Kenyan Professor Promotes Indigenous Food to Solve Climate Change Food Crisis

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By Jeanne Roberts

In Kenya, a devastating cycle of drought and flood reflects the worst that climate change has to offer, and threatens the health and survival of the nation’s poorest and most at-risk inhabitants, namely women and children.

Professor Mary’s solution, which suggests harmony with Nature rather than attempt to control it, may be the only way forward in a warming world, not just for Africa but for the globe. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Here, where the average yearly income rounds out to less than $1,000, where 60 percent of the population is below poverty level, and one-fifth of the children under the age of five are malnourished, the people have experienced at least 28 cycles of drought in the last century, as well as 15 floods of epidemic proportions, according to Inter Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Executive Secretary, Mahboub Maalim.

Kenya’s Finance Minister, Uhuru Kenyatta, is attempting to address the disparity between a rising population and the nation’s reduced ability to produce food by providing 32 billion Ksh ($39,726,720 USD) for agricultural and rural development projects, and 51 billion Ksh ($63,314,460 USD) for environmental programs, including water and sanitation infrastructure upgrades.

But in fact, money – and even agricultural techniques based on Western agriculture – may not be the answer, because, as Rhodesian-born Allan Savory points out, these approaches are based on using synthetic fertilizers, stronger pesticides, and genetically-modified seeds to increase yields – all tactics that view soil as a “problem” to be solved rather than a resource which offers its own unique opportunities, but also demands its own special treatment.

For Professor Mary Abukutsa-Onyango, a horticultural scientist, teacher and researcher at Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology, the real problem with using Western agricultural methods in Kenya is the loss of the superb diversity that once made indigenous plants a reliable and nutritious native food source.

“Of the approximately 200 indigenous species of plants that were used by Kenyans as vegetables in the past, most were either collected in the wild, semi-cultivated or cultivated. Now many are either unknown or extinct.”

What both Savory and Abukutsa-Onyango want is a long-term solution that uses the tools at hand, including the marginal, arid soil of Kenyan lowlands, to effect a lasting revolution in regional agriculture.

Savory calls this a “Brown Revolution”. Abukutsa-Onyango calls it an “indigenous food” revolution, and both are dedicated to seeing Kenyan agriculture survive, not as some protected but unmanageable offshoot of Western monocultural crop techniques, but as the sort of traditional approach to food production that operated before Europeans intervened.

To that end, Professor Mary has reintroduced such items as African nightshade and vegetable amaranth to regional farmers, and set up a system to put them back into the marketplace.

To date, we have about 100 contact farmers and/or farmer groups (77 in Western Kenya and 33 in Central Kenya) who are trained in all aspects of growing indigenous crops, from seed production to processing, using organic methods.

“The farmers that do well are also taught simple food perseveration techniques like drying, which increase shelf life but retain as much of the nutrients as possible, and are linked to supermarkets to sell their vegetables. Because of their extensive training, they are able to pass on their knowledge of indigenous food growing to others in their communities.”

These native foods, after years of being spurned as suitable only to starvation times, and only to those at the bottom of the economic ladder, have spurred a cottage industry aimed at simultaneously reducing poverty and improving the diet of the nation’s approximately 6,500,000 children.

But Abukutsa-Onyango is not totally one sided in her arguments. While she foresees the hot, arid lowlands being used for indigenous crops like bambara nuts (see Amanda Stone’s Nourishing the Planet article), she is not averse to using the cool, damp highlands to grow cash crops.

“For example, indigenous bambara nuts and pigeon pea yield relatively better in low fertility soils and with low rainfall, compared with beans,” Abukutsa-Onyango notes. “And this allows a diversified, sustainable production model that insures nutritional security and prosperity.”

About one thing, however, she is adamant.

“I don’t believe we can address the issues of nutrition security, poverty, and health in Kenya without relying on African indigenous crops.

“With a soaring food crisis, and maize harvests predicted to be 16 percent below former years as a result of changing Kenyan weather patterns, the only grains that could adequately replace maize in my opinion would be indigenous millets and sorghum, which are more drought tolerant.”

Thus Professor Mary’s solution, which suggests harmony with Nature rather than attempt to control it, may be the only way forward in a warming world, not just for Africa but for the globe.

“This,” Abukutsa-Onyango adds. “Incorporating indigenous foods into existing agricultural paradigms, is the only way to realize some of the millennium development goals outlined in the United Nations Development Programme.”

Formerly a reporter for a California newspaper, Jeanne Roberts has also worked for a Chamber of Commerce, as the CFO for a utility district, and in the Corporate Communications Department of a large utility. She currently lives in Minnesota and devotes all her time to freelance writing, with a focus on environmental, consumer and political issues that impact the average American.

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