Food experts want certification of indigenous crops, seeds

Oct 31, 2023

Indigenous foods are rich in aroma, taste and nutrients.

A lady buys local fruits at the 13th Annual Indigenous and Traditional Food Fair at Africana on October 27, 2023. Photos by Nicholas Oneal

Ibrahim Ruhweza
Journalist @New Vision

Over the past few years, there has been increasing tension over indigenous foods and seeds.

Food experts say they are declining because of over-dependence on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Josephine Akia Luyimbazi, the country co-ordinator of Participatory Ecological Land Use Management (PELUM) Uganda, says all species of indigenous seeds and crops are endangered.

She attributes the problem to poor methods of storage, land use and use of agrochemicals hence a decline in varieties of traditional seeds.

According to her, the traditional seeds great-grandparents relied on were more resilient to climate change in terms of drought and prolonged rains, pests and diseases.

Ladies from Ojom farmers society soroti demonstrating how millet flour is made at the 13th Annual Indigenous and Traditional Food Fair at Africana

Ladies from Ojom farmers society soroti demonstrating how millet flour is made at the 13th Annual Indigenous and Traditional Food Fair at Africana

“We recognise that through our research organisations in Uganda, there has been a bid to look at the varieties of our crops and even improve some of them. Unfortunately, some of the hybrids put our farmers in a situation where they have to continuously keep buying seeds because they cannot be saved after one season,” she says.

“This is not the case with the indigenous seeds; Ugandans are used to the culture of saving and sharing seeds as a community, which is not the case for the hybrids and other varieties that have been improved,” she adds.

Farmers made the call during a one-week agroecology event at Hotel Africana running under the theme: Nurturing healthy Nutritious Resilient Food Systems For All. The event attracted farmers from different parts of the country who exhibited traditional seeds and crops based on the region they came from.

Protection of indigenous foods

Indigenous foods are rich in aroma, taste and nutrients. According to Luyimbazi, all these explain why they should be protected and how much can be harnessed, restored, conserved, or restored back into the environment.

Luyimbazi stresses that there is a need to go back and protect the wild and neglected species. She says that amidst all the challenges, the demand for traditional foods has risen. She understands that this has come after a realization that traditional foods are not only rich in diets but also medicinal.

Dr. Christopher Kyeswa, the chairperson of PELUM Uganda, says the traditional food and seed system contributes to the well-being of consumers but also improves financial situations and combats hidden hunger caused by micronutrient deficiencies (vitamin and mineral deficiencies).

Desire Ankunda from the Agrotourism Association says Uganda is in safe hands if every individual understands the importance of indigenous foods.  

Challenges

Brenda Assasira, a master’s student in food science at Makerere University who is also working with agrotourism, explains why most people have fallen prey to growing hybrid foods because they grow faster.

“From one acre, you can harvest more in a short time,” she says. She understands that earlier, the population was not as overwhelming as it is today. This has made it impossible to keep growing foods that take a long time to grow, yet the population has to eat.

She adds that industrialisation, urbanisation and population growth have claimed big chunks of land where traditional crops would have been grown.

According to Assasira, GMOs take up less land than their counterparts. This has given them an opportunity to flourish, no matter the side effects on people’s health. She blames the inconsistency among farmers who prefer to produce more quantity than quality.

“To cater for the ever-increasing population, fast foods are always prioritised,” she says.

At any moment, Nancy Ayo is not content with the way farmers and people are prioritising hybrid foods. She says people like foods that have grown up on growth enhancers, forgetting the side effects.

By this time, Ayo was mingling millet bread (kalo) and sweating. She had a queue of people waiting to taste it. Most of them are urban dwellers, and local food is not their thing.

Ayo says shops are now selling seeds that can rot before they germinate and if the Government delays coming up with strategies for shielding traditional seeds, many people will suffer.

According to Kyolobi, most families have forgotten how to preserve food, leading to food insecurity.

In the past, at least every family would herd dry food and keep it in the granary. Given the urban world, fridges and other preservatives have taken over, which cannot be compared to the latter.

He notes that due to that, most of the households are in shambles, jeopardised since it’s a bit complex to preserve genetically modified foods for a long time.

The main methods of preserving indigenous vegetables, grains, and seeds used are air and sun-drying, smoked coating, ash mixing, leaving with their covers after harvesting, shading and freezing.

What tourists say

Chika Kondo from US says Africa, specifically Uganda, has what other countries do not have, and if well preserved, it could develop everyone not only healthy but also economically.

Kondo says in US it Is hard to see indigenous foods sold in the market and finding them in Uganda was a blessing. She says however expensive they are, it’s the foods one should always eat because they are fresh and free from chemicals.

Government pledges

Dr Paul Mwambu, the commissioner for inspection and certification, says the Government has already laid out all ways of training farmers and helping them financially.

Mwambu understands that traditional foods remain unbeatable and are rich in nutrients. He explains that even if farmers want all the measures to support them in keeping the breeds of local seeds, teaching them preservation skills will also help develop and produce quality.

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