World Food Day: What IS Food?

A meal of roast cavy served with bread in West Cameroon

A meal of roast cavy served with bread in West Cameroon

As we celebrate world food day, perhaps it’s time to stop and ask ourselves “what really is food?”

Food security in Africa is often measured by the availability of the staple starches and animal statistics that focus on major livestock such as cattle, sheep and goats.

Research to help African countries overcome the challenges of food insecurity traditionally focuses on improving staple starches such as rice, maize and wheat. These crops often require heavy inputs, are highly dependent on increasingly irregular rainfall and are also threatened by major crop pests and diseases.

Likewise, research on livestock focuses on large livestock which are faced with major disease threats such as peste des petits ruminants, commonly referred to as PPR in goats and sheep or African swine fever in pigs.

Perhaps it is a high time new avenues to address food security by looking at crops that are adaptable to harsh climatic conditions and more resilient livestock were explored.

The amaranth, for instance, is a hardy, drought tolerant crop commonly regarded as a weed in many parts of Africa. This under-recognized “orphan” crop is especially beneficial for pregnant and breastfeeding women as well as babies and children since its leaves are a good source of vitamins A, C, K and folate, while the grain contains high levels of protein containing essential amino acids and minerals like iron, zinc and calcium.

In many parts of eastern, central and western Africa, domestic cavies or “guinea pigs” as they are commonly known are widely used as meat. Cavies provide high-quality meat with about 19-20% protein as compared to beef or lamb with lower protein contents of 17-19% and the cavy skin that is usually consumed contains even more than 30% protein. Incidentally, this mini livestock has become so important in Peruvian diets that it now has a national day – the National Guinea Pig Day.

Indigenous fruit crops are also greatly understudied yet they hold great promise in feeding the world. One example is the baobab, a common African bushland fruit tree. The fruit and leaves of the baobab are high in vitamin C, the seed and flower are high in protein, and the kernel contains edible oil. This fruit tree tolerates a wide range of vegetation types including scrub, wooded savannah hot, dry areas, and semiarid to sub-humid tropics south of the Sahara.

These are only some of the numerous resources that can be tapped into to provide increased food production, reliable income and high nutrition for a growing world population.

As we think about how to feed the world this World Food day, we could begin by adopting an “orphan” crop or mini-livestock.
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Research at the Biosciences eastern and central Africa-International Livestock Research Institute (BecA-ILRI) Hub is focused on improving food and nutritional security and animal health including the exploration of under-recognised and under-studied crop, livestock and food safety issues.

Read more about research at the BecA-ILRI Hub: Research for a food secure Africa.

Read a related article on ILRI’s Clippings Blog:
‘The health of the poor is the wealth of the poor’: A little film for a big World Food Day and World Food Prize, 16 Oct 2013.

Join the World Food Day conversations on twitter: #WFD2013