Waiting for Real Crisis

The following article was written by us after the bad “hungry season” of 2001 in Malawi. It talks about the dangers of putting “all our eggs in one basket” by our over-dependence on maize as the primary staple food crop. We have hundreds of foods to be choosing from to farm, eat, and market, but we still (worldwide) depend on just a handful of crops to meet our nutritional needs. Instead of promoting more diverse diets, we spend our energy trying to genetically engineer one food to give us more nutrients (as in the example of “Golden Rice” engineered to contain Vitamin A). In a country such as Malawi with a 12-month growing season, access to sunshine and water, and over 600 foods that we could be growing, it’s a shame that millions go hungry when one food (maize) fails.

Waiting For the Real Crisis

There is not a food crisis in Malawi. That seems to be a very strong statement to make considering all of stories that the media has been spreading lately about large numbers of people in Malawi starving to death. The estimated death toll attributed to hunger this year has been in the hundreds. Compare this with the statistics of AIDS or Malaria-related deaths and one realizes that a great deal more Malawians die each week from these ailments. We have personally seen many villages where people are begging for food, villagers who look emaciated and undernourished, and even people who have collapsed on the road and died only to be left there until the following morning. So how can the statement be made that there is not a food crisis in Malawi? Because when one looks at the bigger picture it is clear to see that the only true crisis right now is a “Maize Crisis”.

Stand on any hill in Malawi and take a look around. What do you see? Vast amounts of land that have been cleared for the cultivation of one crop-Maize. As we approach the end of the rainy season, you can see field after field of maize that has been planted for this coming year’s “food” supply. Many of these fields were not even worth the effort that was put into them. The maize is often yellow, immature, and will not yield more than a handful of edible “food”. This is due to several factors, the main one being that we are starving the soil. Just as humans need to eat, so does the land. Year after year we see people eliminating the natural return of organic matter to their soils due to burning, over-clearing of crop land, and over-sweeping near their houses. Take another look from your hill-top view and look for trees. You will probably see a few small patches dotting the landscape and realize that the only trees left in many areas are in the graveyards. A symbolic reality of where our disconnection with the cycles of nature has brought us to. As our soils have become so depleted, and the remaining nutrients are often eroded away from the sun, wind, and rains the only viable solution is to compensate our losses with the use of chemical fertilizers. The few that can afford these inputs may end up with a harvest of some significance, but once the farmer has sold off enough to recover these costs, their yields may not be adequate for the year. For the growing number of people that can’t afford fertilizers, they have tried to make the best of it and have ended up with next to nothing.

So we are in a maize crisis this year, but why? Last year’s growing season was relatively good. If anything, the rains lasted a bit too long and some of the harvests were lost to rotting in the fields. As people harvested their maize, they were quick to sell their yields at a low price to recover some of the money that went into their farming endeavors. As the personal maize supplies ran dry in the months leading up to this year’s harvest, people tried to buy back the maize that they had sold only to find shortages due to the exportation of Malawi’s maize to other countries, and extremely high prices for that which was left. So, unable to afford or find suitable maize supplies, people began to talk about hunger. But was this really “hunger” or a lack of one staple food? We have personally seen many people coming to beg for food but turning down the offerings of fruits, vegetables, or other staples like millet or yams. The only thing that was wanted was maize flour. Does this constitute hunger or starvation when people refuse food? We have seen market vendors selling potatoes, millet, sorghum, beans, fruits, pumpkins, and other vegetables and yet complaining of “hunger”. What will the vendors do with the money made from these “food” sales? Answer: buy “food”, meaning maize.

My wife and I have worked for five years on learning, utilizing, teaching about, and celebrating the local food options in Malawi. We have learned about over five hundred foods that can grow, be harvested, and eaten on a year-round basis. Five hundred foods in a country that is supposed to be in a “food crisis”! There needs to be a huge shift in the way that we think if there is ever to be true food security in Malawi. This shift needs to come from every level of society. Currently, the use of any food other than maize is seen as not having “eaten”. People can be full from a large balanced diet comprised of each of the food groups that the Ministry of Agriculture is currently promoting: vegetables, fruits, legumes & nuts, staples, fats, and animal foods, but if maize nsima has not been a part of this meal people will say they have not eaten. All levels of society have helped to promote this misconception of “food”: government officials talk about the distribution of “starter packs” to boost next year’s food supplies, but these starter packs only consist of maize seed and fertilizer. NGO’s and Donor agencies promote food-aid, nutrition clinics, and agricultural programs that focus on maize. Religious leaders petition the government to help those who are hungry by importing maize. Agricultural researchers spend vast amounts of money, time, and energy on developing higher-yielding types of hybrid maize seed. Maize alone can not meet the population’s nutritional requirements. It cannot build the healthy immune systems that are needed for disease reduction. It can not give back to the soil everything that it takes year after year. So, after all of this emphasis on maize as the solution are we any closer to sustainable food security, or have we been ignoring the other options that are available to us?

Recently, there has been some talk coming from the government level about crop diversification. Usually these types of comments are attached to the end of a long speech about the importance of maize, but at least people are beginning to talk. Crops such as cassava and sweet potatoes are usually mentioned for helping to avoid the effects of drought, pest damage, plant diseases, and to aid in the increase of food security during hard times. This is fantastic! But what about the other 49 staples, 146 fruits, 28 legumes & nuts, 46 fats, and 283 vegetables? One of the main problems is that these local foods have become stigmatized. If a family is incorporating local foods into their diet, it is seen not as “forward thinking” and “food security”, but rather as that family having fallen on hard times. Villagers chastise each other and even destroy gardens when somebody tries to diversify their food options. Head masters of schools have refused to plant fruit trees around their buildings on the premise that “the students might eat the fruits”. Civil servants have cut down fruit-bearing trees and clear vast amounts of edible vegetation so that Ministry Officials can set up a shelter and give speeches on the importance of food security for World Food Day.

The incorporation of local food plants could help to put an end to current food security problems, vastly improve nutrition, and improve the soils in the areas that they are grown. Many of these foods could be incorporated beneficially into existing maize fields helping the crops to grow even better. Others could be incorporated near homes helping to maximize and capitalize on the limited amount of land that people have to work with and the resources that come from living areas (i.e. water, wastes, and nutrients). There could be year-round yields of foods even during years when maize won’t grow well. There should never be a “hungry season”. If you don’t believe that this is possible, ask Ethel Kathumba in Chitedze who feeds herself and her five daughters from the foods that she grows around her house without the need for chemical fertilizers. With the money that she has saved from this type of farming and the profits from selling excess foods, she has purchased a plot of land for herself and her family. Ask Lovemore Mkunkha, a Forestry Extension worker from Karonga who has been teaching people how to organically improve their soils and diversify their diets for many years now. His soil is so rich now that people steal it to mud their houses in order to obtain the sought after black color. Ask Dr. Glyvyns Chinkuntha from Dowa who has received an honorary Doctorate in Agriculture because he long ago realized the earth’s potential. He now supports his family and surrounding community members with the profits made from selling his produce and by sharing his knowledge with others.

Malawi is rich! Rich with potential, rich with natural resources, and rich with the capability to determine its own future. We need to start protecting what we have and utilizing the abundant gifts that are around us. We need to start asking ourselves the question, “How long will we look from our hilltops at the fields of maize.waiting for a truly devastating growing season.waiting for the real crisis to begin?”