This blog is intended to go along with Population: An Introduction to Concepts and Issues, by John R. Weeks, published by Cengage Learning. The latest edition is the 12th (it came out in 2015), but this blog is meant to complement any edition of the book by showing the way in which demographic issues are regularly in the news.

If you are a user of my textbook and would like to suggest a blog post idea, please email me at: john.weeks@sdsu.edu

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Doing a Better Job of Feeding Africans

As the most rapidly growing region on earth, sub-Saharan Africa needs to figure out ways to feed itself, even as it fends off land grabs from outsiders. This week's Economist shows how this could be done--it's all in the DNA. The story is about so-called orphan crops--foods that Africans eat, but which are not cash crops and so they don't get the same kind of attention as do global staples such as wheat, rice, and maize.
The cereals which dominate human diets—rice, wheat and maize—have had their yields and nutritional values boosted over the years by scientific breeding programmes. In the modern era of genomics, they have had their DNA scrutinised down to the level of individual base pairs, the molecular letters in which genetic information is written. They are as far removed, nutritionally, from their ancestors of as little as two centuries ago as those ancestors were from the wild plants which begat them. Orphan crops have yet to undergo such a genetic revolution.
The neglect has two important consequences: (1) these traditional crops, such as cassava, sweet potatoes, lablab beans, water berries, bitter gourds and sickle senna, elephant ears (leafy vegetables) and African locusts (tree-borne legumes) do not have as high a yield per acre as might otherwise be possible; and (2) they are not as nutritious in vitamins as they could be.
Even for adults, a lack of calories and essential nutrients is harmful. For children it can be devastating. Poor childhood nutrition leads to stunting—inadequate bodily development, including the development of the brain. A report published by the World Health Organisation on November 16th suggests that almost a third of Africa’s children, nearly 60m of them, are stunted. And stunted children grow into adults unable to achieve their potential. Researchers at the World Bank reckon the effects of stunting have reduced Africa’s GDP by 9-10% from what it would otherwise be.
Fortunately, African agricultural scientists are at work on these issues. What Nobel Prize-winning Norman Borlaug was able to do for wheat and maize, people like Dr. Robert Mwanga of the International Potato Centre in Uganda are trying to do for these African "orphan" crops. Note that Uganda's International Potato Center is part of a global network of CGIAR centers whose goal is to improve nutrition and food security in developing nations. I had the opportunity to learn about them first hand when I was doing spatial demographic consulting for the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) of the UN. The world is clearly a better place for the work they do.

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