Johannesburg - While South Africa produced enough food for local and export, a lot of people still went to bed hungry despite the presence of indigenous highly nutritious leafy vegetables in almost every part of the country, Thabo Ramashala, the director of plant production at the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, said.
He said: “About 14 million people are still food insecure, with research indicating local households are becoming increasingly dependent on social grants, a situation which is not sustainable in the long term.”
Ramashala was speaking at a recent Water Research Commission (WRC) symposium on water use and the nutritional value of indigenous and traditional South African underutilised food crops for improved livelihood.
WRC says while statistics indicate that the general intake of fresh fruit and vegetables by South Africans is below the daily requirements of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the country is rich in edible plants that could potentially address food insecurity in many poor households.
The WRC said the 400g daily per capita intake of fruit and vegetables was recommended by WHO to protect against communicable diseases.
Researchers at the symposium pointed out that traditional leafy vegetables, which are generally rich resources of nutrients and antioxidants, are usually associated with poverty in South Africa and are looked down upon, yet they help in reducing malnutrition.
Ramashala said South Africa focused very little on indigenous food species to date, while the rest of the world had taken note of their commercial value.
He said, for example, Dovyalis (kei apple) has been cultivated in California in the US, horned melons are produced commercially in New Zealand, France, Israel and California and are exported widely across the world.
Ramashala said these vegetables were drought tolerant.
Research funded by Water Utilisation in Agriculture, a division of WRC, found cowpea to be the most drought-tolerant crop, followed by nightshade, pumpkin and tsamma melon. Amarath (morogo, which is a collective noun for all traditional leafy vegetables) was the most heat tolerant crops. For optimum growth, water requirements for the African leafy vegetables studied for a full growing season range between 240mm and 463mm.
The recent study published by the WRC has shown that some traditional leafy plants provide more than 50 percent of the recommended daily allowance for Vitamin A, and all eight vegetables studied provided at least 30 percent of the estimated average requirement. They also provided varying amounts of other important nutrients, such as protein and various mineral elements, and also contained significant amounts of fibre.
The WRC says if these attributes are true, these crops could contribute to the diet of especially poor, food insecure households, many of whom are living in drought stricken areas of the country.
But the WRC says among many challenges regarding the supply of the indigenous leafy vegetables is that there is no formal seed supply system for many indigenous crops since the seed industry, research institutions and the nursery industry have neglected these crops for many years. As a result, farmers have been keeping seed for many years, from one planting season to the other.
Gerhard Backenberg, the executive manager for Water Utilisation in Agriculture, said: “We need to strengthen people’s abilities to cultivate food for themselves, as opposed to merely depending on government support systems, such as social grants. In this way, communities are empowered to help themselves to become food secure and maintain healthy balanced diets.”
Dhesigen Naidoo, the chief executive of WRC, says in Water Wheel, the in-house magazine, that while these plants have been proven to be resilient in harsher conditions, there has been a debate as to whether there was a nutritional sacrifice associated with this choice.
He says recent WRC projects have demonstrated that the nutritional content of traditional crops, including African leafy vegetables, is high and, in some cases, higher than commercial crops. In addition, the water budgets of these crops remain positive, with lower than average water use and the advantage of being primarily rain fed.
Naidoo says the additional boons include the possibility of developing whole market mechanisms for indigenous crops. This may mean that economic access improves as indigenous crops are shielded from the commodity trading mechanisms, which are the current key price drivers and, in many instances, together with the sophisticated distribution chains, are the main reason for food price in inflation.
He says: “While water-wise indigenous crops will not in the short term offer the solution to bring 850 million people (a world figure by the UN Food and and Agriculture Organisation) out of chronic hunger, it certainly holds promise for several million people, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, not only to ensure and end hunger, but also offers the possibility of sustainable livelihood, largely to subsistence farmers and their communities.”
A case study on traditional leafy vegetables at the Mantusini location of the Port St John’s local municipality in the Eastern Cape was conducted by Vuyiswa Taleni, Phefumula Nyoni and Nomalungelo Goduka of the department of anthropology, school of social sciences and developmental studies at the Walter Sisulu University. It was presented at a conference at the University of Cape Town in 2012.
It found many leafy vegetables are obtained by collecting since they grow naturally and not by means of cultivation. However, limited propagation of the seed of selected species in the fields does occur.
The study found the growing interest in these vegetables in research and policy circles contrasts with the negative image these plants have come to carry among important potential groups of consumers in society. The youth and the urbanised, in particular, tend to associate these vegetables with poverty and the past.