IN THE IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH of the explosion at the port of Beirut, capital of Lebanon, nearly two weeks ago, one of the high profile prompt responses was food supply, to keep the distabilised and devastated people of Beirut from starving and to keep the national supply steady. The World Food Programme (WFP), a prominent humanitarian arm of the United Nations (UN), did not waste time in making plans to dispatch 50,000 tonnes of wheat flour to Lebanon, a country that lost its only silo to the blast. Although other categories of food items are desirable, their urgency cannot be compared with those of energy-giving foods. Such is the relevance and power of calories to human’s existence.
Although the mostly sedentary lifestyles of people, in particular, in the urban centres worldwide have created a situation that is putting calories on the spot in food and health conversations, calories are nonetheless essential to human’s daily living and vitality. They form the sources of energy needed to keep the body system going well and fit for activities. Complications that are more often encountered and complained about arise in situations involving more calories consumption and less of their expenditure. In many such cases, incidents of obesity and diabetes are commonplace. Erroneously though, calories have earned the notoriety of bad food to be avoided as much as possible despite their fundamental usefulness in human diets. Misinformation and disinformation about calories have led to fears and aversions.
The attitudes formed as a result are affecting people at individual, family, community and even national levels. Many nutrition conferences have been held that ended up stirring up fears and unease about calories rather than stressing their responsible consumption under specific situations. The scientific community appears divided in what should be safe and unsafe consumption of calories and diets rich in them. This is partly due to the influence and power of industry’s vested interest as many scientific declarations on findings have been described as influenced by industry funds. The soda drinks industry in the United States (US), for instance, is having a big boom despite the misgivings of m any industry watchers and rights activists to limit or remove manipulative marketing strategies, especially advertisement.
One intriguing irony about high calorie foods is the fact that many poor people – rural and urban – worldwide have limited and inadequate access to them. In essence, although calorie-based foods are supposed to be among the cheapest globally, the processed and packaged calorie-based foods are beyond the purchasing powers of such people. The problem is not about to be solved soon as conflicting interests within the food industry are leading the sector adrift, putting it in jeopardy. Some of the crises within the sector have been elaborately articulated by Dr. Marion Nestle, an expert in nutrition and food policy, and the author of “Food Politics.” Her viewpoints are that the food industry determines our food supply in no small measure, and negatively influences consumers’ diet and health such that the consumers are sometimes oblivious.
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As the countries and regions of the world specialise in various commodity value chains – in agriculture, industry, finance, transportation or health service, it is important to position Africa for relevance and greater leverage in production and global trade in foods, industrial products and logistics. There is hardly any doubt that calorie will continue to remain relevant in our daily lives, in spite of all the criticisms and negative attributes accorded to it. Africa’s population, now estimated at 1.34 billion, is projected to rise to 1.71 billion in 2030 – ten years’ time, by which time the world’s population is expected to have risen from today’s 7.8 billion to 8.6 billion. The underlying fact is that more calories will be needed to feed the world. Therefore, more calories will need to be produced.
Climate watchers and activists are worried about the increasing environmental degradation, ozone layer depletion, more frequent flooding, drought, heat and the toll the environment is taking on people. The “calories race” that will become more fiercely contested – from the farm to the table – is expected to be one of the causes of impending collateral damage to the increasingly fragile environment as we expect more lands to be cleared, more forests to be cut down and more pristine environments to be set on fire in preparation for extensive and intensive mechanised farming. We are already aware of how global demand for oil is motivating people to set more bush on fire in preparation for oil palm plantations in Indonesia. The Amazon forests of Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana are currently suffering similar fates. In the case of Brazil, large scale demands for soybeans in the international markets, most especially China, is a spur for environmentally destructive behaviours, which have earned the support of the country’s President Jair Bolsonaro.
Rather than abandoning the calories race, Africa must brace up and be part of it. But strategies and emphases must be on how to help countries overcome production hurdles and produce profitably. A blend of strategies for grains as well as roots and tubers need to be articulated for the continent. Whether for emergencies or for regular daily consumption, the world will need far more calories now more than anytime in recorded history. It is time therefore to get to work. Countries of Africa can latch on the new African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) to advance the cause of the continent in the calories race. In doing so, great care needs to be taken to avoid “calories trap,” including the economic issues and geopolitics that propel nations into it. The trap, which may take the forms of golden fetters, could result in vicious cycles, in which case countries become bound to specific crop production for special and particular markets. Crises at the market end will reverberate backwards to the primary producers. Such incidents could cripple the producer nations’ economies.
Calories trap could also be in the form of populations that are so impoverished as not to be able to afford more nutritionally diverse diets. Their continued dependence on calories could force the price of the predominantly consumed agro-commodity up beyond the reach of most, especially the poor. A segment of the populace that desperately needs humanitarian support suddenly becomes cut off, lacking access to a basic necessity of life. Malnutrition, a disease related to nutrient deficiency, will become rampant. Farming populace within the bracket of those without access to food will become less productive. A cycle of poverty, malnutrition, poor health and low productivity becomes established. This has the potential of creating social tension, insecurity and a worsening situation in food supplies. There has to be a deliberate emphasis on supply-side adjustments in intra-Africa’s food trade. Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, the three major banana producers in the West Africa, export a bulk of their banana into the European markets. There needs to be new distribution channels within and outside the continent to stimulate greater and sustainable production.
Alternative foods that are not strictly calorie-giving will need to be explored and promoted on the continental scale. The types of food items that have been known for ages, but were abandoned at the height of financial abundance and prosperity are now proving rather more desirable nutritionally and for good health. The various types of peas will fit in well as there is increasing awareness of health benefits of consuming plant protein instead of animal proteins. Nearly 20 years ago, Nigeria was voted as the world’s largest producer of cowpeas. Whether Nigeria still maintains that leading status is one of great interest. Countries outside Africa appear to be having a growing awareness about pulses generally. Although India reportedly recently made requests for Nigeria’s pulses, it remains to be confirmed if Nigeria was able to meet India’s requests.
Some crops have been bred recently to improve their nutritional values: such as the yellow cassava, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes are expected to help address nutrition issues. Accessibility of the poor to these foods is a different matter altogether. The pervasive preference of people for grains where there are abundance of roots and tuber crops poses its own problem. One of them is the tendencies of grain crops to become unnecessarily expensive, or in short supply. Countries that are plagued by environmental challenges need to be assisted to produce. A good knowledge of their food balance sheets will help to know the kind support they would need. African countries must proactively articulate policies on food and nutrition for the common good. A case of Ethiopian teff that was patented outside Ethiopia is a warning shot to Africa. This presupposes that Africa cannot afford to continue to fold the arms, hoping that its food problems will naturally go away. Deliberate efforts must be made to feed Africa. And calorie food may be the easiest way to start.