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Tuesday, July 16, 2024
HomeNewsHow Government and Big Food Condemned Communities to a Chemically Dependent Economy

How Government and Big Food Condemned Communities to a Chemically Dependent Economy

By Jeffrey Gogo

To hear ecological campaigners tell it, Zimbabwean agriculture is a drughead running on a chemical overdraft. “As of now, our agricultural system is like a drug addict, keeping going but only with the drugs and getting sicker all the time,” agroecology expert John Wilson told this publication. He is among many dismayed onlookers as nutrition, public health and ecological balance take a beating from a profit-driven agricultural industry.

Every cropping cycle, government doles out inputs, usually seed andfertiliserr, and provides extension services to smallholder farmers, often partnered by seed houses and civil society organisations. Hybrid maize seeds and synthetic fertilisers are Zimbabwe’s preferred highway to food security but agricultural experts worry that a quick-win approach to production and marketing ruins more than it solves.

Communities are caught up in a cycle of dependence as their organic value chains are wiped off by the chemical regime. Distribution of seed, food and fertilisers, is a long established votebuying tool for the government of the day whether it is piggybacking donor platforms or financing such distribution through state resources.

On the other hand, the mass distribution of hybrid seeds automatically generates a big-food value chain as such seeds require synthetic fertilisers and pesticides that are not just unsuited to the natural environment but also systematically annihilate good indigenous varieties.

“Chemical companies have over the last 40 or so years taken a big grip on agricultural production in the country and created smallholder farmers all over the country who are now dependent on their inputs for production,” said Wilson.

“The practices that go along with chemical farming destroy the soil, along with the chemicals. True there are some short term production increases, basically using up the soil’s health in the process,” he added.

For Solomon Mwacheza of farmer organisation Tsuro Trust, government is contributing to the systematic annihilation of indigenous seed varieties for the sake of narrow political benefits. “Seed houses are fast pushing out Zimbabwe’s own indigenous good seeds for new industrial seed varieties, both genuine and fake,” Mwacheza said.

“Policy-makers are seemimgly not recognizing this as they get favors or donations from these seed houses to advance their political mileage. They appear as if they do not see anything wrong about this growing industry at the expense of own indiginous seed systems,” he said.

Disposess and help

Anna Brazier, a Harare-basedconservation expert, questioned the ecological commitment of the Zimbabwean government’s expansionist drive. “Rural food systems are suffering as a result of the new dispensation’s economic-growth-at-all-costs crusade.

“The fast-track land reform programme was meant to decongest rural areas and give much-needed land to smallholder farmers but this process has stalled. Government policies are now focused on cash-cropping which means that food crops and crops that are adapted to the environment are being neglected,” she said.

Few cases demonstrate Brazier’s point, none more so than the forced eviction of 40 thousand families from their ancestral homeland in Chilonga, south-east Zimbabwe, to make way for Dendairy, a dairy company which now utilises the land to produce lucen, a stock feed.

The uprooting of these families, mostly members of a minority ethnicity that has followed a carefully preserved culture for generations, caused an outcry as far as parliament. Dismayed onlookers worried that ecosystems built over generations were under threat as families were to be crowded in a new settlement. Responding to the concerns raised in Parliament, Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Ziyambi Ziyambi pointed out that rural land is owned by the state rather than the communities occupying it and the president has the ultimate say over it.

In this sense, President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government may be said to be invoking colonial powers of the executive to disempower local communities for business interests.

Mnangagwa’s expansionist drive, extending to eviction of villagers for granite mining activities that are defacing the environment in areas like Mutoko, further takes away local communities’ power to produce their own food.

Affected families have not only established an ecological rhythm and collected sacred memories from their land throughout living memory. They have made infrastructural investments such as irrigation and culturing of their land. They leave this behind for multinationals to take over their land and come back with questionable donor handouts, fronted by allegedly corrupted government officials milking the most out of self-fulfilling philanthropy.

“I am increasingly hearing that people are still being resettled in communal areas, particularly in Matabeleland, which is shocking considering these areas are already beyond their population carrying capacity,” Brazier pointed out.

“The problem is at policy level. Policies completely contradict each other. So on the one hand you have the food and nutrition security policy and strategy which is all about promoting healthy, diverse nutritious food. Then you have the environmental policies which talk about protecting forests, streams and wetland. But the agriculture policies are largely focussing on cash cropping,” she said.

Land acquisition extends to fast food companies that are being given the land rights that smallholder farmers are strategically denied by government. “Indeginous food systems is fast being replaced by fast food products. To ensure this growing trend thrives and to monopolise the sector one of the biggest multinationals, Innscor, has ringfenced the whole fast food supply chain through establishing supporting business units in agriculture production, for example, potatoes for chips, manufacturing of stock feed for broilers agricultural chemicals and financial services,” said Mwacheza.

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This selective acquisition of property rights favours the long-term estbalishment of unhealthy eating practices over precarious masses tossed around the dependence economy without a commons to hold on to. Brazier explained the toll of negative resettlement in addition to food insecurity.

“Environmental degradation caused by dense populations in marginal communal areas and expansion of areas for cash cropping has caused a vicious cycle as soil fertility is down to critical levels. Inappropriate crops, maize and horticulture crops, are grown in areaas that they are not suited to. So yields are so low that farmers keep opening up new areas of land,” she lamented.

“More forests are being cleared and more streambanks and wetlands are being cultivated in inappropriate ways leading to more environmental destruction, worse soils and less water for agriculture. The food system is eating itself alive,” added Brazier.

“Traditional leaders who are meant to be in charge of land planning and natural resource management are allowing people to settle all over the place – in grazing areas and cropping areas so there is absolute chaos. They are also largely turning a blind eye to the environmental destruction,” she said.

Public health reaction

While there are no scientific tools to establish a causual relationship between incrementally toxic soils and the increase in non-communicable diseases, there is a compelling co-relation. “Type 2 diabetes has risen from affecting less than 1% of the population in 1980 to more than 10% now. Few disagree that this relates strongly to diets,” said John Wilson, the soil and agriculture expert.

Produced on a mass scale through synthetic means for the most part, maize is the staple food in Zimbabwe. Wilson notes that the privileged emphasis on maize, cited by other commentators as a political instrument of choice, is misplaced where good health and food security is concerned.

“Along with the promotion of chemical agriculture has come the notion that if there is enough maize (the way we’ve become dependent on maize, often over processed is probably a scandal on its own) then the country is food-secure. At best this should be seen as ‘carbohydrate-secure’, certainly not food-secure,” argued Wilson. “Maize, particularly highly processed maize, has few nutrients in it. All foods grown on soils that are dying have far less nutrients than those grown on living soils. Many of our soils are dying.”

The public health threat caused by fast foods and unhealthy eating habits has been by far the main motivation for individual farmers and entreprenuers turning to agroecology.

Tracy Vongai Mapfumo is a young foodscientist and entreprenuer. In 2021, she won the Ndine Thaza best entreprenuer accolade, run by the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) for Enny’s Treats, her start-up majoring in healthy snacks.

While her contestants went by the Silicon Valley playbook, Mapfumo went to the past to recover the future. She remembered the dishes her grandmother used to prepare off indigenous crops and thought to package them for the upmarket.

Her treats include indigenous fruits and indigenous foods. In the past two years, two major companies have successfullycommercialised amarula and baobab, an exciting trend that may only continue. A key choice for Mapfumo was the sesame seed, grown in Muzarabani. “This is oneunderutilised seed in Zimbabwe, sometimes wholly exported to Mozampique as there is no ready market at home. Some farmers shun such crops because they are labor-intensive without a competitive price,” Mapfumo stated.

Enny’s Treats can only do so much as a small business. Mapfumo has put some of her ambitions in check when an indigenous variety she proposed to a seed house was shot down for not having a big market.

“People are used to crops that are not even produced in Zimbabwe. For example, people would rather buy lettuce than nyevhe (African spider flower leaves), only after somebody falls sick that they follow a prescription to eat indigenous [foods]. I am saying, why not have a culture around that? Let’s have a value chain to make healthy eating an affordable choice for everyone. Let us subsidiseproduction of indigenous varieties,” Mapfumo challenged.

Taurai Sithole, from rural Chimanimani, said health consciousness is influencing farmers’ choices for the better. “Initially, we were growing small grains as chicken feed. When there was surplus, we would exchange it for maize. When we learnt that small grains have more comprehensive nutritional value, we made the logical switch. Maize is being farmed on  smaller portions but this is also the open-pollinated variety which allows us to preserve the health of the society as it does not require chemical supplements.”

Ironically, many farmers, even those invested in healthy food, are not immune to undernourishment. “I have done studies on food systems in five districts in the past year, Gokwe North and Gokwe South; Mudzi and Rushinga; Tsholotsho, Umzingwane and Nyanga and they are mostly telling the same story,” Brazier said in reference to her recent report for the Food and AgriculturalOrganisation (FAO).  “The farmers are not getting a decent diet. Most nutritious food produced in rural areas leaves the rural area to go to national or provincial markets creating food deserts,” she concluded.

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“There is very little affordable, local nutritious food for sale in local retail outlets in rural areas meaning raising incomes through encouraging (cash cropping) does not translate into a better diet. Farming is contributing very little to rural economies or farmer household economies,” said Brazier.

Patricia Runganga in Chimanimani Urban said her varieties like mazande and hunga (indigenous maize varieties) have a lot of demand in the shops for its relative merits over hybrid seeds, especially durability and disease resistance. “You harvest good cobs that resist moths using our indigenous herbs in place of pesticides and manure from small livestock in place of chemical fertilizers. I had 19 packets of potatoes using manure of pigs and chickens,” she said.

“Many are accepting both the eating choice and farming method because we have shown them the tangible benefits. The sadza thickens quickly and the mealie-meal lasts longer.”

“It is worrying, though, that our trade is mostly local. Transport costs from the city centres perhaps but we mostly trade locally. We don’t have juice processors so some things rot in the field,” Chinganga lamented.

“We have not invested our education on all social levels where health consciousness is concerned. Processed foods are still associated with civilisation. The spread of health awareness is mostly peer-to-peer but it is increasing, especially locally. People know that if you use sorghum for two months it helps you with your legs just as baobab helps control high blood pressure.”

Chain stores

Multi-national dumping of cheap-quality food runs through the supermakert chains in Zimbabwe. “For some supermarkets more than 50 percent are imports and proccessed products. The supermarkets are fast expanding into rural areas, peri-urban and urban areas crowding out small and indigenous food system,” said Tsuro Trust’s Mwacheza.

Mwacheza’s colleague, Roseline Mukonoweshuro, said it is scandalous that economic and nutrition policies promote fast food industry and consumption of fast foods by Zimbabweans.

Wilson took issue with foreign supermarket chains’ grip on marketing in Zimbabwe, especially since this happens at the expense of local markets, which get little support.                                                                                                                                          

“At best, the local food markets are tolerated. So much support could be given to help them to be more hygienic, for example, which is one of the criticisms levelled at them. I remember seeing a market in Oaxaca in Mexico that obvioulsy had lots of municipal support, was very hygienic and was selling nearly all local foods, something like our local markets but upgraded,” said Wilson.

“Supermarkets promote the sale of over-processed foods with lots of chemicals. Add this to the food grown that has less nutrients and people are eating empty calories tainted with many chemicals of one sort or another, from pesticides to those used in processing.

“The ‘worship’ of big companies and the free rein they are given go hand in hand with the whole idea of ‘development’ where traditional practices are seen as backward. Traditional foods, dishes and diets in Zimbabwe are very healthy in their fullness. Our sense of ‘modern’ driven by companies and their clever advertising has led to many Zimbabweans moving away from these traditional foods and diets,” lamented Wilson.

Runganga said for all the benefits demonstrated by her methods, her market is frustratingly local. AFSA affliates like Tsuro Trust have made intense engagements in Chimanimani.

“If you have the information you act on it because no one wants to die. Besides health benefits, it is economic using meal meal or tomatoes produced the right way as they last. However, it is mostly local people who have had as much exposure so our market is still limited,” said Runganga.

No comment could immediately be obtained from the state-backed Food and Nutrition Council.

Transition

The transition towards a healthier nation will be the function of different departments from the executive whose absolute control of land rights among the most vulnerable communities needs to be either curtailed or channeled for the best. Subsidies and incentivies for agroecological production is overdue. Key social engines, education and media, are currently missing in action and would go a long way in influencing a lifestyle shift.

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