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May 09, 2010

West Africa: Rice versus vegetables

Rice may still be a symbol of food security across Africa, but the cereal does little to boost nutrition, unlike vegetables, according to the India-based International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

Vegetables should have their place in the fields and at the table alongside cereals commonly grown in arid countries, said vegetable breeding expert Sanjeet Kumar with ICRISAT and the Taiwan-based AVRDC-The World Vegetable Center (formerly known as the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center). “While rice and other cereals can cut hunger, vegetables bolster nutritional security and take up less land to grow.”

“Rice is a poor source of essential vitamins and minerals, either because these compounds are not present in rice, especially when it is polished [white], or they cannot be absorbed by humans,” said UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) nutrition specialist Roland Kupka. “Diets that are primarily based on polished rice may thus lead to deficiencies in iron, zinc, vitamin A, and thiamine [B1] deficiency, which in turn impair growth, immunity, and mental development among children.”

Mineral and vitamin-packed foods include fruit, vegetables and animal products like eggs or fish, said Kupka.

UNICEF estimates 40 percent of under-five children in the arid Sahel are chronically malnourished because they lack the vitamins and minerals needed to bolster their immune systems and mental skills. Another estimated 300,000 die every year from malnutrition.

While health workers may have scales, armbands and yardsticks to measure acute malnutrition (when children are underweight for their height), they are less likely to have microscopes to analyse blood work to measure micronutrient deficiencies.

When asked whether rice overshadows more nutritious agriculture sectors, the director of Africa Rice Centre, Papa Abdoulaye Seck, told IRIN that rice cultivation can subsidize these other crops.

“Rice is a strategic commodity… We can do business with rice. Imagine if the US$2 billion dollars [2006 estimate] that Africa spends on rice imports every year were reinvested in the agricultural sector - do you think Africa would now have 265 million starving people?” asked Seck, referring to an estimate from UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Seck said farmers in Africa have a comparative advantage in growing rice. “We want to develop rice instead of [only] vegetable gardening, because Asia, the largest producer of rice, will not be able to continue doing so. In Asia, there is arable land, but less water. While in Africa, we have enormous potential.”

FAO estimates farmers use 17 percent of cultivable land in Africa, which leaves some 126 million hectares to plant, he said.

Based in Niger, vegetable breeder Kumar said ICRISAT and AVRDC-The World Vegetable Center have worked with local groups since 2001 to establish in West Africa 2,500 vegetable gardens that use low-drip irrigation - small perforated pipes that deliver water directly to plant roots.

“There are local vegetables and people know the importance of traditional vegetables, but they do not have the seeds or they get seeds donated from other countries that are not adapted to local conditions,” Kumar said.

He said land in the Sahel is not the main obstacle to expanding vegetable cultivation, but rather lack of seeds. The vegetable plots are at most 500 square metres. Vegetables that can survive in the Sahelian sun need to be grown for their seeds, but seed commercialization is undeveloped.

Then there is tradition. “Staples like millet and sorghum have long dominated diets in the region, and they are suited to the climate. Vegetables, including indigenous vegetables, have always been part of local diets, but improved vegetable varieties that grow well in the Sahel were introduced only in the past few decades,” said AVRDC’s director for Africa, Abdou Tenkouano.

There is also the problem of perception. “Vegetables like traditional leafy greens are sometimes viewed as ‘food of the poor.’ People may not know how to prepare vegetables to benefit from their nutritional content, and they may lack knowledge on the health benefits of a balanced diet,” he added.

For the past two decades in Mali, Mariko Fadima Siby has grown 'fonio', a local cereal found throughout the Sahel.

She said rice has always been seen as a sign of status. “Since rice cultivation first picked up here in West Africa decades ago, you were somebody if you had rice during the holidays or growing in your field. It is not that local crops were forgotten, but they paled next to the sheen of rice.”

But eventually, people turn to what grows in their backyard, Siby concluded. “This is a hot place in the world. Whatever takes root here, we will take.”


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