considerable number of individuals to harvest the nuts. Government officials who raided the homes of the suspected thieves found what was described as huge quantities of macadamia nuts stored in bags awaiting shipment out of the country.
Erosion of Indigenous Species
Genetically modified crops are frequently considered to be superior to indigenous varieties. Having been bred for drought tolerance or insect resistance, they offer farmers enhanced yields with lower input costs. Herbicide-resistant crops reduce the number of applications of specific weed killers throughout the growing season which once again adds to the attractiveness of genetically modified hybrids. For these reasons, genetically modified varieties have often replaced lower yielding indigenous varieties which may have been used for generations prior to the advent of the biotechnology revolution. While traditional local varieties may be preferred for their taste, texture, and other properties, there is an inherent reluctance or unwillingness on the part of the consumer to pay premium prices to compensate for lower yields. In the struggle for economic survival, many farmers have abandoned these varieties in favor of more profitable crops. Loss of indigenous varieties threatens food security at the basic genetic level and reduces the degree of biodiversity for future generations.
Spoilage and issues associated with food security are not only limited to the food material itself. There are additional social and economic implications that need to be kept in mind. Accompanying a 25% loss in food due to spoilage is the associated loss of labor and energy inputs as well as the generation of wastes and pollutants for little or no commercial value. Fertilisers and irrigation water used to grow this food are essentially wasted as are the transportation, storage, and other distribution costs required to move food from its point or origin to its points of sale and consumption. Using a food chain management approach will do much to address these problems and will hopefully make more high-quality food available to those who need it the most.
The Rumor Mill
During a recent assignment in sub-Saharan Africa, several individuals related accounts of breaches of food safety. In spite of the fact that this is second-hand information or hear-say evidence, the adage "where there is smoke, there is fire" would seem appropriate. According to these sources, some chicken farmers have been adding human birth control pills to the rations fed to their flocks to enhance growth rates and thereby reduce the time taken to bring their birds to a marketable weight. There is little concern on their part regarding the effects of elevated levels of estrogen on the consumer. Additional stories were told about the use of unsafe chemicals being added to meats and meat products to enhance their shelf-life. It was also stated that mosquito nets saturated with pyrethrums were being used for fishing. These nets were originally intended to reduce malaria and were provided by international aid organisations. The pyrethrums are potential potent water pollutants that can then enter the human food chain.
While there is no concrete evidence to back-up these "stories", their very existence is alarming. A more in-depth examination of the safety of the food supply chain in developing nations would seem to be warranted to either substantiate or dispel these "rumors". Measures would then be required to alleviate these undesirable practices.
There have been many advances in promoting food safety and security in developing nations within sub-Saharan Africa. International aid organisations working closely with national governments or regional bodies have devoted considerable attention to bringing safe drinking water to many areas. This is a key step in the reduction of disease. Improved farming practices and higher yielding crops with additional benefits such as drought resistance have increased productivity and have contributed to improved nutrition and quality of life. However, the problems in sub-Saharan Africa are so vast due to the number of people and the geographical area that it is difficult to make the desired level of progress. The United Nations Millennium Development Goals have targeted reductions in poverty and hunger by 2015. We are more than half-way to this deadline since these goals were established and by many accounts there is still a long way to go before these objectives are reached.
Anyone who has travelled to this part of the world will have his or her own personal experiences upon which to reflect. Those living in any of the more than forty nations that comprise this region will have a much deeper insight than a paper of this nature can ever hope to provide.
Those of you with children know all-too-well the familiar phrase "Are we there yet?", which is shouted out soon after any journey begins. In the case of food safety and security in many African nations, the unfortunate answer is, "No". It is even more disturbing to see how little ground has been covered and how far we still have to go before we reach this important objective. By working together and directing our collective energies to such critical issues as food safety and security, progress will be made - the problem lies in speeding up the process and reaching out to the millions of people who are in need of assistance.
Financial support for the sub-Saharan Africa assignments from the International Union of Food Science and Technology (IUFoST), the World University Service of Canada (WUSC), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), and the University of Guelph is gratefully acknowledged. In addition, the author would like to thank "Uniterra" for the coordination of a three week "Leave for Change" assignment in Malawi in 2008.
FAO (1987) Food Irradiation: A New Way to Process Food, a video presentation by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome, Italy. Produced jointly by the FAO/IAEA Division and Kratky Films (Prague).
FAO (1989) Prevention of Post-Harvest Food Losses: Fruits, Vegetables, and Root Crops, Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome, Italy. Available at: www.fao.org/docrep/T0073E/T0073E00.htm
Aworh, O. C. (2008) The role of traditional food processing techniques in national development: The West African experience. Chapter 3 in "Using Food Science and Technology to Improve Nutrition and Promote National Development", G.L. Robertson and J.R. Lupien (eds). International Union of Food Science and Technology. Available at: www.iufost.org/publications/books/documents/Revd.pdf
Dr Don Mercer is an Associate Professor in the Department of Food Science, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario N1G 2W1, Canada; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org