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Where does agriculture begin and end?

Opinion & Analysis
File pic : Quilea birds

THAT food systems are more than agriculture is no longer debatable.

However, what is worrying in most countries that depend on agriculture is the extent to which biodiversity and natural ecosystems are being destroyed in favour of agriculture. Conversely, the past few years have seen an increase in the volume of wild fruits and other natural foods flowing into African mass markets.

This is an indication that, with increasing droughts and other natural disasters, conventional agriculture will not continue to be the main source of food, but mother nature will provide a big morsel.

Beyond farmers rights or human rights

Farmers, pastoralists, fisher folk and other indigenous communities that depend on natural forests have rights, but we need to also assign rights to forests, trees, birds, wild animals, mountains, soils, rivers and other ecosystems that continue to be abused merely because they are assumed to have no rights.

If the world continues to value farmers rights and human rights at the expense of natural or ecosystems rights, we will not be able to combat climate change.

In most countries that are practicing industrial agriculture, chemicals are being used to kill birds while fertilisers are being used to contaminate soils and water bodies with no regard to the fact that these natural resources have rights too. Who said human beings are superior to birds? In countries like Zimbabwe, quelea birds being killed to protect wheat used to survive on natural forests that have been cleared to plant wheat, maize and many other imported foods.

Where does agriculture start and end?

Every African country has natural species like birds, squirrels, baboons, monkeys, Njiri, Sambani and many others that cannot be practically locked in national parks. Given that conventional agriculture has invaded their habitats, these animals frequently interface with conventional agriculture where they also get their food.

For some reason, African agricultural ministries have no programme for these animals which are part of the local food systems. While there are some programmes that promote domesticated hybrids like broilers, there is no similar programme that promote guinea fowls, quelea birds and other species on which local communities depend for food, fruits, honey and well-being.

Quelea birds were already there long before the introduction of wheat and survived on wild grasses which were sadly destroyed to give way for wheat production and other monocultures. Indigenous farmers who produced small grains before the advent of maize and wheat would leave enough for quelea birds and other wild species. When small grains were threshed, the birds would feed on leftovers like husks called hundi in the Shona language of Zimbabwe.

Following intensive promotion of wheat by policy makers, quelea birds have considered wheat a substitute to their natural grasses and small grains which are no longer produced in abundance due to Western -oriented food policies.

A market for imported food and chemicals

By using imported chemicals to control quelea birds and other species, African governments do not realise they are creating a market for imported food and chemicals to protect Western food systems in Africa. The same mindset has seen African governments importing tractors and other equipment destroying African natural habitats and food systems.

There is no doubt that chemicals used to spray crops and kill quelea birds have long-term effects on people and water systems. What kills a bird can also harm a human being. Where chemicals are being used to kill quelea birds as part of protecting wheat, very soon those birds will be extinct.

Instead of spraying with chemicals, what prevents researchers from coming up with other ways of controlling the birds? Sorghum breeders in southern Africa have come up with a variety called Shirikure, which is not attacked by birds. What is preventing wheat breeders from coming up with varieties that are not easily attacked by birds rather than promoting use of chemicals?

Need for food systems watchdogs

The fact that natural animal species like quelea birds are a source of income, nutrition, medicine, livelihood and spiritual satisfaction for many African communities is totally ignored by policy makers obsessed with protecting elite crops like wheat.

Like several animal species that are being ignored, quelea birds play a very important role in pollination and stepping up the production of crops, pastures and other foods. That is why food systems watchdogs are urgently needed at community and national level in every African country.

A critical role for the food systems, watchdogs will be using evidence to challenge the way policy makers and consumers think about food systems. When people understand that food systems are more than agriculture, they will begin to empathise with the natural environment and biodiversity.

That is also how we can end up recognising the fact that natural resources also have rights like human beings. In a changing climate, it is no longer enough to talk and think in terms of human rights, farmers’ rights and other narrow perspectives on the notion of rights. We can only care for natural ecosystems if we recognise that they also have rights.

Broadening and deepening the way we think about food systems and the environment can save the planet and humanity. Just like people, baboons, quelea birds, trees, rivers, mountains and forests have rights to exist and not be abused.

Some of these issues are ignored because there is often no complainant — it is like a crime without criminals.

  • Charles Dhewa is a proactive knowledge broker and management specialist


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