Africa’s stomach is empty and the hunger is growing. The continent is ravaged by a host of factors inhibiting food security and is trapped in what a recent report by the World Bank calls “the perfect storm”. Its consequences are disastrous. The Covid-19 pandemic was followed by the war in the Ukraine, which has led to severe food and fertiliser shortages. Now, Africa is in the midst of a tempest of increased debt and inflation, as well as the effects of climate change. The World Bank states that at least one in five Africans goes to bed hungry, and that about 140 million people in Africa are in a food insecurity stranglehold. For the North-West University (NWU), these numbers are unacceptably high and, among a host of other endeavours, are being addressed by the university’s niche area Food Security and Safety (FSS).
“Microbiology is one of the building blocks that is relevant to ensuring the safety, quality and integrity of the food system,” says Prof Olubukola Babalola, director of Food Security and Safety at the School for Microbiology in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the university.
“In FSS, we help to ensure the farm-to-fork passage of safe and secure food, as it is an essential way to prevent most human health challenges in recent times. Our research aims to propose safe and secure plant growth-promoting microorganisms as alternatives to using chemicals in agriculture. We also investigate the microorganisms causing plant diseases and sources of food contamination, and we develop appropriate measures to control these,” she explains, while adding that there is also an emphasis placed on investigating microorganisms that are tolerant to stresses caused by drought, as well as microorganisms that are disease resistant.
“We also look at plant cultivators that can be grown in adverse environmental conditions, and we investigate the sources of post-harvest and food spoilage, and the shelf-life extension of food items to enhance preservation.”
What is especially important in an African context – and keeping in mind how climate change is severely affecting food security on the continent – is that Food Security and Safety at the NWU also examines the contribution of agricultural systems – from production, marketing, processing and value adding to technology and consumption – to household food security.
Prof Babalola says that, “Our research deals with both the technical and socio-economic dynamics of food security. It develops strategies for the sustainable improvement of rural households’ productive local crop and livestock systems, with the role of indigenous foods in household food security as a particular concern. The training of master’s-degree, doctoral and postdoctoral students is high on the entity’s priority list. These students conduct research in the subprogrammes, namely Food production and availability, Food affordability and accessibility, Food safety, and, lastly, Climate change.”
The NWU is committed to helping achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), of which SDG 2 (Zero Hunger) is only one priority. This entails ending hunger, achieving food security and improved nutrition, as well as promoting sustainable agriculture.
The importance of this work cannot be underestimated, not only to the continent, but to South Africa as well. As Prof Babalola states: “Food insecurity is a global problem, despite commitments to ensure safe food production and poverty alleviation. Environmental organisations such as the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) says South Africa faces an impending food security crisis if there is no urgent action to correct unsustainable practices. The agricultural sector is in trouble, as load-shedding costs farmers billions of rands to keep the supply chain afloat. This impacts negatively on South Africa’s state of food production by making food expensive and inaccessible to many, and increasing the number of people and households experiencing food inadequacy and hunger.”
It is a large, even scary picture being painted, but through the efforts of entities like Food Security and Safety at the NWU, a multitude of experts are- solving massive problems together.